Daphne du Maurier and the BrontŽ Family
Charlotte, Emily and Anne
As 2016, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte BrontŽ, draws to a close it seems fitting to include an article, on the Daphne du Maurier website, about what the BrontŽ family meant to Daphne and the influence it had on her.
There can be no doubt that the lives and writing of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, the existence of their brother Branwell and their father, mother and Aunt Branwell all influenced and intrigued Daphne throughout her lifetime. This can be seen in her own writing and in what others wrote about her.
When Daphne was about twelve years old she started to read the BrontŽs. She began with Wuthering Heights and soon was enjoying all their novels and poetry. Later in life she said that she was not very interested in reading modern novels but returned again and again to her favourites, which included the novels of the BrontŽ sisters.
Sadly the two eldest daughters died when they were still children but the four surviving BrontŽ children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, grew up in a very close relationship, both physically, as they were packed into the Parsonage at Howarth, and emotionally, as they worked and played together. Their juvenile writing shows the development of the imaginary worlds of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. Gondal became one of the codewords that Daphne used Ė ďto Gondal*Ē meaning to make believe or pretend.
Daphne was very immersed in Emily BrontŽís poetry at the time she began to write her first novel, The Loving Spirit. She chose a verse from Emilyís poem, Self-Interrogation, to provide her with the title for her book:
Alas! The countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay;
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away!
and verses from several of Emilyís poems for the title page and to introduce each of the four parts of the novel.
Much has already been said by academics, discussing Daphne du Maurierís work, about the echoes of Wuthering Heights that can be found in Jamaica Inn and of Jane Eyre which can be found in Jamaica Inn and very clearly in Rebecca, so I will not dwell on this here.
In 1954 Daphne was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Wuthering Heights to be published by Macdonald. Daphne had always wanted to visit Howarth and this gave her the perfect opportunity, so she set off on her first visit to Howarth with her daughter Flavia and friend Oriel Malet. They walked the moors and visited the Parsonage, where Daphne could study the BrontŽís books and papers. During her research she began to develop an interest for the much-overlooked Branwell, brother to his more famous sisters. Daphne wrote an excellent and interesting introduction to Wuthering Heights. She felt honoured to have been asked to write the piece and a very real sense of having achieved something good and important. From then on the BrontŽs became a favourite subject for ďpsychological politics*Ē, another codeword, this time meaning interesting discussions.
For a long time Daphne pondered on Branwell BrontŽ. She carried out research on him, visited Haworth again, this time with Tessa, and began an ongoing correspondence with a man called John Symington, a BrontŽ expert living in Yorkshire and one of the editors of the Shakespeare Head edition of the BrontŽsí canon of work. Eventually she began to write her biography of Branwell but was almost immediately unnerved to discover that Winifred Gťrin, who had already written a biography about Anne BrontŽ, was also writing about Branwell. In the event Daphneís biography was published first. She was pleased with the results and felt she had done him justice. The book did not receive the acclaim and interest of her novels but it is still in print today and continues to give us an interesting view of a much-overlooked and maligned member of the BrontŽ family.
In 1967 Vanishing Cornwall was published and included a chapter entitled The BrontŽ Heritage. The BrontŽ childrenís mother, Maria (nťe Branwell), was a Cornish woman, born and brought up in Penzance. She had met her future husband, Patrick, when visiting an uncle in Yorkshire and, once they were married, is seems she never returned to Cornwall. They had six children but, when the youngest, Anne, was still little more than a baby, Maria died of cancer. Almost at once Patrick sent for her sister, Elizabeth, who set off from Penzance on the journey north to Yorkshire. She spent the rest of her life running the household at the Parsonage and bringing up Patrickís children. Her real name was Elizabeth but she was known as Aunt Branwell and, like her sister, is believed never to have seen Cornwall again. Daphne liked the fact that Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne had Cornish blood running through their veins and firmly believed that the imagination that enabled, particularly the girls, to write must partly have been inherited from their Cornish roots.
So much of what has been written about the BrontŽ family stresses the hardship of living in Howarth at that time and the repeated tragedy of the deaths of one member of the family after another. Yet, against that background, the strongest family love, sometimes against the odds, and the writing of the most remarkable poetry and novels took place. Daphne du Maurierís life contrasts completely with this, being comfortable and secure. Yet Daphneís principal biographer, Margaret Forster, portrays her in a rather one-dimensional way and leaves us with the impression of a solitary and somewhat tortured soul, striding along the paths, fields and beaches of her part of Cornwall, much in the way the Emily BrontŽ walked the Yorkshire moors behind the Parsonage.
I am fortunate enough to own a postcard picturing the BrontŽ Parsonage on one side and a message from Daphne du Maurier to her dear friend Foy Quiller-Couch on the other. It was sent during her first visit to Haworth in 1954 and the final few words have made a lasting impression on me.
She says, referring to the Parsonage:
Atmosphere so happy. Why will people pretend it was so gloomy?
What an interesting sentence; it could equally well be applied to Daphne herself.
*see Interesting Facts section, du Maurier language and nicknames.
©Ann Willmore 2016.