Self-portrait of Branwell Bronte
My latest Daphne du Maurier read is rather different from her usual fare. The infernal world of Branwell Bronte is a biography of one of the lesser known members of the Bronte clan. Branwell, middle child and only boy of the seriously talented literary family, shared in Charlotte, Emily and Anne's literary efforts as a youngster. As the children entered adulthood though, Branwell's literary talents stalled, and as his sisters' talents burgeoned Branwell's behaviour became increasingly erratic not to say peculiar (he managed to set fire to his bed) confining him ever further in the claustrophobic world of Haworth Parsonage.
It's a rather strange biography this one. As far as I can gather it is meant to be a straight biography, but there are moments when I felt that Du Maurier's novelistic urgings leapt to the fore. So it reads as a rather strange cross-over book.

The Bronte sisters painted by their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.
Branwell erased himself from the centre of the portrait.
Was Branwell talented? I would think probably not particularly - there is some seriously bad verse scattered throughout the book. Du Maurier however becomes so caught up in her hero's life, that there is even a half-hearted attempt to ascribe Wuthering Heights to him. Branwell comes across as a bit of a wastrel, frustrated in his literary efforts, he also fails to shine as an artist (although his portrait of his sisters remains the most famous image of them). Later he will also lose his job working on the railway.

Du Maurier is eager to absolve him of any blame for his odd behaviour so suggestions of epilepsy or a mental illness are preferable to believing that Branwell may have been in any way culpable for his actions, which appears to be what his sisters believed. It is certain, in spite of Du Maurier's attempts to salve the narrative, that Branwell drank heavily.

Ultimately I found this a very strange book. Had Branwell been anyone but a Bronte sibling it would seem very unlikely that anything would have been written about him. You have to have a degree of sympathy for someone whose life had narrowed down to the small society of a Yorkshire vicarage, frustrated in his hopes for his life, overtaken by his sisters in a society that ironically needed them to prove their masculinity before their novels could be published, while the sole male among the siblings was unable to do what society expected of him.

As a cursory read, and a view of life behind the scenes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, it's fascinating. But some of the research is scanty, the opinions are at times odd and not always clear that they are just the author's. It's very readable, but as a biography not one of the best.


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