The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë

Branwell's self-portrait

Branwell's self-portrait

I wasn’t planning to spend money on my first visit to A Book Barn in Clovis, California, but I always check the biography section in used-book stores for works on Charlotte Brontë. In the store’s wondrous upper deck, I discovered a yellowed paperback about Charlotte's brother. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë was written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. A biography of a melodramatic literary personage by a writer of melodramatic literature? Yes, please.

This tiny Cardinal Edition was published in the early 1960s and originally cost 60¢. It begins like this:

He died on Sunday morning, the 24th of September, 1848. He was thirty-one years old. He died in the room which he had shared with his father for so long, and in which, as a little boy, he had awakened to find the moon shining through the curtainless windows and his father upon his knees, praying. The room, for too many months now, had been part refuge and part prison-cell. It had been refuge from the accusing or indifferent eyes of his sisters . . .

This is how it goes from beginning to end, a paean to Branwell, the hapless genius. Du Maurier wasn’t the best of scholars. Most of this biography is an imaginative interpretation of the research that was current nearly sixty years ago, with the added use of amateur psychology. Du Maurier seemed to see herself as Branwell’s defender, not just his biographer. Sometimes I found her ideas laughable. But in the last chapter, her passionate discussion of his tragic death brought tears to my eyes. When you read a Brontë biography, that’s what you’re there for.

The Brontës will continue to be of interest to writers for centuries to come—four siblings from an educated but non-artistic family in a backwater town, subject to the same traumas in early childhood, whose genius emerged fantastically before they were teenagers. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne combined brilliant imaginations with the literary skills of little prodigies. But all experienced different amounts of success in adulthood before succumbing to early deaths. Branwell, in fact, achieved no success at all, and gradually his abilities declined amidst illness and substance abuse.

I don’t much like Branwell, even after reading du Maurier’s attempt to rehabilitate him, but his sisters adored him, and after Anne died Charlotte wrote, “Still my nights were worse after the first shock of Branwell’s death.” Perhaps the most enduring element of the Brontë story is the siblings’ relationships with each other, relationships in which their remarkable abilities began and ended. In this biography, a storyteller tells that story.