Sanctuary by Robert Edric

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Sanctuary by Robert Edric

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Branwell Brontë narrates his final year of life, when alcoholism, mental illness and a sense of disgrace hounded him to despair.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857522870

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Everyone knows Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Not many know that this famous trio of literary sisters also had a brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë, born the year after Charlotte and a year before Emily. Like his sisters, he had literary ambitions: he wrote juvenile stories, poems and translations from the Greek; he also trained as a painter (you have most likely seen his famous painting of his sisters). Again like his sisters, however, he was destined to die young.

Here Edric imagines the last months of Branwell's life, January–September 1848, a time just as misspent as the rest of his short life. Haworth Parsonage is the title sanctuary, but even in this family haven Branwell is not free from criticism about how he has lived. He has been an assistant railway clerk, a job others think is beneath him. Two years prior came his worst disgrace: an ill-fated affair with Lydia Robinson, for whose children he was a live-in tutor. Now he has amassed heavy bills at all the local pubs, and debt collectors are starting to come calling.

Patriarch Patrick Brontë is the only character who seems to have much compassion for Branwell as he veers between drunken benders and lewd conversations. 'Charlotte says we should believe one word in ten of what [Branwell] says, and believe exactly the opposite of half of the remaining,' Anne laughs – and the worst thing about it is that she is speaking about him in the third person while he is in the room.

It's no wonder Branwell thinks he's a family joke. Yet his narration drips with a self-pity that is hard to stomach: 'I am smothered at home, and beyond those walls I am only pitied and mocked'; 'my every venture into the world leaves me with yet another bruise, yet another insult to bear.' Edric fails to foster sympathy for this insufferable character. The closest he comes to that aim is when he invokes Biblical images such as the lost sheep: 'I was still that wandering sheep, forever drawing closer to the fold, forever wandering back out into the wilderness.' A scene when Branwell wakes up, hungover, in a muddy field clearly echoes the Prodigal Son parable.

Very little actually happens in the novel. Sometimes this is a virtue in a book; other times it leads to boredom. For me it was a case of the latter. Industrialization brings a sense of impending apocalypse to their sleepy village, and death is never far away, given that the Brontës live beside a graveyard and Anne and Emily are ill with what looks like consumption. It is a common observation that the Yorkshire landscape influenced the Brontës' fiction, so it's no great revelation to hear Branwell say, 'We were as forged and formed by these elements as the hawthorns struggling to grow upright on the moors.' Haworth is an evocative setting, but perhaps I was waiting for some grand set piece worthy of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Towards the end Branwell suffered from seizures as well as hangovers; he may have inherited epilepsy from his Irish ancestors. His ultimate cause of death, however, was likely tuberculosis, which also killed Emily just two months later – though some say she died of a broken heart. All four Brontë siblings were dead by 1855, survived only by their elderly father.

I have a lifelong love of the Victorians, so though it was a pleasure to spend time with the Brontës, I don't necessarily feel I learned anything about them from this novel, or had their lives brought into full colour. Charlotte, Emily and Anne are little more than critical voices here; none of them has a distinctive personality. Even their publications (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey all appeared, under pseudonyms, in 1847) are just background information.

Worse, I felt I never came to understand Branwell's inner life, beneath the decadence and all that feeling sorry for himself. There was certainly a wonderful story to be told here, but I think it would take a historical fiction master like Hilary Mantel to tell it properly. Her Wolf Hall series manages to give such a rich, intimate portrait of Thomas Cromwell, despite being narrated in the third person.

Nevertheless, Sanctuary has whetted my appetite to learn more about Branwell. I think I'll start with The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, the 1961 biography by Daphne du Maurier (Daphne by Justine Picardie touches on its composition). For a Brontë lover, though, there can be nothing quite like going back to the original novels; I've never read anything by Anne, so perhaps The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is another place to begin.

Further reading suggestion: The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan is a better novel about the Brontës, and we preferred Salvage by Robert Edric, a work of speculative fiction. For the story of another lesser-known Brontë, try Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green.

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