Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell is a novel that bleeds the line between novel and historical fact.
It’s written in a style that traces the tragic story of Branwell Brontë—the lesser known brother in the Brontë family—and composites it through the lives of those involved, from golden child and hope of the family to drunken dissolute, all while the politics of family allegiance drift and Branwell falls further into oblivion. This hallucinatory narrative shifts back and forth, switches tense, shows us one reading only to challenge it later, and ultimately unfolds a tale embroidered of speculation, suspicion, and earnest confession, where one is never certain of the absolute truths.
The novel feels invitingly nineteenth century, a lost Jane Eyre, yet contemporary and layered. Like Victorian novels it follows the main character from early childhood until death, but here the voice is many blended perspectives. The result is a dream or hallucination that feels true and harvested from the period. I’ve always had a soft spot for old British novels like Jude the Obscure, Mill on the Floss, or even Moll Flanders. This has the same sense of inevitable doom, with damp decayed surfaces, but the success of Branwell is that it doesn’t mimic these other works. It’s not a copy of style, but something hybrid and new—hewn out of the pieces of something else—halfway between poetry, biopic, and a novel.
One of the strong points in this work is its deliberate blending of autobiography with sheer fancy and imagination. It’s not historical fiction, but a novel cast in someone else’s existence. Early on one feels Martin defining how to approach the work, taking his measure and carving out a space in Branwell’s psyche. It’s a collaboration with history, and it’s its own beast. Martin acknowledges this process early on through Branwell as he discusses the invention of the imaginary worlds he and his sisters share and write about.
They were beginning to construct another space, within which other people could live, have adventures and love. The characters had to be strong enough to be believable, for the reader to feel they’d been brought to life. (10)
Where does his character begin and historical fact end? How do you make a space for the reader to inhabit? It’s an interesting endeavor to create fiction in the midst of historical documents. It’s a blending process that appeals to me in a hybrid no-man’s-land of proprietary vitality. Martin acknowledges the need to carve out a space in someone else’s life, to walk around in their skin, be spontaneous, but most of all to allow that character to come to life. You can almost feel him grapple with it as a writer. Paralleling Martin’s process Branwell notes:
The chronicle they are beginning will be a blending of fact and fiction. They’ll come together to bear down on the way the men were to be moved; and they’ll have to keep track of it, to keep a record. (17)
I appreciate how ambiguity and uncertainty are utilized in Branwell. The novel avoids explicitly letting the reader know the details of what may have happened with the child left in Branwell’s charge, or the possible affair with the boy’s mother, all this leaves the reader caught in the currents of speculation, self-delusion, and hearsay. One can only surmise the ultimate nature of his disgrace. In certain aspects this handling reminds me of the 1961 Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine film The Children’s Hour. In both stories speculation on homosexuality, true or otherwise, lead to the dismissal of educators and the gradual unraveling of their world. Everything is rumors and sinister whispers, and Martin handles this technique effectively in the novel.