Friday, February 03, 2012

Mai più in oscurità - A Review

We are very grateful to the author for sending us a review copy of this book.

Mai Più in Oscurità
Maddalena De Leo
Editore: Photocity Edizioni
ISBN  978-88-6682-044-4 
(in Italian)
The figure of Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontës, plays a tangential role in the history of the Brontës themselves. Her early death when Charlotte was five years old (Anne was one year old) marked their lives not exactly because they remembered it much (it is well known that Branwell or Charlotte mourned the death of their eldest sister Maria much more) but because her absence in their lives was in some way canalised through their literature: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Wuthering Heights... all contain motherless characters.

But the story of how the wealthy daughter of the bourgeoisie of Cornwall became the wife of an Irish parson in Yorkshire and eventually the mother of the most famous sisters in English literature is itself an engaging story. It contains adventure, passionate romance, humour, a shipwreck and a very moving and sad ending. These are the materials on which Hollywood was able to build high melodrama. Imagine what Douglas Sirk could have done with a similar story.

Maddalena De Leo is no Douglas Sirk, as a matter of fact her approach to the story of Maria Branwell is more along the lines of the Ettore Scola of  Le Bal or La Famiglia. Following the story from the perspective not of a ball room or a Roman house, but from Maria's annotations in a personal diary updated once a year (with a few exceptions) since she turned twenty (1803) until her death. In order to immerse the narrative in a wider scope and to have the chance to write an epilogue the author of this novel reconfigures the diary (which in a way can be read as a deconstructed Bildungsroman), as a Charlotte Brontë creation after reading for the first time the love letters that Maria sent to Patrick and which so nicely and eloquently describe the passionate nature of her dead mother. It's an understandable decision but we are not convinced that the diary entries of Maria Brontë are consistent with the style of a Charlotte Brontë who had already published Jane Eyre when the famous six love letters were given to her by her own father(1).

Nevertheless, Maddalena De Leo makes a great job creating a complex character who evolves through the narrative from the youthful, naïve and happy girl in a benign country such as Cornwall to wife and mother-of-six of a quite different world, the hard and demanding Yorkshire. If the first entries seem a bit monotonous or less interesting, that's because they were monotonous and uneventful years. Nevertheless, horror vacui compels the author to introduce all kinds of contextualisations: local descriptions, a bit of local history and superstitions.

Of all the elements in the book, this is the one that works the worst. The use (and abuse) of the superstions and folklore legends of  the Cornish area. This is certainly demonstrative of the huge body of research made by the author but its abuse is a drawback normally associated with debutant writers(2), too eager to give too much information. But, at its best (see for instance all the Thornton entries) the book is able to recreate the atmosphere of a particularly happy time in the Brontë family: children laughing, walks, tea time with the Firths or the Morgans, and Patrick working on improving the local church. Maddalena de Leo argues that this was the happiest time in Maria's lifetime, just before the relative seclusion of Haworth and the terrible illness that would eventually take her life(3). But the author is also able to give glimpses of Maria complaining about Patrick's scarce involvement in the care of the children or a funny description of her husband being "impetuoso como un toro" when she announces she is pregnant once again.

The book(4) includes the first complete Italian translation of the six lovely letters between Maria and Patrick that are also the macguffin of this unambitious, nice and ultimately satisfactory attempt to bring light to the life of the mother of the Brontës(5).

Notes:
(1) The problem might also lie in how Charlotte Brontë could sound in Italian. Italian is not our mother tongue and we may be missing some of the innuendos. We know that the author is preparing an English version of the novel and the question of style will be clearer then.
(2) Maddalena De Leo is also the author of various translations of Brontë juvenilia and poetry and a couple of young adult novels: La Risposta di Afsin and Una'@amica dal passato but this is her fist 'standard' novel.
(3) Professor De Leo doesn't put much of an emphasis on those final months when Maria Brontë suffered so much. Just a brief entry quoting that well-known desperate and deeply moving cry: "Oh, my children. Oh, God, my poor children." which was also the opening line of Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow.
(4) A mention should be made to the (at best) pedestrian Photocity edition. The line spacing is excessive and the back cover blurb and spine use a font so small that they are virtually illegible.
(5) Which complements Angela Crow's Miss Branwell's Companion which followed the life of Maria's sister and eventual 'sucessor' in the Brontë household: Elizabeth Branwell. Apparently, Angela Crow has also a written a novel about Maria Branwell, Mrs Brontë, but it hasn't been released yet, as far as we know.

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