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Daphne du Maurier
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Postcard from Haworth by Chris Main

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontė (1960) is Daphne du Maurier’s least successful book from a sales perspective and was her first attempt at a biography of someone who was not a relative. The Brontė family had always been of deep interest to her, and along with Katherine Mansfield, she saw them as her literary ancestors in many ways. In the late 1950s, following a difficult period in her life with Tommy’s breakdown, subsequent ill health and retirement, Daphne began to research the history of the forgotten brother, Branwell.

Between them, the three Brontė sisters published six novels in their lifetimes, but Branwell never succeeded in completing a manuscript, although he wrote prodigiously as a young adult. Daphne had a theory that he was epileptic, and clearly, he had a weakness for alcohol. He had a number of occupations including portrait painter, station master and private tutor – but all ended in failure and some in disgrace. He died at the age of 31 in 1848 – just after the publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had ensured the immortality of his family name.

Haworth Main Street

In July 2022 my wife and I spent three days in Haworth, following in Daphne’s footsteps.  We stayed in The Old Registry, a charming boutique hotel at the bottom of Main Street. The cluttered interior is designed to evoke the past. It reflects the fact that although the signature sound of post-pandemic Haworth is the transactional ping of contactless payment, time really stopped here in 1850, when Charlotte revealed the true identity of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in a new edition of Jane Eyre, and admirers began to flock to the small village on the West Yorkshire moors. By then, she was the only survivor of Patrick Brontė’s six children.

Main Street is now populated by restaurants, gift shops and holiday cottages, but the Haworth of 1850 is right at the top of the hill where the Church, Parsonage, Black Bull Pub, Post Office and Apothecary are to be found. Here is where they lived and worked, where Branwell drank and attended Lodge meetings, where ineffective medicines and Laudanum were dispensed, and where the timeless manuscripts were dispatched to London publishers for their consideration.

The Black Bull – there is a plaque which reads: "This Inn was frequented by Patrick Branwell Brontė, from 1817-1848 the only son of Rev Patrick Brontė, incumbent of Haworth from 1820-1861."

We went into the church – although apart from the tower it has been rebuilt since the Brontė era. The family vault remains undisturbed under the aisle – and there they all lie apart from Anne, who died in Scarborough and was buried there. A helpful volunteer guide told us colourful stories about church history. Why had the church been rebuilt? He offered two theories: Patrick Brontė’s successor, John Wade became increasingly tired of the endless pilgrims who came in search of the home and resting place of the Brontės. It was his home now – and the church was for the worship of God, not the three young authors and their somewhat racy tales. It was time to demolish the Rev Brontė’s church and move on. Our guide preferred the alternative theory, which was that the church was simply beyond repair and replacement was the only viable option. He told us how the fortunes of the church had been revived by a predecessor of Patrick Brontė – the fiery Reverend Grimshaw. When he passed away, the congregation believed his successor improperly chosen, and drove him away using dubious tactics such as riding donkeys into church and arranging for him to be embraced during a service by a drunken chimney sweep fresh from his labours. I have no idea if any of this is true – but it led me to reflect that no cohort can do vitriol quite like a Church of England congregation!

On to the Parsonage, which was purchased for the Brontė Society by a benefactor in 1928. By then, The Brontės had been gone for almost 70 years, and it must have looked very different – indeed the building had been significantly extended and altered. We asked the staff how it was that the Parsonage now contained the furniture and contents of 1861, so long after they had been removed by subsequent occupants. The answer was that the Brontės were sufficiently famous by 1861 (when Patrick Brontė died, aged 84) that the auction of their possessions had been well documented and the whereabouts of many items known. The process began of recovering furniture, clothing and other artefacts and returning them to the Parsonage. Some items are still awaited – with Charlotte’s writing desk coming home as recently as 2011.

The site of the gate leading to the churchyard from the Parsonage front garden

The Parsonage is like the reverse of the Tardis – it looks a substantial house on the outside but inside it seems tiny. The room shared by the children as a nursery, where they sat cross-legged on the floor and wrote thousands and thousands of words in miniature handwriting about their imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, is the tiniest of all. At the end of her life, Emily slept in this room preferring her privacy, despite the fact that the bed was much shorter than she was. Standing in the rooms where all the members of this immortal family died (with the exception of Anne as noted) is poignant. The bed in which Branwell died has not survived – but a replica is there, along with artefacts relating to his work as a painter including some finished portraits. To the untrained eye, these look quite competent, but I understand there has been some restoration and ‘finishing’ work undertaken.

The nursery where the Brontė Children sat and wrote together. Note the tiny manuscripts on the stool.

Ultimately, this was Branwell’s fatal weakness; he could not finish. Daphne explores the theory that he played a part in the early genesis of Wuthering Heights or even wrote an early draft of the first few chapters. Her conclusion is ‘so what?’ The storyline and characters may well have been discussed between the four of them, but it was Emily who constructed the novel and undertook the painstaking hours of work to write the manuscript and prepare it for publication. Anyone can have an idea – the hard part is to translate it into something tangible and complete. Branwell’s inability to do this may not have been simple fecklessness. Unusually for the time, it was his sisters who benefitted from formal education – Branwell was kept at home and so, arguably, his talents were not developed as his sisters were, and he lacked self-discipline. Daphne’s theory that he may have had a form of epilepsy makes sense, as fits were regarded as evidence of insanity at the time. Even worse for Revd Brontė would have been the horror of his son being suspected of demonic possession, which could well have resulted in the loss of his own position and thus the family home. We shall never know, but it would explain why Branwell was never sent away to school. As he moved into adulthood, he became frustrated and disillusioned. The Black Bull is literally next door to the church, and he became an all too regular customer.

It is easy to see how Haworth could have been a depressing place. Visitors see it as a place of creation – the origin of all those wonderful novels and poems – and today it is indeed peaceful and charming.  But in the mid-19th century it was a cauldron of death. The infant mortality rate of 41% was exceeded only by the London Borough of Southwark. The sexton, John Brown, who was a drinking companion of Branwell, must have been a very busy man indeed with deaths taking place every week if not every day. The high mortality rate had two principal causes: first the village water supply came from a pump outside The Black Bull and was highly contaminated, being fed by water that ran down the hill over peaty soil and through the extensive graveyard behind the church. Second, the major industry in the village was wool combing – the final process in wool production - and this required a hot and humid atmosphere. So even in summer, doors were closed and fires burning. This provided a perfect environment for the incubation of Tuberculosis. In addition, many children died of burns when their clothing caught fire in the small rooms with their open fires. The tragic past of the village is all too clear as you stroll through the huge churchyard with its unusual horizontal gravestones – designed to deter grave robbers. Much of what survives of Branwell’s work is morbid in the extreme. In Haworth, death was always just around the corner.

The Apothecary now an antique shop. The panel to the right of the door reads: "When the Brontė family lived in Haworth, this was the druggist's house and shop. The pharmacist at the time was Betty Hardacre and it was she who dispensed laudanum, an opium derived drug, to Branwell Brontė in the years leading up to his death in September 1848, aged 31."

We loved our visit and although there is no trace of Daphne’s time there (her Branwell book is not even on sale in the Parsonage shop) an understanding of the place and the geography definitely helps bring to life her interest in the Brontės, together with the tragedy of poor Branwell. At the top level, the margins between success and failure in artistic endeavours are fine and Daphne was forced to conclude that Branwell remains on the wrong side of the line. He may have had all the creativity and raw intellect of his sisters – but he lacked the ability to translate these into completed works. In a different way, Daphne knew about these margins from her own family. Of the three Du Maurier sisters, she is the only one who will live on. Angela’s writing was perfectly competent but lacked the magic of Daphne’s. Critics have concluded that Jeanne was not a particularly gifted painter, and today her work is only of interest because of the family name.  Their father Gerald had given many family members an opportunity in the theatre, but none had been able to shine in the way that he did. Daphne understood this natural process of selection, but even so, I think accepting that ultimately Branwell had not been cheated by history was painful for her.

In 2008, Justine Picardie published Daphne – which covers the period of Daphne’s life when she was writing this book, woven into a parallel narrative in the form of a novel. It also relates the sad story of J.A Symington, a Brontė researcher and collector who helped Daphne with material for her biography. The book is well worth a read for her personal take on the creation of this outlier in Daphne’s work, which has always been underestimated in my view because it does not gel easily with the rest of her output. If you get the chance, Haworth is well worth a visit. Read The Infernal World of Branwell Brontė and Daphne before you go!

© Chris Main, July 2022.

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