I was surprised to see that my library had this (non fiction) book among the translated novels of Daphne du Maurier (I rather think it’s a mistake as far as classification goes, but a chance for me since I wouldn’t have found it otherwise). As it totally fitted my goal to read more by Du Maurier and more non-fiction (two birds one stone yada yada), I decided to read it, thinking that I already knew a lot on Branwell Brontë. Or did I?
My understanding of Branwell Brontë came from Charlotte Bronte’s biography by Elizabeth Gaskell (read about 15 years ago, and probably skipped a lot) and from a lot of BBC documentaries and movies. I saw him as a useless alcoholic and madman next to his famous sisters, and that they spent way too much money, time and mental energy on him. Now, after reading Du Maurier’s biography, my understanding is a little more nuanced. I never took the time to see the world from his perspective. The brother and the sisters actually all started off in the same creative atmosphere, and they diverged due to… what? Bad luck or lack of stamina? To be pampered and cherished as a precocious genius during childhood, and then failing over and over at any job he could get, and then see his sisters succeed next to him? (Literally next, as they all worked and lived together in a rather small parsonage). No wonder he drank!
Patrick Brontë, the father, chose to not send Branwell to school, because he was too sensitive. That decision seems to have had a disproportionate impact on his whole life, because as much as it protected Branwell and enabled his imagination to run wild, it also cut him from the realities of the world. Yet he was expected as a boy, and a man, to make a living for himself, contrary to his sisters who were destined to be dependent, and therefore inherited money from their aunt.
The irony is that the sisters were better equipped to work and earn a living than he was. In the book we feel (and share) Du Maurier’s frustration at Branwell’s failures and immature behaviors, and then lying his way back to Haworth. It’s like he never grew up, and he seemed to hate this too. It’s not fiction, so I won’t spoil anything in writing about the false affair that Branwell pretended to have had with the wife of his one-time employer. I was really shocked that Branwell’s sisters really believed this and he probably believed his own lies too. He died at age 31, followed very soon by his closest sister Emily, then Anne.
After finishing this book, I’d love to rewatch the historical movie To Walk Invisible, and pay more attention to the brother’s character.