Hazel McHaffie

My Cousin Rachel

Patrick Branwell Brontë

Who hasn’t heard of Daphne du Maurier? Her novel Rebecca was an instant success and has never stopped selling. Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek … all classics of English literature. But du Maurier herself had her own insecurities. As she wrote to a Brontë scholar who helped her with research into the life of Patrick Branwell Brontë: ‘My novels are what is known as popular and sell very well, but I am not a critic’s favourite, indeed I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller and not reviewed at all … I have no illusions to that.’

Hey, most of us would be more than content with being recognised as a best-seller! But her works of non-fiction are certainly far less well known, so when I came across a copy of The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, I snapped it up.

A life-long fan of the novels by the Brontë sisters, du Maurier was increasingly intrigued by their feckless brother Branwell, (1817-1848), and after a visit to Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage, she set about writing what she hoped would be taken as a serious and scholarly story of his life that would rescue him from relative obscurity as she saw it, and her from dismissal as a literary lightweight.

With a history of mental ill health in both herself and her husband, Daphne came to Branwell’s life with considerable sympathy and understanding. Indeed she recognised that the genius of the three Brontë sisters owed much to the inspiration and imagination of their only brother Patrick Branwell, who was nevertheless ‘long maligned, neglected and despised‘. Branwell, she concluded, failed in life because he was unable to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy. His own ‘infernal world‘ as a lonely alcohol-dependent only son and second-rate writer simply didn’t equate to the brilliance of his imagination.

Pampered, adored and spoiled as a youth following the death of his mother, subject to nerve tremors and convulsions (epilepsy in the 19th century was associated with insanity), he was considered too highly strung and overwrought to be sent to school. Accordingly he was home educated.

He was a precocious child with a photographic memory and a phenomenal capacity to learn and recollect information, coupled with an extraordinary ability to use both hands equally dexterously and write different things at the same time. He was also highly strung and excitable, with a nervous temperament, volatile, and subject to extreme mood swings. Very shortsighted and small for his age – he stopped growing at fourteen – he spent his time making up stories in microscopic writing and living in a fantasy world. His secluded and narrow upbringing coupled with the constant company of three sisters, meant that he arrived at an age of maturity with an almost childlike innocence, an immensely frustrated young adult.

Familiar with illness and death – he lost his mother and two beloved sisters before he was eight – he felt haunted and apprehensive all his life. His father’s religious views awed and terrified him and he turned his back on the strict moral code inculcated from childhood and took to keeping low company, drinking to excess, and succumbing to opium addiction (in those days opium was easily obtained and cheap). Laudanum softened the nagging voices and disappointments, coloured his drab world, and turned nightmares into delicious dreams. He joined the Freemasons at one stage, but gave them up after a time, unable to live up to their expectations, and consumed by fear that he had betrayed their secrets while inebriated.

Though a talented painter, prolific writer of poetry, plays and prose, he met with repeated failures and disappointments. No patronage was forthcoming. Crushed by the callousness of editors and writers alike, who simply failed to even acknowledge his letters or samples of his work, with no real sense of how good or bad his writing was, and sheltered from real life, he drifted from one disaster to another.

Even his short and inglorious tenure as a station-master at an insignificant branch line with the new Leeds and Manchester railway company, ended when he was dismissed for negligence, careless book-keeping, absence from duty and a strong suspicion of theft, leaving his pride severely dented: ‘He, Branwell Brontë, the brilliant versatile genius of the family, had not been able to hold down the trumpery job of station-master on a branch line.’ His own ignominy was thrown into starker relief by the industry of his sisters who were gaining both experience and knowledge, broadening their horizons, going out to work, establishing reputations, travelling, furthering their education with learned men.

Through his sister’s connections he eventually found a post as tutor to a young teenage lad, but it too ended abruptly. Something happened – something ‘bad beyond expressing‘ – when tutor and pupil were left alone, which remained unidentified. Branwell once again deadened his shame with drink. Depression overwhelmed him. Violent mood swings from despair to high elation and back followed. The convulsions increased.

Meanwhile his three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, began to find some measure of acclaim for their writing – under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – driving Branwell further and further into his world ‘walking arm-in-arm with the dark figure of MISERY‘. Amazing today to think their novels – Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor – were rejected by a dreary round of publishing houses, but initially that reality fed into Branwell’s conviction that it was useless for unknown writers to attempt to enter the literary world. But then, unexpected success and instant acclaim came for Jane Eyre, which quickly became the talk, not only of literary London, but amongst the whole of the country’s reading public. The identity of its author was known only to Charlotte’s sisters; Branwell, with whom she had plotted and colluded and created their ‘infernal world‘ throughout their childhood, must not be allowed into the secret, ‘for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.‘ In fact Branwell did know, but would not give them the satisfaction of knowing he did.

I agree with Justine Picardie in her introduction to the book: this biography, whilst fascinating, is rather weighed down by du Maurier’s ‘excessive diligence‘. But she has my sympathy. It must have been an impossible task to sift the truth from the writings of such a dissolute and deluded mind; and apparently she found the good people of Howarth very reluctant to talk about the facts of the past. So I for one will applaud her for her serious efforts, but turn back to her novels as testament to her own brilliance.

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