02 February 2008

Book Review: The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Who really wrote Wuthering Heights?

The popular belief of course is that Emily Bronte wrote this 19th century classic but if one scratches the surface, one will discover there’s an altogether different story here.

While the three Bronte sisters, Emily, Anne and Charlott met with great literary success with Wuthering Heigths, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, biographers suggest that it was actually their genius brother Branwell Bronte who was behind it all.
So why did he alone perish in anonymity? It’s a sad story of a man whose fertile mind and high flights of fancy were never allowed to take wings in the real world. As a child, Branwell was the leader among his sisters. If he cried, they cried. He laughed, they laughed. They followed him everywhere; delighted by the fantastical characters he created and awed by his brilliance. Branwell’s ‘infernal’ world was full of kings, queens, ghosts and worriers. He liked blood and gore in his stories and almost convinced himself and his sisters that such a world actually existed.

Many believe that Heathcliff was his own creation, which Emily developed further. One can’t deny that Emily wrote Wuthering Heigths but the ideas, characters and inspiration behind the story was indeed Branwell’s.
Till the age of 19, hopes were still riding very high on this whiz kid. Everyone knew that great things awaited him and Branwell was almost certain to make a great name for himself. This is one of the reasons why their aunt didn’t deem it necessary to leave any money for him in her death will. So confident was she of her nephew’s prospects that she divided her money among the three girls instead. Ironically, he needed the money most at a later stage.

Branwell was rejected at a premium painting school that came as a shock. After that, there were a series of disappointments. Wordsworth to whom he sent a selection of his poems for his opinion gave him no reply. Several publishers rejected his work and slowly disappointment started to set in. He was 23 and nothing was working for him still. Not that the young man was not trying but there was no reassurance that was coming forth from the literary world.
In his late twenties, a slow resignation started to creep into his poems. A particularly poignant line was
‘I lost the race I never ran’

The sisters were tiring of him, though they did bail him out at several points. They were sympathetic but couldn’t understand why he was living the life of a wastrel.
Charlott, who published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, met with great success. Emily’s Wuthering Heights got some critical acclaim but overall, it was considered a far-fetched, weird sort of story when it was first published. Later of course, it won its rightful place in literary history.
The sisters preferred not to tell their brother about the success of Jane Eyre. As Charlotte said later after his death, “We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent and talents misapplied. Now he will never knew…”

But the truth was different. Branwell knew about these novels. How could he not? Especially when most of it consisted of his own thoughts and ideas?
He too preferred to stay quiet, not letting them draw any happiness from the fact that he already knew it.
At 31, he was still languishing after the failures of a couple of jobs.
He said in one of his letters, “I know I also had stuff enough in me to make popular stories, but the failure of the Academy plan ruined me. I was felled, like a tree in the forest, by a sudden and strong wind, to rise no more. I simply degraded me in my own eyes and broke my heart,” --- source Daphine du Mauriers’ biography on Branwell.

A few days later, he died suddenly.

Many feel Branwell’s trouble started when he couldn’t differentiate between childhood fantasy and adulthood but personally I think fate too acted brutally towards this affectionate, sensitive and brilliant man.

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