Set in Haworth, West Yorkshire, in 1848, this is the story of a frustrated, unhappy young man whose life has been a series of disappointments, rejections and unfulfilled promise. In poor health, with no job and mounting debts, he has returned to the family parsonage where he remains completely dependent on his father, the only person who still sees his potential. To make things worse, his three sisters have succeeded where he has failed, having had some of their poems and stories published (under male pseudonyms). Disillusioned and miserable, he turns to alcohol for comfort.
The young man’s name, as you may have guessed by now, is Branwell Brontë and his sisters are Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Sanctuary is a fictional account of the final months of Branwell’s life leading up to his death in September 1848 at the age of thirty-one. Branwell himself is the narrator of the story, giving us some insight into his state of mind as he tries to come to terms with seeing the success of his sisters while his own literary ambitions come to nothing.
As a fan of the Brontë sisters I have always been intrigued by Branwell and the possible influence he may have had on their work. Earlier this year I read Daphne du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, which I thought was quite a sympathetic portrayal. It was much more difficult to have any sympathy for the Branwell we meet in Sanctuary; he spends the whole book feeling sorry for himself and wallowing in self-pity without making any attempt to change things. However, I didn’t need to like Branwell to appreciate that his character was well written, complex and believable. As a portrait of an intelligent, talented man who had wasted his potential and thrown away opportunities through his own self-destructive behaviour, it was very convincing.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters in the book were as well developed as Branwell. Charlotte, Anne and Emily all felt like the same person rather than three strong, separate personalities, which was very disappointing (especially when compared with their portrayal in Jude Morgan’s excellent The Taste of Sorrow). For the same reason, I thought it was hard to distinguish between Branwell’s friends, several of whom appeared in the story and, like his sisters, felt bland and lifeless. On a more positive note, I did like the setting – we learn a lot about life in a small Yorkshire community in the middle of the 19th century.
Because of my love for the Brontës, I found this an interesting and worthwhile read, even though the slow pace and weak secondary characters meant that I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I like the sound of some of Robert Edric’s previous novels, though, so I would consider reading another one at some point.
I received a copy of Sanctuary for review via NetGalley.