Monday 17 June 2024

'Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë'

We were delighted to welcome U.S. professor and novelist Dean de la Motte, who joined us on Saturday 15 June for our annual summer lunch and afterwards gave a talk on his novel Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë. The event, arranged to fit in with Dean’s annual summer stay in France, was well-attended and proved to be a very successful addition to the talks originally scheduled for this year. 

Dean de la Motte teaches French culture and literature at Salve Regina University, Rhode Island. He is a relaxed and engaging speaker and hearing his thoughts on Branwell after a convivial lunch was a good way to wind up our events for the academic year. At one stage his talk was interrupted by a burst of song from people attending a celebration in the cafeteria of the cultural centre where we were gathered. We might have been listening to Branwell carousing with drinking companions in the Black Bull. 

In true nineteenth-century tradition, Oblivion is a three-volume novel spanning 800 pages. In the words of its reviewer in Brontë Studies, ‘If Branwell, in his frequent bouts of self-doubt and depression, believed his life would fade into oblivion, he was clearly wrong. He has been rescued by this three-decker novel … Dean de la Motte, while being faithful to the known facts of Branwell’s life, so skilfully integrates quotes from Branwell’s poems, letters and prose, and those of people known to him, into a personal narrative, that we start to think as Branwell might have thought. Indeed, so real is the experience, that we are Branwell.’ 

Dean de la Motte

Dean told us he’d always wanted to write a novel and found his subject when he read Juliet Barker’s hefty biography of the family The Brontës. He identified with Branwell in his religious questioning and youthful lack of interest in being part of the money-grubbing ‘real world.’ Dean read and re-read Barker, listened to Brontë novels on his commute to work to immerse himself in the siblings’ language and read Branwell’s letters and poetry — though not, as he freely admitted, all his juvenile writings! He also told us about his first visit to Haworth in 2016, at the time when filming was taking place for the biopic To Walk Invisible, and his admiration for the performance of Adam Nagaitis who plays the troubled Brontë brother. 

We learned from Dean about the process of writing the book, for example how he would develop a few lines of one of Branwell’s poems or letters into several pages of the novel, drawing also on the writings of the other siblings. 

He touched on the Branwellian episodes over which there are question marks much pondered by Brontë biographers. Did Branwell father a child with a local girl while tutoring in Broughton-in-Furness, and did he have an affair with his employer’s wife Lydia Robinson at Thorp Green, the household where he held another tutoring job? In Dean’s novel, Branwell does have a love affair with a local girl in Broughton, which might or might not have led to the birth of a child (a local historian has researched this possibility), and does have an affair with Lydia Robinson. 

Helen MacEwan and Dean de la Motte

Dean said he was careful to keep within the bounds of possibility even in invented episodes in the novel. He has the Brontës, together with Patrick’s curate William Weightman, attend a concert given by Liszt in Halifax, which, he said, was unlikely but not impossible. Copious notes at the back of the book give all the sources used. 

After a reading from a chapter in which all four Brontë siblings are together and visit Bolton Abbey, a lively question and answer session closed the event. Contrary to what one might expect, Dean said that if he had to decide which Brontë to spend a lockdown with he would choose not Branwell but Anne, the youngest Brontë sibling, because she was ‘the only one who was grown-up.’ 

 Helen MacEwan


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