This has been a long, long week. A good friend died last Friday (Good Friday), and his funeral was yesterday. And now it's Saturday night, and my husband is away (he's a musician, and has been touring for what feels like forever) and my two teenage sons are out, and I'm eating grapes. Before the grapes, I ate two packets of Maltesers and a Vietnamese takeaway , though not in that order (and I shared the takeaway and the chocolate with my 13 year old son).
Anyway, I feel the need to read, but it's got to be the right thing. Grieving makes me a) hungry; b) sleepless; c) restless; d) in need of a good book.
I can't quite settle to anything (too little sleep, too much anxiety coursing through the veins, along with the sugar) but I've been dipping in and out of The Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte (OUP), meticulously edited by Margaret Smith. And I've just re-read Charlotte's letter to William Smith Williams, who worked for her publisher; it is dated 2nd October 1848, and was therefore written soon after the death of her brother Branwell (he had died on 24th September). I've read this letter several times before, but it struck me again how angry she seems with her brother; her acute sense of disappointment in him:
"It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose; the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his Father's and his sisters' pride and hope in boyhood, but since Manhood, the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career."
Poor Charlotte, though I can't help but feel sorry for Branwell. And no wonder Daphne du Maurier chose to write a biography of Branwell when she was feeling her own, acute sense of failure; and yet also when she was suppressing her rage about her husband's failings, after he had betrayed her by having an affair, then drinking himself to the point of collapse. As for Branwell: well, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol and laudanum, but did he actually have an affair with his employer's wife? That's the story -- the reason given by everyone from Mrs Gaskell onwards as to why Branwell fell apart -- but Du Maurier thought otherwise. She believed it was just another one of his fantasies -- part of the "infernal world" of Angria, the imaginary landscape conjured up by Charlotte and Branwell in childhood, and thereafter, where truth and fiction became indistinguishable. I think that possibly says as much about Du Maurier's own state of mind at the time she was writing her Branwell biography, when her emotional landscape seems to have been as vividly populated by characters from her novels as from her family.
And there's a similar sense of the threading together of a fictional world with the 'real' one in another of Charlotte Bronte's letters, written to Mr Williams the following year, on 1st November 1849, after the death of her sisters, Emily and Anne. Her novel, "Shirley", had just been reviewed in the Daily News, by a critic who was scathing about the depiction of the male characters in the novel ("Not one of its men are genuine. There are no such men") and who then took a swipe at the opening of "Jane Eyre" as 'vulgar' and 'disgusting'. Charlotte wrote in her letter:
"I have just received the 'Daily News'. Let me speak the truth -- when I read it my heart sickened over it. It is not a good review -- it is unutterably false. If 'Shirley' strikes all readers as it has struck that one -- but -- I shall not say what follows.
On the whole I am glad a decidedly bad notice has come first -- a notice whose inexpressible ignorance first stuns and then stirs me. Are there no such men as the Helstones and the Yorkes?
Yes there are.
Is the first chapter disgusting or vulgar?
It is not: it is real.
... Were my Sisters now alive they and I would laugh over this notice -- but they sleep -- they will wake no more for me -- and I am a fool to be so moved by what is not worth a sigh --
It's such a sad letter; and her grief and her rage still ring out from the page...
Apologies for the rambling content of tonight's post. All the chocolate in the house is now eaten, so I'm off to make myself a cup of camomile tea.