Friday, October 1, 2010

It's been a while since I finished - and greatly enjoyed - Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns and returned it to the library. In one chapter she lays out evidence to support her hypothesis that Emily Dickinson may have been afflicted with epilepsy, which might be a possible explanation for such persistent biographical enigmas as her extreme reclusiveness and prolonged treatment in Boston/Cambridge for an eye malady. To say that Gordon's theory has sparked controversy would be an understatement. This morning as I read through the thread of fiercely partisan customer reviews, snatches of anglicized phrases - knickers, twist, tempest, teapot - sprang to mind. I hope (in posthumously retrospective empathy for E.D.'s sake) that E.D. didn't suffer from epilepsy, but in reading the customer reviews I found myself siding with the Gordon camp if only because I was turned off by the supercilious tone of some of her detractors.

As I blogged the other day, I was intrigued by recent postings on the Secret Life of E.D. Facebook Page which drew connections between E.D. and the Brontës. I googled Branwell Brontë - Charlotte, Emily, and Anne's brother - and was interested to discover that none other than Daphne du Maurier had found him to be a fascinating, puzzling, and insufficiently understood character, to the point of researching and writing his biography, with the darkly intimating gothic title, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë.

I've started the biography and myself note informal correspondences between the Dickinsons and the Brontës. As a biographer du Maurier imparts her keen novelistic sense, that is, her capacity to fully imagine the interior lives of the players. For example, she imagines the first impressions of Elizabeth Branwell, the Brontë siblings' aunt, who came to stay as her sister, the genii siblings' mother, lay dying. (Elizabeth stayed on after her sister's death, in a situation - publicly at least - of torturously unconsummated relations with her sister's widower; du Maurier writes that within Victorian morés it was impossible for a widower, here Patrick Brontë, to formally marry his deceased wife's sister.) Upon arriving from Cornwall to Yorkshire Elizabeth Branwell encountered a "slapdash Irish household, where each member, down to the baby, was an individual and a curiosity."

I am reminded of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's account of his first meeting with E.D., in a letter to his wife, "I shan't sit up tonight to write you all about E.D. dearest but if you had read Mrs. Stoddard's novels you could understand a house where each member runs his or her own selves..." Two families, distinguished by strong, distinctive personalities.

I was very surprised to come across the following, however, which caused me to pick up my pen - that is, to blog. On page 52 du Maurier writes:
There was still no question of Branwell going to school... Mr. Brontë remained firm. His son's temperament would not permit of public school. Physically, the boy was healthy. His constitution was stronger than that of his sisters... there is something unexplained in the matter of Branwell's schooling. No father, however fond, could have been quite so obstinate without some good reason which he preferred to keep as private as possible. Can the explanation be that Branwell had already begun to show symptoms of the fits which were to torment him, with ever-increasing frequency, towards the end of his life? Epilepsy, in the nineteenth century mind associated with insanity, was a hardly mentionable affliction, one to be disguised at all costs; boarding-school, to such a boy, would be out of the question. Mr. Brontë, blamed by many for indulging his only son, may have kept proud silence about an affliction which he hoped time would cure.
Have I ever mentioned that one of my cats - Claire - is epileptic? No - really. As a young cat she was prone to terrible, frightening seizures. Under a vet's care we treated her for a year or two with controlled prescription phenobarbitol. She seems to have outgrown the disorder, or it's in remission, or somehow otherwise resolved, because as far as we know she hasn't had any seizures for a few years now.

I haven't encountered any domestic felines in du Maurier's biography yet - excepting the Brontë sisters, who are not her subject and who as a result, it seems to me, come off as serenely functional, self-possessed, and sufficient unto themselves, in contrast to their "loose gun" brother, who figuratively kept shooting himself in the foot, for example, turning off the very potential preceptors whom he wished to supplicate. On one occasion he wrote to Wordsworth, enclosing a poem for the elderly eminent poet's comment and consideration. It's a youthful, well-expressed, heartfelt letter - but at the end he slips - "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."

As du Maurier sympathetically notes,
It would not have cost Wordsworth five minutes to acknowledge the letter. One word of encouragement, the poem perhaps unread, and the boy would have faced the year with at least the hope of breaking through into what must have seemed to him an impenetrable world. No answer came.
Daphne du Maurier comments on the portrait Branwell painted - in which, in a self-erasure of sorts, he transformed himself into a pillar - of his three sisters with their inscrutable expressions. In du Maurier's words, "The faded colouring only enhances the curious dream quality of these three faces looking out upon the world from the canvas; gazing, it would seem, upon the infernal world of their own creation rather than the walls of Branwell's studio bedroom."

Apparently Branwell painted more than one portrait of himself with his three muses - er, sisters. Daphne du Maurier writes, "A second group existed once, with Branwell standing between his sisters, holding a gun in his hand."

Was it loaded, I wonder. Ms. Gordon?

Comments left open - for now.


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