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Review of The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë – Chris Main

"Strange that my first encounter with the Brontë sisters produced no more than 'Charming' for Jane Eyre and 'Very Good' for Wuthering Heights." Daphne du Maurier is quoting here from her diary for 1923, in Growing Pains – The Shaping of a Writer (1977).  Perhaps her reaction as a 16-year-old was relatively low key because she simply took the novels at face value and had not yet bought into Brontë mania.

I would call it that because from the moment the true identities of Charlotte, Emily and Anne were revealed in 1850, the literary world beat a path to their West Yorkshire moorland village, Haworth, and every detail of their lives was devoured, interpreted and re-interpreted.  It is an extraordinary story – the three sisters, close in age, who had lost their mother in infancy and their two older sisters soon afterwards – who despite their sheltered upbringing in an isolated moorland village – wrote novels of such extraordinary power that they are regarded among the finest ever written in the English language.  Their decision to disguise themselves as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, for fear that as young ladies they would not be taken seriously, only added to their mystique.  Almost immediately, and especially after the death of their father, Revd Patrick Brontë in 1861, an ever-growing industry was established, such that the Haworth Parsonage became a place of pilgrimage and every word they wrote, and every insignificant domestic possession became a valuable artefact.  Endless studies have been made; dozens of books have been written.  Considering the relatively modest combined output of the three sisters, the legend of the Brontë family is remarkable for the passion of its devotees and its seemingly timeless appeal, which shows no sign of abating to this day.

This phenomenon was already well underway in the 1950s, and Daphne was entirely aware of it.  When she began work in earnest on The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë in 1959, she travelled to Haworth and worked with the Custodian of the Brontë Museum, Harold Mitchell.  She was under pressure to work quickly as she had discovered that an established Brontë scholar, Winifred Gérin, who had already published a well-received biography of Anne Brontë that year, had now turned her attention to Branwell.  Mr Mitchell was inclined to talk at length about himself instead of letting Daphne get on with her research and perhaps because she politely put up with this, he told her that he loathed Miss Gérin and that she was 'an adventurer' just trying to make what she could out of the Brontës. Writing to her friend Oriel Malet, Daphne remarked "I found myself defending her, because after all, that book on Anne was very good.  But he said it was just a rehash of everyone else's work.  Well, of course, all Brontë books are, in a way." And therein lies the problem.


By 1959, it was very unlikely that any new sources were going to turn up.  Everyone had to work with the same set of manuscripts, letters and previous biographies.  Things that were not known would never now be known – so it was hard to be original.  Also, in a limited field that has been studied with the degree of obsession commanded by the Brontës, certain interpretations become orthodox – and to go against them invites accusation of amateurism and ignorance.  Daphne was a world-famous novelist but other than a biography of her father written some 25 years earlier, she had no track record in that genre, nor any pedigree as a scholar.  So, to attempt this book was high risk for her and it begs the question as to why she would want to do it.  Her publisher, Victor Gollancz, told her that unless she completed her book before Ms Gérin, it would be dead in the water.  For the reasons discussed above this seems unduly pessimistic, as the academic market would be no more likely to buy Daphne's book than Du Maurier fans would be to buy Ms Gérin's.  Perhaps Victor was hoping Daphne would give up the idea and write another novel, which would, of course, have sold much better.

The genesis for Infernal World was in Autumn 1954, when the publisher Macdonald asked Daphne to write an introduction for a new edition of Wuthering Heights.  This became the catalyst for Daphne's first visit to Haworth, which she undertook with her daughter, Flavia, and Oriel Malet.  Daphne knew that, like her own work, the Brontës' fiction was rooted in a strong sense of place and that without seeing Haworth, and walking on the moors, she would miss a vital dimension.

Oriel commented in Letters from Menabilly that Daphne was becoming increasingly intrigued by Branwell – "the son, predictably, interesting her more than the daughters." but I think the reasons were probably rather more complex.  Daphne's first love among the Brontës was undoubtedly Emily - after all, the title of her first novel The Loving Spirit (1931) came from Emily's poetry.  Presumably, this was why she was asked to write an introduction to Emily's masterpiece.  The introduction she wrote is both exceptional and original.  In it she developed her thesis that the childhood collaboration of the Brontë children was crucial to the work the sisters later produced – and therefore Branwell's role is more important than had been assumed to date.

"It is impossible to separate one Brontë from another.  They were all so near in age and grew up together in such close harmony - in their personal and in their writing lives - that the influence each had upon the other was overwhelming.  The student who reads Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then turns back to Emily's Gondal poems and to Charlotte and Branwell's Angrian stories, can have no doubt whatsoever that both novels sprang from the same source, and that the later characters and events are developments of persons and themes long dreamt about since childhood and sketched in adolescence.  "

Daphne's introduction was well received.  She reported back to Oriel: "My editor of the Macdonald Classics has written so nicely about my Introduction that I sent off to him last week.  He said he had read many books about Emily, and lots of essays, but he had never read anything before that gave him such a convincing impression of her work and personality, which was such a crumb [compliment] for me, I thought!  "No doubt this encouragement helped in her decision to tackle a full-length book on Branwell.

Branwell was a much-maligned figure – mainly due to the characterisation of him in the first biography of Charlotte, written by Elizabeth Gaskell and published in 1857.  This viewed Branwell through a Victorian lens – as someone who had wilfully destroyed his own life and brought suffering and shame on his family through his intemperance.  In short, he was a bad lot.  Consequently, and because he had no published work which could be cited as a counterbalance to his moral bankruptcy, Branwell was largely written off and forgotten.  But Daphne felt some identification with him because, like her, he had developed his own sense of self through an alter-ego.  Daphne was able to leave hers, Eric Avon, behind and move on with her adult life – but for Branwell there was no escape from Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland who remained his inner identity until his death.  Northangerland was something of a shape shifter – evolving from a character represented by a toy soldier, from a box his father had given him, and originally based on Napoleon Bonaparte.  His sisters adopted and named the other soldiers - but only Branwell was unable to separate his imaginary creations from his own self-identity.  Immediately following the quote with which I began this piece, Daphne's 1923 diary continues: "Sloane's Life of Napoleon Bonaparte in four volumes kept me going for several weeks, and for a time I wondered whether he might take the place of Eric Avon, but either this was too exhausting or others wouldn't play, so the idea was dropped, and I contented myself with carving the initials N.B. on my desk as a reminder." So Branwell's alter ego and Daphne's shared some potential ancestry.

Branwell's alter-ego had a Byronic and Devilish side to his character – a regular swashbuckler.  But Branwell himself stopped growing at 14 and never had the alpha-male impact enjoyed by Northangerland. Psychologically, he never managed to reach adulthood and take responsibility for his own life.  He became trapped as a kind of demon boy.  This was a character Daphne had grown up with – as the Du Maurier family and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan were joined at the hip – with Daphne's father, Gerald, annually playing the mirrored roles of Mr Darling and Captain Hook.  Peter Pan was an iconic text for Daphne – and so identifying Branwell as an echo of Barrie's 'terrible masterpiece' would have made him more accessible to her than to most people.

During 1959, Daphne was emerging from an incredibly tough couple of years following Tommy's breakdown and the exposure of his double life in London and increasing dependence on alcohol.  His doctor in Fowey had diagnosed manic depression but by the end of the year, appropriate medication had stabilised this condition and the principle that he needed to abstain from alcohol was established.  Finally, in December, she was able to travel to Haworth to do the necessary research.  Her experiences that year had taught her that mental health and addiction issues were not easy to manage and, however frustrating it might be, sufferers would sometimes relapse.  She loved Tommy and saw it as her duty to look after him.  Her marriage vows were very important to her, and she had a liberal interpretation of the phrase 'for better or worse' – stating (in a letter to Maureen Baker-Munton) that in her view this included your spouse unfortunately falling in love with someone else.  She viewed some of Tommy's behaviour as rather pathetic and was saddened by his decline – but she supported him fiercely until the end.

All in all, this was a good time for Daphne to tackle her Branwell book.  She had not had the necessary peace and quiet to focus on 'brewing' a novel – and recent events provided a context for Branwell's struggles that gave her a depth of perspective.

Mrs Gaskell's view of Branwell was certainly coloured by Victorian Protestant attitudes – but it is only very recently that addiction of the type Branwell and Tommy were grappling with has been regarded as an illness and not a moral failing.  Writing about Infernal World in the chapter on Daphne in Friends and Contemporaries, (1989) A.L.Rowse comments: "When he [Branwell] gave up, through failure and drink (with which I have no sympathy), possibly drugs too, Charlotte, to whom he had been closest, seems to have turned away.  I shared her attitude.  I hate weakness of character, and blamed him, the male among them, for leaving all the burden to Charlotte, who battled through to fame.  I fear I was wanting in sympathy: Daphne had compassion for the poor young fellow, her comprehension of humanity altogether wider than mine."

The late Duke of Edinburgh concludes his Foreword to Richard Mead's 2010 biography of Tommy, General' Boy', thus: "His last years were sad, but they were only a very small part of his long, active and distinguished career." In 1959, Daphne was very much ahead of her time in seeking to understand rather than to judge.

Sometime in the early 1960s, Daphne wrote an essay called "Second Thoughts on Branwell" and in this she goes further, wishing in retrospect that both she and Winifred Gérin had written more about the happy days of childhood creation enjoyed by Branwell and his three sisters.  "For happy they undoubtedly were, when the worlds of Angria and Gondal were first conceived, and it could be that obsessed as we modern authors are with psychological cause and effect, we have erred in placing too much prominence upon the tragic deaths of Maria and Elizabeth [the two older sisters].  Children did die young in the nineteenth century.  Families of seven or eight almost invariably lost one or two.  Yet the surviving members did not automatically become neurotic."

So, what you should you expect from The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë?  One of Daphne's strengths as a historical biographer (which she also brought to bear in her later Bacon books) was that she was prepared to go out on a limb and advance new ideas and interpretations even if she knew these might be scoffed at by more established scholars.  The two interesting ideas she introduces to the Branwell story are first the possibility that he might have been epileptic and second that the contention that he had a love affair with his employer's wife, Mrs Robinson, is not very well supported by the available evidence.

The first is important because it offers an explanation as to why Branwell never went to school – thus providing further mitigation for his arrested emotional and intellectual development.  The second is interesting because, on the face of it, it seems most unlikely that a woman of Mrs Robinson's social standing would have risked having an affair with a person in Branwell's position, even if on some level she had wanted to.  There are a whole range of other possible scenarios given the available facts and what we know of the characters of the principal players.  Contrasting the Du Maurier and Gérin versions of this incident is interesting – I'm inclined to think Daphne's is more thoughtful – and as A.L. Rowse put it, this is probably down to her' comprehension of humanity'.

Interestingly, of all Daphne's work, this is the book singled out by Rowse for the most lavish praise.  He calls it a tour de force and a 'beautiful book' and points to the quality of her research and the book's authenticity.  He does not seem to mind, as Margaret Forster does, the passages where Daphne becomes a 'fly on the wall' in the Parsonage and gives us the benefit of her imagination.  I understand why some might struggle with this in an otherwise conventional biography, but Daphne is, after all, a novelist at heart.  She is trying to put us in the room – to paint a picture of what their lives were like.  Personally, I find it helps to bring the household to life.

As a fan of Daphne's work, I think the key to enjoying this book is to understand how it gels with the rest of her work.  At first glance it may seem like a kind of cul-de-sac in her writing – a little detour she took for no particular reason.  But, in fact, it shines a light on the inner life of a writer and is a fascinating study of a little understood historical figure with whom she had some important things in common and many of whose inner motivations and challenges she understood only too well.


READING LIST

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier – Victor Gollancz (1960)

 Also mentioned in this review:

Growing Pains – The Shaping of a Writer (Alternatively titled Myself When Young) by Daphne du Maurier - Victor Gollancz (1977)

Branwell Brontë by Winifred Gérin – Thomas Nelson and Sons (1961)

Letters from Menabilly edited by Oriel Malet – Weidenfeld & Nicholson (1993)

The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier – William Heinemann Ltd (1931)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (with introduction by Daphne du Maurier) – Macdonald Classics (1955)


The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell – Smith, Elder and Sons (1857)

Peter Pan (The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up) by J.M. Barrie – Hodder & Stoughton (1904)

Friends and Contemporaries by A.L. Rowse – Methuen London Ltd (1989)

General 'Boy' by Richard Mead – Pen and Sword Military (2010)

Second Thoughts on Branwell by Daphne du Maurier – © Chichester Partnership (1998). Published in 'Brontë Society Transactions' Volume 23 Pt 2 – October 1998

 

© Chris Main 2022.

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