Sunday, May 4, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë"

Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (Virago Modern Classics).

Patrick Branwell Brontë was the only son of Rev. Patrick Brontë. When he was a small boy, his mother died, followed by his older sisters Elizabeth and Maria, leaving him with his father and his three sisters—his older sister Charlotte and his two younger sisters, Emily and Anne. Together, the four surviving Brontë children, with Branwell as their leader, created a private fictional world that Branwell called Angria. The two eldest, Charlotte and Branwell, filled hundreds of pages with minute handwriting, telling stories of the often lawless and larger-than-life inhabitants of Angria. Branwell's father and sisters adored him, thought he was the most brilliant and creative member of the family, and expected great things of him. Alas, poor Branwell. He failed as an artist, failed as a poet, failed as a tutor, failed as a railway clerk, failed as a lover. And, as Daphne uu Maurier tells the story, each failure drove him further into the "infernal world" of his imagination and loosened his grip on reality. Failure also drove him to drink, and to laudanum, and undermined his health; late in life, he was subject to "fits" that may have been anything from delirium tremens to epilepsy. In the absence of much documentation, so much of Branwell's life is subject to conjecture, and du Maurier reconstructs that life with both a historian's care and a novelist's imagination. I found the book both gripping and sad. While his sisters were able to escape the childhood fantasies that made them lords and ladies of Angria, Branwell never did. He never harnessed his imagination to a more grown-up story like Jane Eyre or Agnes Grey. He did write poetry, most of which, as quoted by du Maurier, was pretty morose and morbid stuff, obsessed with death and loss.

I could sympathize, and even identify with Branwell Brontë, but in the end he seems to dissolve in his own self-pity and self-delusion. In her excellent introduction to the 2006 Virago Modern Classics reprint of Du Maurier's book (originally published in 1960), Justine Picardie writes: "To be truthful, although I would recommend her biography of him as essential reading to any du Maurier fan, it is not the easiest of her work—weighed down, occasionally, by her anxious diligence, and also by her own increasing exasperation with Branwell's failure to live up to his original promise." In the end, the story of how the amiable and gifted child declined into drunken disappointment seems less like high tragedy and more like a simple waste of a life. His talent and his strength of character didn't match his ambitions, and he wasn't willing to settle for an ordinary life that was never touched by greatness. But all the while, he was living in the same house with greatness. Were it not for his sisters, we would never have known a thing about this poor drunken failure and his dreams of greatness.

At the end of Branwell's life, all three of his sisters had published immortal novels, and tried to hide their success from a brother who did nothing but mope around the parsonage and run up debts at the local public houses. Branwell Brontë died in September 1848, at the age of 31. Emily died in December of the same year, and Anne in May of the next. Of Rev. Brontë's six children, that left only one, Charlotte. "Waking I think, sleeping I dream of them," she wrote.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Great review. I think I'll be looking for this book soon.

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