Forrest Reid was a novelist little known in the United States. Like Walter de la Mare, his friend, he found the supernatural inseparable from his conception of reality. Denis Bracknel, in this novel, reflects somewhat the author’s personal experience, for in his imagination, at least, Reid himself lived in a pagan dreamworld not unlike that of his hero; and his interest in such imaginary existence, another reality quite different from the ordinary world, is apparent in most of his fiction. As a beginning novelist, he was influenced by Henry James, but their correspondence ended when James failed to comprehend fully Reid’s first novel. As a novelist and as a person, Reid was poetical and mystical, qualities that are easily discernible in THE BRACKNELS, especially in the character of young Denis, who finds the evil of the everyday world unbearable. In this book, as in most of Reid’s fiction, there is reflected as well the author’s strong interest in the psychology of the abnormal person.
Originally a lyrical tale titled THE MOON STORY, THE BRACKNELS was expanded and reworked into a Realistic novel, keeping the moon story as a subsidiary theme but treating the overall work as a family chronicle. To counteract a tendency to the fantastic and bizarre, Reid rooted his stories in solid realistic surroundings; the setting of this novel, the valley and river, the houses and woods, were all founded on Reid’s own childhood world and are described with poetic intensity.
THE BRACKNELS was the real start of Reid’s career as a writer; it was the first book in which he presented his personal vision of life. It is the story of the development of an unusually sensitive boy, but it is also the story of a family. The complicated plot, greater action, and broader canvas mark it as an important advance over its predecessors. Perhaps the book hovers between fantasy and realism without completely achieving either; later, Reid mastered the difficult task of successfully handling the commonplace and the marvelous in a single narrative; but the first experiment produced an unusual and interesting book.
Denis Bracknel stands out as the sensitive son of a self-made man—an unscrupulous Belfast merchant—and a pathetic and weak mother. Alfred, Denis’ brother, is a coarse philistine, and his sisters are foolish and flirtatious. Denis’ new tutor, Rusk, becomes the most important person in his life, the only one with a sense of the boy’s secret inner life. Perhaps the central scene in the novel is the one in which Rusk sees Denis dancing in the moonlight naked as if performing some sacred rite. The relationship between the two is ambiguous and in a less innocent time might have been questioned. A nightmare quality reminiscent of James’s THE TURN OF THE SCREW pervades the book until its natural ending in Denis’ death. Reid’s publisher insisted on a tacked-on ending in which Rusk returned to Ireland on a farewell visit before setting out for Australia, but in the revised version, published in 1947, this scene was omitted.