Miss Branwell's Companion is a humble tale of a humble personage. So humble indeed the main character is that - Rebecca-like - we never find out her name.
The book purports to be an account of her life from a grandmother to her granddaughter Ella. Thus, it is written in a casual style. However, we don't know whether the abundant and distracting spelling mistakes are supposed to be there for that very same reason or whether they simply highlight the lack of an editor, the book having been privately published by Angela Crow herself. Whatever the case, there are mistakes (1883 for 1783, the year in which Maria Branwell was born, words written down twice consecutively, etc.) which could have been avoided had a careful revision been carried out. Indeed, the book seems to have been written in a hurry, which is a shame because the story would have certainly benefited from a calmer composition.
The story itself is not bad. The main character is part of a very large family and she starts to work for the Branwell family very young, becoming a favourite of the Branwell sisters. Eventually, she travels with Elizabeth Branwell to visit her sister Maria, who is now married to Patrick Brontë and settled in Yorkshire with her growing family. There her life will change and she will stay in Yorkshire, keeping in touch with Maria Brontë up until her death.
The reader has a chance to find out about life in the Penzance area at the beginning of the 19th century, both from the perspective of the main character's family and both from the perspective of the Branwell family.The book shows how prominent the Branwells were in the area. Their businesses were highly varied and prosperous and this, together with their family connections, made them a very important family in the district.
Actually, the book goes to show how little we know of the Branwells and how little their connections to the Brontës have been explored(1). They sound like a family worth knowing, famous writers as their relatives or not, and they seem to have lived in interesting times in an interesting place.
Angela Crow does seem to have put a lot of effort in researching the Branwell as well as the social background for the book. These days writers seem to flee from non-fiction somehow and they publish the results of their painstakingly carried-out research in a fictional form, perhaps hoping the readers will 'swallow the pill' more easily. We know readable, entertaining non-fiction is possible and we miss the bits of the research that have surely been sacrificed in order to create a story already bursting at the seams with data, and still many details left out of it. This is sometimes the case with Miss Branwell's Companion. The businesses on a given street will be duly listed and while this is interesting in a way, all these details feel extraneous to the rest of the story. Indeed, Angela Crow sometimes is so knowledgeable about what she's writing about that she forgets the reader won't be, and the family ties and connections which to her are so evident, are quite puzzling to the reader, who can never know for sure who's who and how they are related or why the name would ring a bell. A comprehensive family tree of the Branwell family would have been immensely useful and not a bad thing to include, given that they are hardly ever featured in Brontë biographies, and when they are, they are cropped to include only the well-known Branwells. The siblings of Maria and Elizabeth who didn't survive infancy are hardly ever mentioned, for instance.
Angela Crow knows all this perfectly well. She's also familiar with the social and geographical background. Perhaps we can hope for a nice article - if not a whole book - putting all this together for once and for all.
The book includes several plates too. One of them - what looks like a miniature - is supposed to be Maria Brontë, and it's different from the one portrait of her usually included in biographies and which Charlotte Brontë later copied beautifying her mother. We would have liked to read more about this portrait, and whether it is genuine. The book also includes a picture of Gertrude Ada and Maud Branwell, whom we would have liked to know more about, or at least place in the Branwell family, given that they are never even mentioned in the book.
Miss Branwell's Companion's 82 pages read fast and are never tedious. But they leave the Brontëite wanting to find out more about the Branwell family. Yet sadly, the reader has very few books to turn to.
(1) Exceptions to this are: Newbold, Margaret,'The Branwell Saga', Brontë Studies, Vol. 27, March 2002 or Hill, Esther and Kerrow, The Penzance Home of Maria Brontë (Penzance, 1996).