The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier
In the introduction to The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë, du Maurier’s biographer Justine Picardie informs us that this was her least sold book. Until I won it in a raffle at the Brussels Brontë Group’s Christmas Lunch I had no idea such it even existed. I knew she was a Brontë fan because of the obvious connections between Rebecca and Jane Eyre, but I can understand how Branwell, the second oldest sibling to make it to adulthood, must have seemed an irresistible subject: the golden boy, the failed genius, the tragic decline into early death. And so little information, so many mysteries waiting to come to light.
It‘s known that du Maurier did extensive research for this book. According to her other biographer Margaret Forster, it
(…) gave her the opportunity to test herself in a way she had, in fact, always wanted to do. There was a good deal of the scholar manqué in Daphne, in spite of her frequent claims to have a butterfly mind.
But if her intention was to produce an academic biography, her novelist streak got the better of her. Infernal World is what happens when a very gifted author builds a story out of limited resources: all the known events in Branwell’s life (at the time) are there, but based on them, du Maurier makes him come to life with touches of creative writing.
She gives us vivid pictures of what life must have been at the Parsonage, at Haworth’s pub and Masonic Lodge, and, carefully re-constructs their inhabitants without going too far or seeming to be telling stories. I found this image of the Brontë children playing together especially moving:
Miss Branwell [an aunt that came to life with the family when their mother died], quietly sewing in her bed-sitting-room next door, would wonder at the exclamations, the stifled laughter, the possible arguments of ‘It wouldn’t happen like that’, and ‘It would… it would… I’ve seen them myself,’ the boy’s voice rising higher in excitement. Then would be the time to interfere, to tap on the wall with the admonition, “Play quietly, now, Papa will hear you.’
The only son among five (and then three) sisters, Branwell was always the prodigal son. As a child he initiated his sisters in the world-building they created until very late and which influenced their adult writing. It was the perfect testing ground for all the Brontë children and Branwell was their brilliant leader. Together wrote thousands of pages in tiny handwriting of stories set in fantastic countries – Angria and Gondal – which had their own geography, history and heroes. He had an extraordinary memory, he count write with both hands, he was taught Latin and Greek by their father, he wrote poetry and painted. The future was bright for Branwell. So bright that while writing her will in those early days, Aunt Branwell didn't find it necessary to include him.
But by the time his aunt died, contrary to all expectation of his success, Branwell was destitute, alcoholic, accused of having an affair with the wife of his employer, and dependent on irregular employment and his aged father. He had entered the slow decline which would lead to his death at 31, just six weeks before Emily’s own and some months before Anne’s.
The Infernal World paints a vivid picture of this decline, brought about, according to du Maurier by his weak resistance to failure, a secluded childhood (he was home-schooled because his father though his was too nervous and sensitive - and possible mentally instable - to be educated with other children), and a weak spot for drinking, laudanum and everything that would make his forget his misfortunes.
du Maurier also speculates on the impact on Branwell on his compulsion to see the world though the heroic and melodramatic tales he created with his sisters as children:
Branwell’s friends and acquaintances had the uncomfortable habit, unknown to them, of turning into Angrian characters, and he himself, while trying to behave like Branwell Brontë, the promising young portrait-painter, was forever considering the world and those about him with the jaundiced, cynical eye of Alexander Percy [his main hero].
Portrait of the Brontë sisters, painted by Branwell (notice how he painted himself out of the picture) – British National Portrait Gallery
One of the most interesting things about the book is following du Maurier’s short-tempered criticism of Branwell’s writing. As Picardie says in her introduction, “she seemed to be losing interest in her idea of Branwell as an unrecognized genius”, and eventually became weighted down by “her increasing exasperation with Branwell’s failure to live up to his original promise.”. Here’s some of her most snarky comments:
“A Sunday School child of seven could have done better.”
“This is only part of a poem, one among many, that scattered the pages of Branwell’s Luddenden notebook. None of them shows outstanding talent”.
“And so on for another thirty interminable couplets.”
“Branwell’s odes to the Welsh mountains (…) are better left unquoted. Fantasy and laudanum were rapidly destroying what creative powers were still within him.”
I’d recommend The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë Picardie to all Brontë and du Maurier fans alike. The first will find a well written and vibrant look into the family’s lives based of the facts known in 1960 (for a more modern take I can’t push Juliet Barker’s biography enough) and the latter will get an insight into one of the du Maurier’s passion: this fascinating family from the Yorkshire moors that have reached cult status.
At the end of du Maurier’s life, when, in her decline, she even denied writing some of her own novels, the Yorkshire woman that took care of her noticed that the Brontës were one of the remaining topics that still made du Maurier “spark into animation”. As Picardie so well put it, “talking about the Brontës was the best therapy; and in that, Daphen du Maurier remained entirely true to herself.”
You can find Alex blogging at The Sleepless Reader