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The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
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“Miss du Maurier has brought to the art of the biography the narrative urgency which gives such animation to her storytelling.”-New York Times Book Review
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The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë has always been the least successful of Daphne du Maurier's books in commercial terms; yet it remains as fascinating as the best of her work. When it came out in 1960, her publisher, Victor Gollancz, printed eight thousand copies—far less than was usual for his best-selling author; and though it received several good reviews (including one from Muriel Spark in the Daily Telegraph), the biography did not sell well, perhaps because it was so different to her more popular novels and family memoirs. This failure continued to be a source of disappointment to du Maurier: in a letter to her friend, Oriel Malet, written in October 1962, she referred to the painfulness of seeing a book that 'just gets wiped off and forgotten, no matter how good the reviews. I don't think I had any bad reviews for my Branwell, but right from the start I know old V.G. was bored by the thought of it, and he never made any effort to push it after it was published.'
That her carefully researched biography had been intended to rescue Branwell Brontë from obscurity made its lack of sales all the more maddening. As du Maurier writes in her preface, she had sought to bring 'some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised'—and yet her mission to rehabilitate Branwell, the reprobate brother labelled as the drunken flop of the Brontë family, was itself thwarted.
Failure, of course, is an intriguing subject; not least for du Maurier herself. By the time she embarked upon her Branwell project, she was a famous author—Rebecca had not stopped selling since its instant success upon publication in 1938—yet she was not immune to insecurities. In a letter to the Brontë scholar, J. A. Symington, who helped her with her research, she expressed her fears at being out-done by another writer, Winifred Gérin, who turned out also to be working on a Branwell biography at the same time as du Maurier. 'My novels are what is known as popular and sell very well,' she wrote to Symington, soon after she heard the news of the Gérin book, 'but I am not a critic's favourite, indeed I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller and not reviewed at all, so… I would come off second-best, I have no illusions to that.'
It was not the first time that she had felt herself to have been relegated as second-best: unkind critics had already deemed Rebecca an inferior Jane Eyre; which must have been galling, given how much she admired the Brontës, having been a passionate reader of their novels since childhood. Oriel Malet reveals in her book, Letters from Menabilly, that she and Daphne talked endlessly about the Brontës—and about their imaginary worlds of childhood:
… the source of the Brontës' imagination, and their doom, for in adult life they were unable to break free from them. Charlotte sought refuge in the Angrian Chronicles whenever life became too much for her, and suffered agonies of guilt in consequence. Emily, untroubled by conscience, immersed herself in Gondal, the country of her mind, until inspiration failed her, and she died. 'Gondal' became our codeword for all make-believe and pretence, whether conscious or not.
When du Maurier was asked to write the introduction to a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954, she used it as an opportunity to visit Haworth, and asked Oriel Malet to accompany her and her younger daughter Flavia on the trip. The three of them spent time exploring the Brontë Parsonage, and went for long walks across the moors; and as Malet writes in Letters from Menabilly, du Maurier 'was becoming increasingly intrigued by Branwell (the son, predictably, interesting her more than the daughters).'
It was an astute observation: for du Maurier had always been more absorbed in her son, Kits, than her two daughters (despite the fact that she became closer to the girls as they grew up, and was adored by both of them). After the trip to Haworth, she read all of the Brontë juvenilia, and became convinced that Branwell had not received the credit he was due, from Mrs Gaskell's first, enduring biography of Charlotte Brontë, and thereafter. To that end, she wrote to J. A. Symington, one of the two editors of the juvenilia (and much else besides), saying that she was 'fascinated by Branwell and I cannot understand why Brontë research has neglected him'. Symington responded enthusiastically and du Maurier decided to embark on a serious, scholarly study of Branwell—a book that would be quite unlike any she had written before; a work, perhaps, that she hoped would be taken seriously by previously dismissive literary critics.
Margaret Forster's insightful biography of Daphne du Maurier makes it clear how important this project was:
[it] gave her the opportunity to test herself in a way she had, in fact, always wanted to do. There was a good deal of the scholar manqué in Daphne, in spite of her frequent claims to have a butterfly mind. As it was, she was prepared to teach herself by trial and error…
And there were other reasons, too, for her fascination with Branwell. She had embarked on her research not long after her husband, Sir Frederick Browning—known to his family as Tommy—had suffered a nervous breakdown, in July 1957, a collapse exacerbated by exhaustion and alcohol consumption. By the beginning of 1958, as Margaret Forster writes, Daphne herself was also 'a little unbalanced'. Some of her fears concerned Tommy's position—he was a distinguished military commander who went on to work for the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace:
She began imagining that all kinds of plots were surrounding her—that Tommy was being spied on by Russians who were out to get the Royal Family, and other, similar delusions. Half the time she laughed at herself, knowing that she was being absurd, but then she would suddenly decide her fantasises were rooted in reality, and become agitated.
Her fears extended to Oriel Malet, by then living in Paris: 'She rang me several times, warning me not to go out at night alone, and to avoid all public places, such as the metro…'
Thus du Maurier was to write with perceptive sympathy of Branwell's breakdowns, of 'the waves of depression that engulfed him' and 'the shock to his own pride' when he, 'the brilliant versatile genius of the family', was unable to sell his paintings or publish his books. But she was also able to empathise with Charlotte's distress and irritation at her brother's slump, made worse by his drinking (du Maurier, after all, had by then nicknamed her husband 'Moper'). She quotes one of Charlotte's letters at length, written to a close friend when Branwell had come home in disgrace after losing his job as a tutor, and distracting his sister from her manuscript of The Professor:
It was very forced work to address him. I might have spared myself the trouble, as he took no notice, and made no reply; he was stupefied. My fears were not in vain. Emily tells me that he got a sovereign from Papa while I have been away, under the pretence of paying a pressing debt; he went immediately and changed it at a public-house, and has employed it as was to be expected. She concluded her account by saying he was 'a hopeless being'; it is too true. In his present state it is scarcely possible to stay in the same room where he is. What the future has in store, I do not know.
Du Maurier clearly identified with Charlotte's feelings of disillusionment and frustration: as is apparent in her letter to Symington, explaining why she had been unable to spend more time looking at manuscripts in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, because of Tommy's ill health. 'I have been in constant attendance on my husband,' she wrote, 'I feel rather like Charlotte Brontë when nursing the Rev. Brontë and finding it difficult to get on with Villette.' And she imagined Winifred Gérin, meanwhile, speeding ahead with her biography, unimpeded by moping men.
Nevertheless, towards the end of 1959, with Tommy well enough to be left, at last, she returned to Haworth, and hunted through manuscripts and church records. Du Maurier's investigations there contributed to the novel idea, expressed in her book, that Branwell had been dismissed as a tutor from the Robinson family not, as has been commonly held, because of an affair with Mrs Robinson, but some gross impropriety with her son Edmund, Branwell's pupil. ('It is possible that, left alone at Thorp Green with Edmund, and free from the constraining presence of his employer, he had attempted in some way to lead Edmund astray…') Subsequent Brontë scholars have pointed out that this has more to do with du Maurier's imaginative reworking of history than any factual evidence; and it would have made an intriguing fictional plot. But as it was, she seemed to be losing interest in her idea of Branwell as an unrecognised genius; certainly by Chapter Thirteen, when she quoted the opening lines of his poem, 'Real Rest', written when he returned home to the Parsonage in disgrace ('I see a corpse upon the waters lie, / With eyes turned, swelled and sightless, to the sky, / And arms outstretched to move, as wave on wave / Upbears it in its boundless billowy grave…'). The remaining lines of this poem, she then declared, 'are better left unquoted. Fantasy and laudanum were rapidly destroying what creative powers were still within him.'
For all that, du Maurier's own sustained efforts and creative powers ensured that she beat her rival to the finishing post: The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë came out eight months before Gérin's book. But by then, du Maurier was already feeling oppressed by another rival writer: in October 1960, just before publication, she wrote to Oriel Malet, 'I see Nancy Mitford has written a book called Don't Tell Alfred, and I bet it gets rave notices. It comes out the same week as poor Branwell, who will be chucked.'
Poor Branwell; poor Daphne. To be truthful, although I would recommend her biography of him as essential reading to any du Maurier fan, it is not the easiest of her work—weighed down, occasionally, by her anxious diligence, and also by her own increasing exasperation with Branwell's failure to live up to his original promise. At the same time, she seemed almost to admit to the impossibility of ever knowing the real truth of another's life; least of all her Branwell. As she wrote in a letter to Oriel Malet, in December 1959, it was hard to get people in Haworth to talk about the facts of the past, when they so easily wandered into the irrelevant events of the present:
If you ask me, nobody there really knows anything any more. And Miss G[érin] can sit in their cottages til she's blue in the face, she will only hear the old Gaskell stories repeated over and over again, and embroidered. Imagine a person a hundred years hence, going down to Polkerris, and asking… about me—I mean, what would they say?
Yet her biography had served its purpose, in that Branwell came vividly alive within it; and in doing so, du Maurier seemed able to write her way out of her despair, to see a future for herself and for her husband. Tommy recovered, and their marriage was ended only by his death in 1965. She lived on for many years, until 1989, and though she did not go back to Haworth, she returned often to the Brontës, and to Gondal, the sustaining landscape of the imagination.
Close to the end of her life, when she had finally stopped writing, and needed nursing at home, one of those who cared for her was a woman named Margaret Robertson, who came from Yorkshire. Robertson discovered that the Brontës were one of the few remaining topics of conversation that would spark du Maurier into animation; indeed, she would happily talk about their novels, while denying writing some of her own. The nurse, who had some psychiatric training, came to the conclusion that 'Daphne acted towards her writing past as though it were a person who had died—she was bereaved and the grief of her loss was too terrible to talk about…' Talking about the Brontës, however, was the best therapy; and in that, Daphne du Maurier remained entirely true to herself.
Justine Picardie, 2005
When Mrs Gaskell published her life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, she painted so vivid a picture of life at Haworth parsonage, and of the talented, short-lived family who dwelt within its walls, that every Brontë biography written since has been based upon it.
A hundred years have gone by, the biography is still unsurpassed, but during the intervening time much has come to light about the early writings of the young Brontës, proving that from childhood and on through adolescence they lived a life of quite extraordinary fantasy, creating an imaginary world of their own, peopled with characters more real to them than the inhabitants of their father's parish. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were all famous novels and their authoresses dead when Mrs Gaskell came to write about them. What she did not realize was that none of these novels would have come into being had not their creators lived, during childhood, in this fantasy world, which was largely inspired and directed by their only brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë.
Neither Mrs Gaskell nor Mr Brontë suspected that under the parsonage roof there were manuscripts, written by Branwell and Charlotte, which ran into many hundreds of thousands of words—far more than the published works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Although, on examination, Branwell's manuscripts show that he did not possess the amazing talent of his famous sisters, they prove him to have had a boyhood and youth of almost incredible productivity, so spending himself in the process of describing the lives and loves of his imaginary characters that invention was exhausted by the time he was twenty-one.
Mr Brontë, their father, writing to Mrs Gaskell after she had published the biography of his daughter Charlotte, told her: 'The picture of my brilliant and unhappy son is a masterpiece.' He did not understand, any more than Mrs Gaskell, that the 'brilliance' existed to a great extent in his own imagination, the pride of a lonely widower in the extraordinary precocity and endearing liveliness of a boy whose supposed genius disintegrated with the coming of manhood; whose unhappiness was caused, not by the abortive love-affair described by Mrs Gaskell with such gusto, but by his inability to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy; and who failed in life because it differed from his own 'infernal world'.
One day, perhaps, all the manuscripts which poured from Branwell's pen will be transcribed, not for the Brontë student only, but for the general reader. One day the definitive biography of this tragic young man will be published. Meanwhile, many years of interest in the subject, and much reading, have prompted the present writer to attempt a study of his life and work which may serve as an introduction to both. If it brings some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised, and helps to reinstate him in his original place in the Brontë family, where he was, until the last years of disintegration, so loved a person, then this book will not have been written in vain.
Daphne du Maurier
He died on Sunday morning, the 24th of September, 1848. He was thirty-one years old. He died in the room which he had shared with his father for so long, and in which, as a little boy, he had awakened to find the moon shining through the curtainless windows and his father upon his knees, praying. The room, for too many months now, had been part refuge and part prison-cell. It had been refuge from the accusing or indifferent eyes of his sisters, refuge from the averted gaze of his father, whose offer of help in dressing spelt reproach. But when he was alone again, the family downstairs and about their business, only the familiar sounds of day-by-day penetrating his solitude—the cry of a child in the road, the chiming of the church clock, the opening and closing of the garden gate as someone called upon parish concerns—then the room turned to the cold walls of a dungeon, or, worse, oppressed him with the stifling weight of a tomb beneath whose heavy stone the dead-alive know perpetual suffocation. The minutes would tick away to half-past twelve or half-past four—for the hours of day were meaningless once appetite was lost and the routine of life relinquished; and the slow cough of the clock on the stairs proceeded inexorably towards that half-choke before the hour, followed at once by the stroke from the church, with no pause or respite. Eternal reproach, eternal accusation.
I know only that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing. That my father cannot have long to live, and that when he dies my evening, which is already twilight, will become night. That I shall then have a constitution still so strong that it will keep me years in torture and despair when I should every hour pray that I might die.
The scrawl was already one year, two years old, and the friend to whom it had been written had his own troubles; besides, the very tale it told had now worn thin through constant repetition. The truth was that no one cared. No one was greatly interested. And he who had fabricated the tale itself, and now lay dying on his bed, was mortally sick of lies and subterfuge and the fantasy which had gripped him. So when an easing of despair came to him suddenly, unbelievably, on the Friday evening, continuing through the following day and night, and for the first time in months and years he was free from horror and bitterness and blight, he thought that he had been forgiven and life was to begin again.
His father knelt beside his bed and prayed. It was not torment any more, or tedium, or mockery, the useless mumblings of an old man clinging to an outworn creed, but the strong and loving voice of Papa, his first god, who had constantly cared for him and never denied him. The three women watching him had lost their adult faces. They were not Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but had become once again his playmates and his slaves, his partners in magic, his beloved genii. Genius Tallii crouched beside his pillow, Genius Annii smoothed his brow, Genius Emmii watched at the foot of the bed; one and all waited for the word of Chief Genius Brannii. He smiled at them, and glancing down at his empty hand wondered for one puzzled moment why he was no longer clasping the rough form of Sneaky, the wooden soldier who had carried many aliases but had always been himself. Then he remembered that although his own body had grown the soldier had not changed, had even shrunk, so that one day, stepped upon and spoilt, he had been swept away with the household dust—or 'cliffed', as his Cornish aunt pronounced it, all useless, outgrown things being cast into the sea, down Penzance.
If the comforting brave soldier had gone to his grave, his owner at least remembered how life had been breathed into this friend of his boyhood. His father had brought home for him a present of some toy soldiers. Tearing open the box, he had run to his three sisters, and had given each of them one of the little wooden figures. Immediately the soldiers had assumed names and personalities, and round them the four children had built some of their most cherished games. Out of them, indeed, had grown the heroic figures whom the sisters later wove into their tales. The soldier whom Charlotte had dubbed Wellesley was now Rochester, lover of Jane Eyre. Parry, Emily's soldier, was Heathcliff, alone on Wuthering Heights. Anne's soldier, Ross, had become Arthur Huntingdon, whose wife fled to Wildfell Hall. Only Sneaky, his own soldier, later to become Alexander Percy, remained hidden and unknown. There was still time, though. The feeling of peace that had come to Brannii surely meant that strength and power had returned to him, and he would soon be well again. He would get up from his bed and go downstairs once more to the dining-room, taking with him the old books and sheets of paper, scored with his writing, that had grown dusty in the back room which had been his studio. Then the four of them would begin all over again, conjuring phantoms and creatures from that long discarded, loved, infernal world.
One day, he told them now, all their books would be published. One day the four of them would be famous. One day men and women would come from all over England and the world to see the place where the Chief Genius lived. Instead of smiling back at him, though, they turned their faces away as if ashamed. They were unable to speak. They could not look at him. And he thought perhaps they were still angry with him for the trouble he had caused them through the years; so contrite now, and calm, he asked forgiveness. This seemed to break their hearts. They could not bear it. Yet when he had cursed them a few days back they had been indifferent. Puzzled, he stayed silent, listening to his father's prayers, and for the first time for perhaps fifteen years or more he repeated after him the word Amen. He did not understand why this should move them, nor why—his memory swept clean of all the murky fog that had shrouded it for so long—the recollections of the happy past, the childhood jokes, the family words and phrases, even the ridiculous talk he had invented, a Yorkshire dialect spoken by holding his nose between finger and thumb, should so suddenly, at this hour of the night, bring them to tears.
One by one they crept away, to weep, perhaps, in silence or together, and out of the mist which was death (though he did not recognize it) instead of his father's bowed head he saw the face of John Brown, his friend. Then he understood. He knew the eyes too well to miss what they told him. Pouched and yielding, over-full with tears, the bags beneath them flabby in their grief, a tremor at the corner of the sensuous mouth, this was not the aftermath of yet one more hilarious carousal or post-funeral celebration. Now he knew he must soon meet his Maker face to face.
He seized the roughened hand and said, 'Oh, John, I'm dying!' But the forty-four-year-old sexton, once his ally, his familiar, his mentor and his guide, could no longer help him, as he had so often done in the past, safely leading him, in helpless laughter, past a fallen table or a tumbled chair. The tombstones John had chiselled, the flat graves they had slipped and stumbled upon together, now raised themselves outside the window like warning hands. Too many mouldering bones, mocked by the pair of them, formed themselves to the skeletons they once had been, and grinned. The lids of coffins opened. The shrouded figures sat. And John himself, instead of winking, thumbs turned down ('There goes another sinner to Kingdom come!'), sat helpless by the bed and could not speak.
What, then, could the dying man believe? Where were salvation and the angels? What was his credo?
Somewhere in a forgotten drawer, dog-eared and crumpled, there was a half-page of an uncompleted manuscript. Written at white-heat, in a moment of rebellion and scorn, it had suggested a parody of prayer:
May He protect you from the burning hill that was ready to fall upon Christians—from the stones that struck the vital breath out of holy Stephen—from the gridiron that fried St Lawrence—from the crucifixion, head downwards, that gave apoplexy to St Peter—from the roasting of Polycarp—from the impetuous pride of Tertullian—from the vanity of Athanasius—from the laughing atheism of Lucian—from the humbugs of the treachery of Judas—the plagiarisms of Virgil—the repetitions of Homer—from the fate of Alcibiades' dog's tail—from the fate of Prynne's ears—from the fate of Charles the First's head and of Oliver Cromwell's nose—from the falsehood of Palmanager and Jacob—from the impudence of Colonel Blood—from the vanity of Absalom and the young Pretender—the go-and-come virginity of Queen Elizabeth, the death of pretty Queen Mary—the hard-heartedness of Brutus, the clemency of Titus that crucified fifty Jews round the walls of their city, the charity of inquisitors-general, Malay pirates, slave-drivers—from the tender mercies of Henry 8th and George 4th, of Henry 7th and old Elwes, of Prince Rupert and the Marquis of Waterford, of Chateaubriand and Robert Montgomery, of Prince Marshal Blücher and Bernard Barston—from all these terrors, Good Lord, deliver us!
Let his friend Joe Leyland design the scroll, and his familiar John the sexton chisel the words; here surely was a quotation fiery enough from the unpublished works of Chief Genius Brannii to render him immortal. But it would be too long. Something smaller, perhaps, written while he was a boy and not spewed out in anger, would serve as epitaph.
O Thou Great Divinity, Thou only God whom my mind could ever stoop to worship, whom I have long worshipped, and whom I will forever adore. I can love, I can hate, I can feel affection, I can nourish vengeance, I can do all that these can do save feel friendship and the ties of blood… If men could see thee—Vitality—and leave their vain superstitions, their Eternals, their Redeemers, their Saints and Angels, they would turn and cleave to Thee, the only living and true God.
It was close on nine o'clock. Instead of prayer or challenge he said to John, 'In all my past life I have done nothing either great or good.' Then his face changed, and a convulsion like so many of those that had come upon him before seized him for the last time. His sisters came back into the room, and his father too, and when he saw his father he stumbled to his feet and died.
When the Reverend Patrick Brontë, wishing to know more about the minds of his six motherless children than he had hitherto discovered, placed each one behind a mask to make them speak with less timidity than before, he gave to the three sisters who survived the first blessed thrill of anonymity. To speak aloud and yet remain, as it would seem, unknown, to hide identity behind a hollow face; criticism, mockery, reproof—these things could not touch the wearer of the mask.
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company