For her latest fiction, Justine Picardie became a literary detective among the true stories at the home of the Brontës. Yvette Huddleston talked to her.
When writer Justine Picardie came across a literary mystery a few years ago, she felt compelled to try to solve it. It led to her latest novel, which is about Daphne du Maurier, one of the world's great literary successes, and her obsession with Branwell Bront, one of its great failures.
"I have always been a great admirer of Daphne du Maurier," she explains. "I first read Rebecca when I was about 12 years old and, like a lot of girls, I read it just before Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I loved all of them, but I re-read Rebecca, then I read my way through the rest of
du Maurier's books and I found them completely involving and wonderful."
Studying English at Cambridge, her teachers made it clear that du Maurier had no standing in academe.
"At that time, even the Bronts were only just about seen as respectable. I remember one of my university tutors – almost certainly a man – telling me that the Bronts were just 19th-century Mills and Boon."
But du Maurier remained part of her undergraduate reading – although she "knew not to mention her" – and she has been a devoted fan ever since. During the writing of another book, My Mother's Wedding Dress, Picardie found herself intrigued by a story linking du Maurier and the Bronts. "I was researching the Bront connection with our family – a ring my mother had was supposed to have belonged to Charlotte Bront at one time – so I was spending a lot of time at the Bront Parsonage.
"I got to know Juliet Barker, who wrote a wonderful biography of the Bronts, and we became friends. I was with her one evening and I said to her 'this name JA Symington comes up a lot in the papers I've been looking through,' and her response was really interesting..." Barker told Picardie that while she had been researching her own book, there were certain files that she had not been allowed to read, particularly those relating to Symington.
He was a former curator and librarian at the Bront Parsonage but had left his post in 1930 amid accusations that he had stolen manuscripts from the museum, along with a set of library keys. Although Symington lost his job, he never returned the manuscripts or the keys, and the Bront Society took no further action against him.
Picardie says that it remains unclear whether the society wanted to avoid a scandal or whether Symington's membership of the masons protected him in some way. What is known, however, is that Symington subsequently fell into obscurity, his reputation further tarnished by his association with TJ Wise, a former president of the Bront Society.
Wise's name is also associated with controversy. After his death, in 1937, it was revealed that a large proportion of the extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts he had bequeathed to the British Library were forgeries.
Picardie was fascinated by this tale. A further coincidence persuaded her to turn literary detective. "At about the same time, Virago were printing new editions of Daphne du Maurier's books and I was approached to write a foreword to a reissue of a little-known work of hers – a biography of Branwell Bront."
She was sent an old copy of the book, The Infernal World of Branwell Bront, and was intrigued. "The book was dedicated to Symington," she says. "And that was it – I was hooked."
Du Maurier's dedication states that Symington's "life-long interest in Patrick Branwell Bront stimulated my own, and encouraged me to undertake the present study". Picardie's imagination was piqued. Was Symington a fraud, or a dedicated Bront scholar whose immersion in his subject had led him to make misguided decisions?
In the late 1950s, du Maurier began a lengthy correspondence with Symington. Picardie knew that du Maurier's own life at this time was quite complicated.
"Her marriage was going through a difficult patch. Her husband, Tommy, had been having an affair and had had some kind of a breakdown as a result. I wondered, for example, whether Daphne might have fallen in love with Symington..."
These were the kind of questions that led Picardie to begin her own book about du Maurier's passion to discover the truth about Branwell and to bring his true worth to public attention.
In childhood and adolescence, Branwell seemed to promise much. In 1840, he took a job on the railways, earning 75 a year as assistant-clerk-in-charge at Sowerby Bridge station. But his drinking and poor accounting got him sacked within a couple of years. Taken on as a tutor to the Robinson family, this also ended badly after his affair with his employer's wife was discovered.
"Daphne du Maurier was a best-seller and a great success, but she herself believed that because of this, she was never forgiven by the critics. I think Daphne was drawn to Branwell because there is something very attractive about rescuing a failure and rehabilitating somebody's reputation. Somehow, you are redeemed yourself.
"A myth has grown around the Bronts that is as powerful and intriguing as their books. Whether or not it's true doesn't matter. The power of that mythic quality to their lives – up on the moors, the terrible school, the death of their mother and older sisters – continues to have an enormous hold over us."
Branwell, in particular, as the one failure in a creative family, draws people in. "He became part of the Bront myth. A lot of it is true, however – he was an alcoholic and a laudanum addict and he didn't display any of his sisters' capacity for sustained creativity." Many Bront scholars believe, as Symington did, that Branwell wrote a great novel – it has just not been found yet. Some even think he wrote Wuthering Heights.
"I don't believe that," says Picardie. "But what is true is that he was capable of writing good poems." In fact, some of the manuscripts of his poems were wilfully attributed to his sisters – signatures were forged – because the manuscripts would sell to collectors for greater amounts.
"I think the fascination with Branwell is that maybe, just maybe, he did do something really interesting."
When it came to writing up her own extensive research, Picardie decided on
a novel rather than a non-fiction
account. Her decision was influenced largely by her admiration for du Maurier and the Bronts.
"Du Maurier constantly blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work. There was always some autobiographical truth in her novels – as with the Bronts. So, for me, the only
true way to do it was to do it the way
they did it."
With her novel now published – and it's an absorbing, intelligent read – Picardie's stint as literary detective is over, but her time at the Bront Parsonage, she feels, was particularly special.
"There's something really potent and unexpectedly vivid about being able to handle the sisters' manuscripts – the paper they actually wrote on. It was the same with Symington's letters and papers. There were times when I would be opening up those files and thinking – nobody has looked at these since they were put away. It's been the most wonderful adventure."
Justine Picardie's Daphne, is published by Bloomsbury, 14.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk Postage and packing is 2.75.