Hazel McHaffie

Emily Brontë

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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Literary triumphs

I have the great good fortune to live just outside one of the most famous literary cities in the world: Edinburgh. Numerous well-known writers have – and still do – stalked its streets, culled from its haunts, woven its magic into their books. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying exploring its streets all over again taking visitors to see its picturesque closes and wynds and courtyards and beautiful buildings – including The Writers’ Museum pictured here.

And as we gear up to the biggest international arts festival in the world, it seems an appropriate time to add my own homage to one of the most enduring names in fiction ever: Emily Brontë, whose special bicentennial anniversary we remember this year.  Wouldn’t she herself be completely stunned by all the hype!!

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, this girl was born in Yorkshire into obscurity, the fifth child of an impoverished clergyman and his wife. She was a weak timid little thing, who found school too daunting, so she spent her childhood at home reading avidly and scribbling stories and poems of her own. A brief skirmish with teaching in her adult years in an effort to contribute to the family’s meagre income met with similar discord, and back she went to the peace and anonymity of the rectory, and the quiet influence of a bookish, creative environment.

So oppressed were women in her day that she and her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, all published their writing under male pseudonyms. Emily’s was Ellis Bell. Much they wrote sank into oblivion, but, as I’m sure you know, her one outstanding work, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, proved hugely popular and remains a classic to this day.

Having already lost three siblings and her mother, Emily’s young life was overshadowed by struggle, death and despair, and perhaps it was that which coloured her own writing, and lead to the melancholy tale of bleak love and dark revenge we know and revere today. Heathcliffe has to be one of the most bitter, haunted and vengeful fictional heroes of all time.

How sad that this reclusive figure didn’t live long enough to see her creation achieve success; she was a mere thirty years of age when she caught a chill at her brother Bramwell’s funeral, developed TB and died, six days before Christmas. But how doubly heartening that the world pays tribute to her still.

And now I’m preparing for a whirl of amazing cultural experiences as we take friends and relations to the huge range of performances on offer. All this on our doorstop … most fortunate indeed.


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The Bronte sisters

As most people know, writers and journalists are keen on anniversaries. Gives them a hinge, a focus. So you won’t be surprised by this blog post. It’s 170 years ago, in 1846, that three of the best known and best loved books in the English language were written and published by three sisters. 200 years since the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, was born. Charlotte is one of my all time favourite writers so I absolutely couldn’t overlook this date.

Charlotte Bronte books The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – were all shy, frail girls living in an age of high child mortality (40% died before the age of 6; average age at death 25/26), in a vicarage overlooking a cemetery where they would probably have witnessed anything up to eight funerals a day. Life was cheap. Their two older sisters both died early from TB whilst still schoolgirls. Their dissolute only brother died of illnesses relating to his alcoholism.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne too all died in their late twenties or thirties. In their short lives they experienced much hardship, thought to have inspired their writing, and certainly there are elements of boarding school tyranny, suppression and harassment of governesses by their charges and employers, threats of the occult and harsh religious condemnation, isolation on bleak moorland, unrequited love, as well as the necessity to earn a living when there were no male relatives to protect them from poverty. It’s a tribute to their strength of character that they could rise above these harsh and potentially crushing circumstances and be awe-inspiringly creative.

Jane EyreJane Eyre is probably the first novel that made a profound impression on me and one of the few I’ve read several times. You can see how faded and ancient my copy is now, but it remains a firm favourite. I’ve even watched several different screen adaptations of the story – something that can easily ruin a book for me. It blows my mind to think that it was penned at a dining room table while Anne and Emily scribbled their stories at the same time on the same table; that it was written with a quill pen; that it was a response to rejection of an earlier manuscript – The Professor (another early favourite). Charlotte is described as a tiny frail creature, but what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in her personality and character. She was the driving force behind all three sisters (as the Bell brothers) submitting their writing for publication. They had always written stories and poems for their private amusement; now it was out of necessity.

Pause for a moment. Imagine. Jane Eyre Agnes Grey Wuthering Heights … all coming out within a few months during that year. All written by unknown young women. Laboriously, by hand. The result? Amazing success for all three. But sadly and unjustly little fame for their authors during their lifetime.

Since then, of course, all have become beloved and timeless classics. Who hasn’t heard the name Brontë? Who hasn’t read at least one of their books? What a record. What an achievement.

In 2016, surrounded by ease and plenty, shut away peacefully in a room dedicated to writing, with gadgets and ready communication at my fingertips, no necessity driving me to write … I salute them all. And feel truly humbled in their presence.

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