Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Brontës Went to Woolworths. A Review

The Brontës Went to Woolworths
The Bloomsbury Group
By Rachel Ferguson
ISBN: 9781408802939
Paperback
July 2009
There's more to The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson than just the title. Last year, this book was in the bookish blogosphere's limelight for a while and then, in early July this year, Bloomsbury opened its Bloomsbury Group collection with it. All this is pretty self-explanatory as to the qualities of the book.

Published in 1931, The Brontës Went to Woolworths tells the story/stories of the Carne family, a surname that may or may not connect this mother and three daughters to the Brontës' maternal grandmother. The Carnes might be a sunnier version of the Brontës at the height of their 'scribblemania' although they don't write their adventures - the second daughter, Deirdre, however, does try to write a novel - but also use real people for their fictional games.

We imagine that the peep we get into this extraordinary family's life is remotely similar to what a peep into the Brontës' dining-room would have been. The observer is initially baffled by the complexity of the 'plot' and confused about what is real and what isn't. This confused observer - and also decoder of what's imagined and how the game works - is brought to us also in the shape of the governess. Reading about her trials, you get a feeling that Charlotte would have sympathised with the poor woman. And perhaps she actually does, because as the book advances the thin line between reality and fiction wears thinner and thinner.

The Brontës had their real-turned-fictional Duke of Wellington and his sons, etc., while the Carnes have an assortment that goes from a pierrot to a doll (just like to Brontë wooden soldiers) to a Judge, Justice Toddington, referred to as Toddy by the Carnes. What happens when Lord Toddington crosses the line: does Toddy become Lord Toddington or does Lord Toddington become Toddy?

The Brontës do not only go to Woolworths, but move freely and rapidly throughout the book, which will be highly amusing for whoever is familiar with the Brontë story. All sorts of Mitfordesque witticisms about them abound that had us laughing out loud. We do feel sorry, though, for Anne, who back in the 1930s was still very much in the shadow of her sisters.

Rachel Ferguson must have definitely been a Brontëite as she knows the territory - both physical and theoretical - pretty well. She mocks the trend - very in vogue back then - of finding the 'real' Emily Brontë in the weirdest of theories.But is some of her statements - this one made through Deirdre - she seems to be spot-on:
And that scarred canvas, dismissed as 'a dreadful daub' by the biographers: Emily Brontë, in stormy profile. I am no art critic, I only value in pictures that which lies beyond them. Emily managed to hurt me. She is, I am certain, harassed at her place in Trafalgar Square. When I first saw her I said, 'My dear, I can't do anything about it'.
In some of the fun poked at new 'scholarly' research on the Brontës, the book is reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. They are also similar in that they both contain a set of lovely, witty English excentrics, which are always an irresistible bonus.

The cover and title are so eye-catching that you will do well to follow your instincts and just pick it up and read it. Good times ahead guaranteed.

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Comments :

1 Comment
Rob said...
on  

Fantastic review. I just finished reading the book and now need to put my thoughts together. When I post my review I'll link to yours. Well done! Aloha from Rob

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