Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is mostly known for her novels (Rebecca, Frenchman's Creek and a lot of others), but she has actually written some non-fiction books as well. She was asked to write a new introduction to the new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954 and so she went to Haworth. During her visit there she got intrigued by Branwell and could not understand why he had been ignored by Brontë researchers. From Margaret Forster's excellent biography of Dahpne du Maurier we find the following note:

(it) gave her the opportunity to test herself in a way she had, in fact, always wnated to do. There was a good deal of the scholar manqué in Daphne, in spite of her frequent claims to have a butterfly mind. As it was, she was prepared to teach herself by trial and error...

Du Maurier has a lot of sympathy for Branwell, which of course is a must if you are writing a biography. Having read some Brontë biographies (for example the excellently The Brontës by Juliet Barker) there was not that much new to me. Only one thing that I can not remember having read before and that is that Branwell at one point read from Wuthering Heights when it was still a manuscript and that he indicated that he had been part of writing it. I quote here from a letter written by William Dearden to the Halifax Guardian written only in 1867, when all four Brontës were dead. Some friends met at the Cross Roads Inn and read something they had written. Dearden read the first act of The Demon Queen, 

"...but when Branwell dived into his hat - the usual receptacle of his fugitive scraps - where he supposed he had deposited his MS.poem, he found he had by mistake placed there a number of stray leaves of a novel on which he had been trying his 'prentice hand'. Chagrined at the disappointment he had caused, he was about to return the papers to his hat, when both friends earnestly pressed him to read them, as they felt a curiosity to see how he could wield the pen of a novelist. After some hesitation, he complied with the request, and riveted our attention for about an hour, dropping each sheet, when read, into his hat. The story broke off abruptly in the middle of a sentence, and he gave us the sequel 'viva voce' together with the real names of the prototypes of his characters; but as some of these personages are still living, I refrain from pointing them out to the public.
He said he had not yet fixed upon a title for his production, and was afraid he should never be able to meet with a publisher who would have the hardihood to usher it into the world. The scene of the fragment which Branwell read, and the characters introduced in it - so far as then developed - were the same as those in Wuthering Heights, which Charlotte Brontë confidently asserts was the production of her sister Emily."

Du Maurier continues to refer to how both Dearden and Leyland (the sculpture who was also present) had been shocked "by the character of Heathcliff in the fragment read, and had earnestly advised Branwell to throw his prospective novel into the fire. Branwell refused to do so, saying his hero should 'live a little longer yet', and that one day he might fill his 'empty exchequer'. If he should suit public taste, then Branwell would produce a 'female mate' and the pair of them would propagate 'a monster race' that might 'quell the heroes and the heroines effete that strut in tinsel through the fictive world'."

Branwell was a bad poet but not a liar. If it was the embryo to the classical book that he read aloud, the reason suggests that this was a first draft of the novel. It could either be a collaboration between the two or Branwell's own work. The siblings were used to collaborate in their Angrian series so they could have done the same here. Another possibility could be that, due to his short-sightedness, he grabbed a manuscript thinking it was his own. When he took it out of his hat he realised that it was a mistake but still read it out loud. It is interesting indeed, but we will never know for sure.

One can not stop thinking what might have gone wrong. Was it too much drinking and drugs, lack of self confidence or too much of it? From Du Maurier's view I get the feeling that Branwell was over confident in his own capabilities. Being spoiled from childhood, being the only boy in the family, might have given him the idea that he would always be nurtured by others and did not have to make an effort himself. When he tried to do something it was not good enough. The same happened to the sisters but they still continued and fought for the poems and novels and in the end became successful. Du Maurier hints that the attacks that repeatedly marred his later life might be due to epilepsy and she also questions why he was not examined by a specialist. When the father was becoming blind they went for eye surgery which must have been quite an operation method at the time. It seems though that Branwell's health was put in the hands of the local doctor and once being blamed on drinks and drugs, never left an opening for another cause.

The story of Branwell's life is a sad one on all accounts but du Maurier tells it with care and compassion. Since she is a story teller you sometimes forget that it is a non-fiction book and not a fiction. There are one or two places where she makes conclusions where she maybe shouldn't. All in all it is an interesting read, if not only because very few books on the Brontës concentrate on Branwell.

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