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Out of unpromising, dysfunctional beginnings, literary genius; thrice.

Dark QuartetThe Brontë family attracted huge interest at the time of their celebrity, and, indeed, continue to do so now. I suppose it is the combination of wonderful, different writing from the three sisters, and the extreme dysfunction of the family itself, the early death of all the siblings, and the fact that the 4 who reached adulthood – Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were also – unusual, individually as well as collectively, lacking well-developed social skills and acceptable masks.

So I was delighted to discover that Lynne Reid Banks had written a fictionalised biography of the siblings. Lynne Reid Banks had burst into prominence with a kind of female version of the kind of gritty realism writing of the ‘Angry Young Men’ brigade, with her first novel, published in 1960, The L-Shaped Room. I read that book, and the second of the trilogy, some years later, but remember the powerful writing still. The author who is now in her late 80s is still writing.

Dark Quartet was published in 1977, and takes the lives of the four from childhood, to the death of the youngest three – who were in their late twenties (Ann) or very early thirties (Emily, Branwell) A second fictionalised biography, Path to the Silent Country, deals with the remaining 6 years of Charlotte’s life, as the last surviving sibling of that extraordinary family.

Anne, Emily and Charlotte  painted by Branwell 1834 - who removed himself from the original painting

Anne, Emily and Charlotte painted by Branwell 1834 – who removed himself from the original painting

I was thoroughly absorbed by this book, even though it did not ‘explain’ the extraordinary talent of the three novelists, all so different, all within the same family as understandably as another, later fictionalised biography I read a few years ago – Jude Morgan’s A Taste of Sorrow. Morgan incorporated the previous generation – most particularly the Reverend Patrick Brontë. Reid Banks shows him as a slightly weak character. Morgan presenting him as the more autocratic, dictatorial figure I had associated from some much earlier reading – but he delves more into an understandable psychology, which explained the father, and the earlier stifling of his own burning literary yearnings, so that the gestation and development of not one, but three extraordinary writers from within apparently inhibited and unpromising beginnings, became infinitely more plausible

Reid Banks draws a lot of background not only from the lives of all three women, most particularly of course Charlotte, as food for their novels, but also focuses on the ‘juvenile makings’ – Charlotte and Branwell’s Angria and Emily and Anne’s Gondal, and the influence of strong heroes in the Byronic mould from those childhood writings

Signatures of the three Bell 'brothers'

            Signatures of the three Bell ‘brothers’

Initially, reading this, I felt more ‘on the outside’ of the siblings, compared to Morgan, who somehow threw me more fully inside the family unit, and the stifling, secretive environment they lived in, where only individual imagination soared unfettered, but I did very much become engaged. It was only towards the end of the book, as, in rapid succession, Branwell, then Emily, and then Anne, rapidly declined and died, that I felt that the author had rather galloped through her climaxes. And then I paused, because of course, those climaxes of dramatic and devastatingly quick deaths, advancing one upon the other, were what happened. Branwell, dead on the 24th September 1848; Emily, not quite 3 months later on the 19th December, and Anne, a longer time fading and dying but still, gone by the end of May 1849. Charlotte, not to mention her father, barely left with time to recover from one death before another, and then another, came upon them.Lynne Reid Banks

I am definitely minded to read Reid Banks ‘sequel’ to this one, and also, to re-read the Morgan

Dark Quartet Amazon UK
Dark Quartet Amazon USA