Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Forgotten Book about the Forgotten Bronte

Obsessions aren't part of my better nature.  They take up time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, nonetheless, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I want to know all there is about it.  It's the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes the search yields obscure treasures.

That's what makes me a fan of Daphne DuMaurier, a writer who understood the nature of obsession. Two of her most famous works, Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel are about the mania of being haunted by one subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the author had a literary obsession of her own, one that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or women's history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strive to support themselves as writers, although the world of publishing is pretty much closed to women at that time. The women submit first poems and then novels under male pseudonyms. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  It's a compelling success story but Ms. Du Maurier wanted to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building and should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education, he should have, at least, been able to support himself financially. DuMaurier's research proves that the gifts Branwell had were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, a distaste for any form of sustained discipline, and an addiction to alcohol. Still, he's an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier's mind.

After publication, it seemed that failure must be contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well.  Before the Internet and e-books were available, it was probably the least likely Du Maurier work to be read.  But, like the subject, if this biography is a failure, it's an interesting failure about a man with a resourceful, uncontrollable mind.  In other words, an obsessive's obsessive.