I had been saving Dark Quartet for a long time, waiting for Brooding about the Brontës. Having read and adored Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow a good few years ago, I had high hopes of a similarly interesting piece of biographical literary fiction. As a long term-fan of Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series as well as The L-Shaped Room, I was also interested to explore her work further. In her foreword, Banks explains that she had not ‘let [her] imagination run riot’ but rather kept it ‘harnessed to the truth’. Surely, the Brontë story would be in safe hands?
Banks takes up the reins of the story just at the point before eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë set off for Cowan Bridge. As she acknowledged herself, Banks has clearly been an avid reader of Mrs Gaskell and given that the book was published in 1977, it has dated a little. The early chapters feel like a tick-box of Brontë mythology with the only major departure being that Banks’ version of Patrick Brontë is a weak and absent father rather than a domineering one.
We follow the rest of the girls to Cowan Bridge, see Maria and Elizabeth sicken and die under the ghastly regime of Carus Wilson and then the surviving sisters return home. Branwell is early introduced as a problem ‘almost demonic’ child, with Daphne du Maurier’s Infernal World of Branwell Brontë an obvious and heavy influence on how Banks imagined him. It surprises me how many people appear to have read Dark Quartet and Infernal World and taken it as fact that Branwell was epileptic and an atheist – there is not much in the way of evidence for either.
Branwell steals the show from a lot of Dark Quartet, from his boyhood refusing to look upon his dead sister in her casket and wandering around shrieking about being the clever one to his adolescence where Banks has him retreat further and further into the persona of Angrian avatar Northangerland. I am always suspicious of versions of the story which place the spotlight on Branwell and Banks is clearly fascinated. Seduced by du Maurier’s vision of him, Banks recounts how Branwell lost all his money during a trip to London to join the Royal Academy, despite evidence suggesting that Branwell never actually applied or visited the capital. The stories about him grow increasingly lurid, culminating in a disturbing episode where Banks describes in detached tones that Branwell is apparently gang-raped by a group of Irish labourers. At this point, I nearly gave up on the book. Banks had promised that she was not going to let her imagination run away with her – I felt let down.
It’s hardly surprising from there that Banks subscribes to the idea that Branwell was dismissed from his tutor post at Thorp Green less for having an affair with his employer’s wife as for making advances towards his employer’s son. This is full-on du Maurier territory and I again have to remind myself that Dark Quartet was published twenty years before Juliet Barker’s biography established the timeline around Branwell’s dismissal and that he was not left alone with his young charge at any point. Barker also pointed out that there were no Irish labourers in the area at the time that Branwell was a railway clerk, so the gang rape is also a product of Banks’ own over-heated imagination egged on by du Maurier’s suggestion. I found it distasteful to make up a non-existent trauma to excuse Branwell’s selfish behaviour but given how far Banks had already exaggerated his conduct, perhaps I should not have been surprised.
Despite all this, the biggest reason why I just could not take to Dark Quartet was that the the characterisation never seemed to take. I was never able to lose sight of this being Lynne Reid Banks’ description of each member of the Brontë family rather than them seeming truly alive of the page. Aunt Branwell is an early example, with Banks recounting how she ‘did not know how to talk to God. She spoke to him in respectful formulas memorised from authorised books of devotion.’ Aunt Branwell is one of the more shadowy figures within the family with the most room for imaginative scope and still Banks tells, tells, tells and never allows the character to show us anything. Given that this is biographical fiction rather than pure biography, this really interrupts the flow of the story. Phrases like ‘Emily’s relations with Branwell at this time were slightly distanced by their separate life-experiences and current preoccupations’ hardly make the two of them come alive once more.
For all that, there were moments in Dark Quartet that hint at what it might have been. Banks’ version of Anne’s relationship with William Weightman is more credible in that she keeps it to a lost potential rather than whipping it up into Anne’s driving force as other writers have done. The agony of Patrick’s guilt after the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth was another interesting moment. Perhaps fittingly, the must successful moment of the novel comes in the final pages. As Charlotte returns from Scarborough after Anne’s death, I was touched by her quiet determination to seek solace in her writing as a ‘Godsent remedy’ for her grief. The way Banks imagined the iron within Charlotte that refused to buckle reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara in the closing pages of Gone With The Wind. She will not think of the past or the future, only focus on the moment and putting one foot in front of the other.
Dark Quartet speaks in the tone of a biographer but uses the methods of a novelist. Reading it in tandem with Infernal World perhaps made me too attuned to the close relationship between the two books and Banks has taken a lot of du Maurier’s wilder speculations as fact. Reaching the end, I wanted more than anything to turn back and reread Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow, I appreciated all over again how Morgan’s use of silences said so much while Banks’ paragraphs upon paragraphs left so little mark. I have a suspicion that Dark Quartet might have suited me better had I not read it in the midst of a flurry of biographies but despite my best efforts towards enthusiasm, I felt only disappointment.
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Published by Penguin Books on 1986
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