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DaphneAn excerpt can be read in The Telegraph, where Justine Picardie herself also wrote a lengthy article on Daphne du Maurier, a good companion to the novel.
by Justine Picardie
Bloomsbury Publishing 2008
Format Hardback 416 pages. 216x135 mm
In 1960 Daphne du Maurier published The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, a biography in which she sought to bring “some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised”. She was referring to the notoriously reprobate brother of the Brontë family, yet her words might equally be applied to the man to whom she dedicated her book: “To J. Alex Symington, compiler and editor of The Shakespeare Head Brontë, whose life-long interest in Patrick Branwell Brontë stimulated my own, and encouraged me to undertake the present study.”
At the time, few of du Maurier's readers would have recognised Symington's name, yet 45 years later, when I was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of her Branwell biography, I was intrigued by the dedication, and longed to know what her connection might be with him.
It was one of those odd, chiming moments of coincidence that spurred me on during the lengthy research for what was to become my own book, for I was already on the trail of Symington, a former librarian and curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, who left his job there in 1930, and slipped into obscurity and obsolescence. Yet his story - and the way it threaded together with du Maurier's - seemed to me to be worth telling, for in the close-knit world of Brontë scholarship there were whispers about murky scandals of forgery and theft involving the shadowy Mr Symington, and his co-editor on The Shakespeare Head Brontë, a president of the Brontë Society named T.J.Wise.
The latter had died in 1937, leaving instructions that his extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts should be sold at a reduced price to the British Library, where it still resides; an act of generosity somewhat marred by the discovery that Wise's treasure trove contained more than 50 forgeries of Victorian authors, including the Brownings and Tennyson, and rumours that Wise had surreptitiously torn out pages of antique books on his visits to the Reading Room of the British Museum in order to sell them to private collectors.
No doubt was cast on the authenticity of his Brontë collection, however, or at least not publicly; and Symington remained apparently loyal to Wise, as did many in the Brontë Society, revering him as a dedicated bibliophile who tracked down a cache of original manuscripts after tracing Charlotte Brontë's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, to a farm in Ireland, and saving the precious contents of a brown-paper parcel from oblivion.
When Daphne du Maurier decided to write her biography of Branwell Brontë - hoping to rescue him from being forever consigned to a footnote in history as the drunken failure of the family - she, too, turned literary detective, by seeking out Symington, who owned a large number of Branwell's manuscripts. And once she found Symington - by then living a reclusive existence on the outskirts of Leeds, in a house filled with hundreds of boxes and overflowing files of Brontë papers and relics - he gave her a series of enticing clues to follow, suggesting in letters to her that Charlotte's signature had been forged on many of Branwell's youthful manuscripts, and that some of Branwell's most accomplished poems had been wilfully misattributed to Emily, so that they could be sold for a far higher price to collectors who were interested only in the famous sisters rather than their disappointing brother.
Like du Maurier, I became obsessed by these clues, and embarked on a paper chase to discover the rest of her correspondence with Symington, and a quantity of his extensive papers and manuscripts, squirreled away in various archives, scattered from West Yorkshire to New Jersey. Most tantalising of all the discoveries was a file of documents at the Brontë Parsonage that had been hidden there for years, which reveals, among other things, that Symington was the last person to handle an astonishingly rare notebook of Emily Brontë's handwritten poems - a Holy Grail among Brontë relics - that subsequently disappeared.
I have chosen to tell this quest as a novel, in part inspired by du Maurier's own writing, for her fiction contains elements of truth, and her non-fiction - including the Branwell Brontë biography - reads like a novel. But the true story - if one can disentangle the truth from the tangled web of deceits spun by Symington and Wise - is as thrilling as any of du Maurier's fictional plots.
Symington never openly accused Wise of being the forger of Charlotte Brontë's signature, though he did give du Maurier specific references about where to find the suspicious signatures (references that I have also included in my novel, should anyone wish to take this further and prove his allegations to be true). The closest he came to an explicit accusation was to describe Wise in a letter to du Maurier as being “in the fog and mist surrounding the exposure of his forgeries in other fields” during the period when they were collaborating as editors. In the same letter he named Wise as being “responsible for the break-up of the minutely written stories”; by which he meant the beautifully illustrated little books written by the Brontë children, chronicling their imaginary landscapes of Angria and Gondal.
Some of these survive - at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the British Library - yet others were separated and sold as fragments by Wise to wealthy amateur enthusiasts in this country and America, for whom Branwell had no appeal, which would also explain why Wise might have applied his skills as a forger to writing Charlotte's signature on her brother's manuscripts. Symington, however, was a dogged champion of Branwell's talent, driven in part by a belief that if only he might disinter the forgotten Brontë brother from obscurity he would also finally prove himself to the world as an eminent scholar.
It was this intense desire to rehabilitate Branwell that was to be the catalyst of Symington's downfall and disgrace, for in 1930 he was accused of stealing various manuscripts from the Brontë Parsonage Museum, along with a set of keys for the library, while he was still working there as curator. He lost his job, yet did not return the manuscripts, nor the keys; curiously, the threat of legal action against him was eventually dropped by his employers at the parsonage. It remains unclear whether they wished to avoid unwelcome publicity, or if he was protected by virtue of his Freemasonry, which he shared with a number of other leading members of the Brontë Society at the time.
Symington's enforced exile from the parsonage did not rid him of his obsession and he devoted himself to the lifelong task of attempting to prove that several of Branwell's manuscripts that he had taken into his own possession had been deliberately misattributed by Wise to Charlotte or Emily. Although he was hampered in his endeavours by the fact that he was (literally) handling stolen goods, he was also right in his suspicions of wrongdoing, for there is no doubt that at least one of Branwell's poems (The Heart Which Cannot Know Another) was passed off as Emily's, before being sold by Wise to a private collector.
By the time Daphne du Maurier sought him out, nearly three decades later, the scandal surrounding Symington had been shrouded from view, and she had no reason to be suspicious of him, or the origins of his collection of Brontë manuscripts. She therefore wrote to him in his capacity as an authority on Branwell, asking for his help in her research; and he was flattered by her attention, after spending so many years in obscurity. Clearly, she was also rich and famous, the bestselling author of Rebecca, unlike Symington, who was by then living in penury. Before long he offered to sell her various manuscripts from his collection, including several poems by Branwell. He also paid a discreet return visit to the parsonage to gather some more material for her research.
The poems vary in quality - from a melancholy dirge called Morley Hall to a far more accomplished sonnet, Peaceful Death and Happy Life, which was du Maurier's favourite, and, to her mind, just as good as Charlotte Brontë's poetry. As to the provenance of these manuscripts - or Symington's right to sell them - well, I don't want to spoil the ending of my book, which is itself something of a detective story.
But what is clear is this: du Maurier bought a number of rare manuscripts from Symington, without knowing of their dubious origins, and after her Branwell biography was published in 1960 she donated several, but not all, to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The whereabouts of others remain a mystery, but I am certain they are still waiting to be found, locked away in an attic or the dark corners of a cupboard; and they may well include some of the most priceless Brontë manuscripts that vanished from the archives at the very same time as the elusive Mr Symington...
A review of Daphne will appear on BrontëBlog soon too (and who knows if something else Daphne-related?) and in the future we'll follow with interest the development of the novel into film.