I know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s works and biographies, but I’ve always been curious about the Bronte that didn’t turn out so well, Branwell, especially when all looked to him to be the success of the family. In this unusually close, literary family, Branwell seems to have suffered the most when it comes to output and that may be because he was watched the most. That’s the conclusion I draw, anyway, from reading du Maurier’s biography.
Branwell was the only boy in a family of six children, and his father Patrick Bronte decided to teach Branwell at home because he found the boy’s temperament too nervous for boarding school. After the death of Patrick’s wife Maria, the girls were farmed out one by one to boarding schools (not elite schools but very poor ones catering to clergymen’s daughters). Patrick Bronte’s two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, both became terribly ill at school and were sent home to Haworth, where they died.
Branwell received a box of toy soldiers, which appear to be the inspiration for the make-believe worlds that the Brontes created: Gondal and Angria. The Bronte sisters were led in this game by Branwell, and they created large casts of characters to populate their imaginary lands, writing stories about them and drawing pictures and maps. This imaginary world was the training ground for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and du Maurier is able to trace back most of the Brontes’ archetypes to Gondal and Angria. All of the Brontes shared their characters with one another, though each individual did have his or her favorites.
Branwell was never quite able to make the artistic jump that his sisters did, but he was not sent out into the world until late while his sisters were forced to go to school much earlier, mixing with outsiders. Also, Branwell had to contend with the male social world, where his peers gathered at pubs, drinking and talking of their exploits. This, according to du Maurier and other sources, was Branwell’s undoing. Once introduced to alcohol and laudanum, he was unable to ever shake them. While his sisters hid behind fake names, Branwell had quite an elevated opinion of his talents. In letter after letter that du Maurier quotes, it seems as if Branwell is trying to piss people off with his bravado. For example, he writes to William Wordsworth about his poetic aspirations, “Surely, in this day, when there is not a writing poet worth a sixpence, the field must be open, if a better man can step forward.”
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is an old book, so sometimes stereotypical claims pop up that I would be surprised to see in biographies nowadays: “Like most people with Irish blood, Branwell knew how to adapt himself to an audience of one person or a dozen.” For the most part, I do think du Maurier’s style is suited to telling the story. She has a dramatic flair that propels the story along, a difficult task, I think, when so much of the Brontes’ world was internal.