He belonged, by blood and by temperament, to the first freckles group from across the water which might beckon him; to the eloquent unpublished poets of many a Dublin side-street, to the painters with canvases untouched […] He belonged to the great company of gifted, wasted Irishmen who, in their mother country, are content to fail and dream, but, transplanted into another, break body and soul” – The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, Daphne du Maurier
Initial Thoughts: The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë… doesn’t this title send delicious shivers up your spine? It does for me. It took me a few months to get my hands on a copy of this book. For the most part it is out of print. I was lucky to have found an old battered copy at my library.
In 1960, Daphne du Maurier (author of Rebecca, The Birds, and Jamaica Inn) published The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, the story of the forgotten Bronte sibling. Branwell Brontë was the brother of Charlotte Brontë (author of Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley, and The Professor), Emily Brontë (author of Wuthering Heights), and Anne Brontë (author of Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Although Branwell showed signs of promise from a young age, he quickly spiraled down an infernal path to self destruction. Daphne du Maurier’s biography of Branwell tells the story of a man with infinite potential who couldn’t overcome the demons haunting his own mind.
A month ago, I watched the BBC biopic on the Brontë sisters, To Walk Invisible. What struck me the most was the stark contrast between Branwell Brontë and his sisters. Unlike his sisters whose ambition motivated them into writing novels to support themselves, Branwell fell into a cycle of addiction. Branwell’s addiction to laudanum and alcohol became a lethal combination which eradicated all potential for his growth as an artist and writer.
When I first heard the title of Daphne du Maurier’s biography on Branwell, I was instantly roped into wanting to read this book. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë has such a perfect ring to it that it could be a novel. Only one problem, it is very dull for the most part. Du Maurier invests in details that are either irrelevant or uninteresting. While I understand that this is a sign of great research, when discussing the railroad company in which Branwell was employed, she loses track of her subject and embarks on a tangent. I appreciate du Maurier’s thoroughness for detail, however, I would have preferred if she kept a closer eye on her subject rather than place a large focus on Branwell’s acquaintances histories.
Another problem that I encountered when reading du Maurier’s biography of Branwell was her speculative guesses throughout the book. She argues that Branwell and Emily closely collaborated on Wuthering Heights. While it is true that the Brontë siblings had collaborated on many writing projects in their youth, it cannot be assumed that some or most of the story belongs to Branwell. There is not enough written evidence that suggests that this occurred. Perhaps du Maurier included this speculation in order to account for the rumours that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights in its entirety. As of today, these rumours have been dispelled as myth.
Also, throughout the book, du Maurier’s attitude towards Branwell shifts from reverence in his writing endeavours to absolute frustraition at Branwell’s lack of growth in his writing. While reading I kept wondering, was he a genius in his own way? Was he a failed genius with just as much potential as his sisters? It appears as if for the most part that du Maurier would argue that Branwell did not possess the same literary gifts as his sisters as seen in his failure to get published. In my opinion after reading the biography, if Branwell had coping skills equivalent to that of his sisters, he would have accomplished many great things. Unlike his sisters, Branwell, as the only son, was kept mostly at home during his youth and sheltered from the world. Branwell also experienced the deaths of his two elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth at a young age which continued to haunt him throughout the rest of his life. In this case, the Brontë sisters may have had an advantage over Branwell as the expectations placed upon them were fundamentally different. Therefore, Branwell’s infernal world was not necessarily his literary world as du Maurier states over and over, rather his infernal world was his substance abuse issues due to a lack of coping skills.
What I did enjoy about this biography is the inclusion of letters from Branwell, his family, friends, and acquaintances. These letters provided a breath of life into an otherwise dead and dull biography. When I read Branwell’s letters, I truly had the sense of who he was as a person. Additionally, through Charlotte’s letters I was able to comprehend how Charlotte felt for her siblings. After their death, she says:
“Waking, I think, sleeping I dream of them – and I cannot recall them as they were in health; still they appear to me in sickness and suffering. Still my nights were worst after the first shock of Branwell’s death. They were terrible then, and the impressions experienced on waking were at that time such as we do not put into language…” Charlotte Brontë, letter to Mr. Williams, June 25th, 1849. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, Daphne du Maurier
Although Charlotte was often worried and frustrated when it came to her brother as seen in her letters, her profound attachment to her siblings only adds to the tragedy surrounding Charlotte’s life.
I would recommend this book to those who are fascinated with the story of Branwell Brontë. The slow pace of this book and the conspiracy theories du Maurier added with little evidence made this book a slow and painful read. Therefore, be warned.
Final Rating: D (satisfactory)
About the Book Title: The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë Author: Daphne du Maurier Series: N/A Pages : 232 Year Published: 1960 Genres: Non-fiction, biography
Until next time,