The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte by Daphne du Maurier

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.

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Rebecca du Maurier’s Rebecca

I first read this book when I was in college and near the age of the narrator. At that time, I very much identified with the narrator’s wish about wanting to be a woman of thirty-six wearing black velvet and pearls. That older woman represented life experience, confidence, and sophistication–everything that I and the narrator lacked. At the age of twenty, I was one raw, exposed nerve and every life experience, good or bad, jangled me, making me feel unsure of myself and inferior.

Listening to the book now on CD, I recognize what I used to be in the narrator and I also became extremely annoyed by how sensitive she is and how easily she lets others manipulate and manhandle her. I thought I would turn the audiobook back in to the library before finishing it because the narrator’s simpiness bothered me so much, but then I got to the exquisite masquerade ball scene. The building tension and excruciating faux pas that occurs are beautifully done, and I see that narrator’s naivete is necessary to pull this story off.

This really is a novel about women and the evil that women do, especially to each other. Rebecca reminds me very much of a gothic Carrie, and I know that Stephen King has been quite influenced by Du Maurier’s story. In his novel Bag of Bones, the main character thinks of Rebecca often and quotes from the book. I wonder if Rebecca was influencing King back as far as his first novel Carrie, where the penultimate trick on Carrie is her hazing at the high school prom.

There’s the same women triangle–the ugly duckling, the slut, and the unwilling/willing accomplice to the cruel trick (King always said he didn’t trust Sue Snell’s intentions). The ugly ducklings both believe that with their dance finery and a little makeup they can change their situations on the social totem pole, and both of the characters get their comeuppance at the gala event and are made to feel ashamed of how they dressed and made themselves up, thinking they could be somebody different.

Carrie and Rebecca are classic novels–Mean Girls with teeth. I think more horror could be wrung from the subject of female aggression and will try to think of more books and movies on this subject.