Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks

As someone who loves the work of all three Brontë sisters, I have been interested in reading Dark Quartet for a long time. I have read some more recent fictional accounts of the Brontës’ lives and work, such as Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow and Robert Edric’s Sanctuary, but this is an older book, first published in 1976, and I was curious to see what it was like.

Lynne Reid Banks’ novel tells the story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and their brother, Branwell, who makes the fourth of the ‘quartet’. It begins with the Brontës growing up at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire in the care of their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, and their Aunt Elizabeth, who helps to raise them following the early death of their mother. The four children are very close, with particularly strong bonds between Charlotte and Branwell and between Emily and Anne, who entertain themselves by writing stories set in the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal. There are also two elder Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who die of tuberculosis early in the novel while attending Cowan Bridge School along with Charlotte and Emily.

As the three surviving girls reach adulthood, they find work as teachers and governesses, with varying levels of success, but they each continue to write, drawing inspiration from their experiences and surroundings. As Branwell, having suffered a series of disappointments and setbacks, descends into alcoholism and drug addiction, his sisters go on to achieve their ambition of becoming published authors, albeit under male pseudonyms.

I have given a very brief summary of the plot here, but I think that’s enough. If you’re already familiar with the Brontës’ lives and work, you won’t need me to go into any more detail; if not, and if you’re planning to read Dark Quartet, I’m sure you’ll prefer to have a few things left to discover for yourself. Banks does stick closely to the facts, but it’s important to remember two things: first, however biographical this book may feel, it is a work of fiction; and second, a lot of research into the Brontës has taken place since the book was written, so interpretations and opinions will have changed in that time. As the author says in the foreword to the novel:

…I have not let my imagination run riot. I have kept it harnessed to the truth. For the rest, I offer my answers to some of the mysteries.

Probably the most controversial area of the book is the portrayal of Branwell, particularly a scene, which was presumably invented, in which he meets a group of Irish labourers in a tavern. I saw this scene, and what happens in it, as the author’s way of providing an additional explanation for Branwell’s sense of hopelessness and disillusionment with himself and his life, so I accepted this as her ‘answer to one of the mysteries’, but I suppose it depends on how far you think a biographical novel should deviate from historical fact. For the rest of her treatment of Branwell, Banks acknowledges Daphne du Maurier, who wrote The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, as one of her sources and, like du Maurier, she clearly has some sympathy for Branwell. He is a frustrating and infuriating character who wastes every opportunity he is given, but he is often his own worst enemy, and his story, as it is told here, is quite sad.

Of the three sisters, Charlotte is given far more attention than either Emily or Anne, but this is usually the case in books about the Brontës and I can understand why. Charlotte lived longer than the others, she had more of her writing published (four novels as opposed to Anne’s two and Emily’s one), and her life was more closely documented – she was the subject of a biography by Elizabeth Gaskell in the 19th century. However, I find Emily – solitary, independent and intensely private – a much more intriguing personality and I would have preferred to have spent more time with her and with Anne rather than Charlotte.

Lynne Reid Banks doesn’t explore the Brontës’ novels in much depth, but I think she does a good job of showing how the sisters’ work was influenced by people, places and events from their personal lives. Cowan Bridge School, with its damp, unhealthy location, inadequate food and strict discipline, was the model for Lowood School in Jane Eyre; the badly behaved children in the households where Anne serves as governess find their way into Agnes Grey; and Emily’s beloved Yorkshire moors become the setting for Wuthering Heights. There are also several chapters devoted to Charlotte’s time as a teacher in Brussels, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Villette or The Professor.

Dark Quartet has recently been made available in a new ebook edition from Sapere Books and I was delighted to receive a copy for review through NetGalley a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed reading it and, although my favourite Brontës are no longer living by the end of the novel, I am still tempted to read the sequel, Path to the Silent Country, about Charlotte’s final years.