Friday, January 12, 2007

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (2006 Edition) - a review

This review is a humble tribute paid by BrontëBlog to Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier was first published in 1960, shortly before Brontë biographer Winifred Gérin published her own biography on Branwell Brontë. It looks like both authors took it as a challenge against the clock and became 'rivals'. However, having read both books, we think they couldn't have been more different. The subject is obviously the same, but the approach is radically different. If you have read either one, we suggest you get hold of the other, since you will end up with two very interesting points of view on Branwell Brontë.

This new edition of the book has the advantage of having a fabulous introduction by Justine Picardie. She enlightens us on the writing process of this biography, through Daphne du Maurier's correspondence and accounts. It was a very arduous process filled with ups and downs, both personal and literary. As Justine Picardie remarks, even if the book had started off as a much-loved project it clearly shows her 'increasing exasperation with Branwell's failure'. Not to mention the disappointment that followed afterwards when it didn't sell as well as had been expected, though it gathered good reviews along the way.


Justine Picardie is now writing a novel which is based on this period of the life of Daphne du Maurier, when she sought help of the then reputed Brontë expert Alex Symington. The novel called Daphne will see the light in May 2008 and by the look of it will be a really interesting read.

Daphne du Maurier had always been fascinated about the Brontës and remained so into old age, when, according to her nurse, 'talking about the Brontës [...] was the best therapy'. Witness to this fascination too is her novel Rebecca, which is a retelling of Jane Eyre with a twist.

Daphne du Maurier was first and foremost a creative writer. The research she carried out for the writing of The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë is truly outstanding nonetheless. She then used all the facts that she had compiled in order to write not a fictional account of Branwell's life, but rather an imaginative version. She doesn't necessarily fill gaps or make up stories, instead she creates atmospheres and moments and fills with detail what we know only in the most concise and punctual ways. Evenings at the pub, daily life at the Parsonage, work as a station clerk are all vividly depicted in a very real - though hardly factual - account of Branwell's life. Du Maurier puts her wonderful style to good use and provides us with moments, rather than with void theories.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë has the charm - or at least we consider it that - of being full of old-fashioned theories. Many discoveries in Brontë facts were yet to come when du Maurier put pen to paper. Du Maurier writes about the Brontë family visiting the 1834 exhibition in Leeds organised by the Northern Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. She writes about what was possibly Branwell's first encounter with the sculptor - and eventually friend - J. B. Leyland, and what Branwell's thoughts and impressions would have been. However, she omits - probably through ignorance - the fact that Charlotte Brontë herself had two paintings in said exhibition.

The same thing applies to her version of events at Thorp Green. While recent research supports Branwell's - in all probability exaggerated - version, du Maurier is very sceptical about it and looks for alternatives. She suggests that he was dismissed through something to do with Edmund Robinson rather than with Lydia Robinson. In spite of going against what now seems the correct and real version of events and sometimes letting her imagination run too far, she brings up many interesting points which still are very valid.

Branwell's brush with masonry is well depicted and explained through research into what masonry was like in the North of England at this time. She conveys, both visually and aptly, what the rites would have been and what Branwell would have known at the Three Graces Lodge in Haworth. Nevertheless, du Maurier sometimes, in our opinion, goes too far giving masonic meanings to Branwell's letters or writings.

It is our opinion that the relation between fact and fiction should always be taken very carefully. However, du Maurier constantly gives us the image that everything that Branwell experienced and everyone he met in real life was instantly added to Angria. Although this might be evidently true to some extent, we consider it somewhat demeaning of his talents and creativity and thus we must beg to differ. On the other hand, we do agree that by the end of his life Branwell was barely capable of discerning what was fact from what was reality, as proved by the time when he was called into the Black Bull by a friend of his and he turned up with a carving knife in his sleeve, dreading it was Satan that he would meet with.

What this biography shows and du Maurier does brilliantly is the many similarities in the sinbligs' writings and style. Even when they were apart both physically and mentally, echoes of their work together and imagined worlds can still be found. This is ably used in order to explain why some of the siblings' works had been wrongly attributed for a long time and where the theory that Branwell had written Wuthering Heights might have come from. In this respect, however, du Maurier gives it some credit and thinks that Branwell and Emily may have collaborated in the first stages of the novel. But then again she also believes other by now discredited stories and accounts. For example, George Searle's hardly believable encounter with Branwell at the Black Bull.

What made us laugh out loud on several occasions is how critical of Branwell's work du Maurier is. She includes many and widely varying fragments of Branwell's literary output, sometimes commending them, sometimes going as far as calling them 'second rate verse' or stating that a seven-year-old could have written something better.

So it is a highly recommended read and now that it has been republished and provided with such an enlightening preface, we would suggest our readers to try and get a copy of it. You won't regret it, and will be grabbed immediately by the incredibly original beginning. This book still feels like a breeze of fresh air in the world of Brontë biography, mainly because of its very original take, where all is fact - as available at the time - yet reads like a novel.

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