Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal - A Review

We are very grateful to Oxford University Press for sending us a review copy of this book.

Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal
Selected Early Writings
by The Brontës
Edited by Christine Alexander.
Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics)
23 September 2010
640 pages; 1 map; three MS facsimile pages
ISBN13: 978-0-19-282763-0
ISBN10: 0-19-282763-4
I'm just going to write because I cannot help it. Wiggins might indeed talk of scriblomania if he were to see me just now, encompassed by the bulls (query calves of Bashan), all wondering why I write with my eyes shut - staring, gaping. (Charlotte Brontë, Roe Head Journal)
Brontë-wise, Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal is definitely one of the stellar Brontë releases of the year. Not just for making the juvenilia accessible to all sorts of readers and not just the scholar kind, but also because Christine Alexander is in charge of the edition and if anyone knows anything about juvenilia, then that is Christine Alexander.

She knows the juvenilia events like other people know historical events. She - seemingly effortlessly - guides the reader through the background context of the writings, particularly in the explanatory notes. The creation and subsequent complex, constant and quite overwhelming development of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal (both in terms of boundaries and characters) are aptly, pleasantly explained. Christine Alexander is that rare kind of person who knows something by heart and conveys it clearly and succintly, thus managing to keep the interest of even the less learned readers in terms of Brontë juvenilia.

Editions of the juvenilia tend to be published separately by author/sibling(1), including recent paperback editions or Christine Alexander's own scholarly volumes on Charlotte's early writings - still a work in progress(2). The magic of this new release lies in the fact that the four Brontës contribute to this edition. In her introduction, Christine Alexander insists on how important the collaborative work carried out by the young Brontës really was, how meaningful and longlasting. An early workshop of shared writings where what each one wrote influenced what all the others wrote, like an infinite echo. Reading the works by Charlotte, then Branwell, then Emily's poems, then Anne's poems might not initially seem like a continuous experience - especially when it comes to the younger sisters' poetry - but it is and both the Brontës themselves and Christine Alexander through her notes highlight this. They are suddenly there, in their famous surroundings, four children creating stories with such passion and such craft, playing and being literary egends in the making. It is a magic moment for the reader when the echo is heard, the dots connected. Then it is clearly seen how Charlotte Brontë disowning Heathcliff(3) is like Charlotte Brontë exaggerating the isolation of Haworth - a Victorian pose.

In the selection of her writings, Charlotte is shown to be more interested in the romantic, personal and social goings-on of the inhabitants of these imaginary lands. And though not made widely available for the first time, her Roe Head Journal is still poignant and unclassifiable: there's the Roe Head context and her exasperation with her pupils, there's the reverie, the unavoidable descent into Gondal, which brings her closer both to that land of dreams where she can be anything she wants and to her home in Haworth, at this point still dominated by Branwell's influence. The section devoted to Charlotte's writings finishes - it couldn't be otherwise - with Charlotte's impressive Farewell to Angria.

Branwell, who draw the map of the Glass Town Federation and the kingdom of Angria upon which the one in this edition is based, is shown to be more interested in the political, strategical goings-on and readers with a basic knowledge of Branwell as the drunk, ne'er-do-well brother will be impressed by his prose. He imagines a plot and he seems to own it completely. He handles the successions of events - see The Politics of Verdopolis for instance, written when he was 16 years old - in a way that many contemporary writer would do well to learn from.

At some unknown point Emily and Anne left Glass Town and Angria in order to create their own imaginary world of Gondal. Christine Alexander manages to find traces of their reading Charlotte's and Branwell's writings long after they created Gondal, which means that the work was still collaborative (of sorts). Unfortunately, as is well known, the Gondal prose is lost and conjectures have to be drawn mainly from both Emily's and Anne's poetry but also from their diary papers and a couple of lists drawn up by Anne (both the diary papers and these lists are included in this volume). Unlike Fanny Ratchford in her Gondal's Queen (1955), Christine Alexander steers clear from imaginative interpretations and tells the readers exactly what is known of the saga and what isn't and where she's conjecturing and where she's relying on other people's conclusions (many of them come from Janet Gezari's Last Things).

The selection of Emily's poetry is done with her separation of Gondal and non-Gondal(4) poems in mind although some non-Gondal poems are included as well. Readers already familiar with Emily's poems won't be able to put the book back on the shelf without reading them, so mesmerising they still are after some reads.Charlotte's words still hold true: they are 'condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. [...] they [have] also a peculiar music-- melancholy, and elevating'.

Anne's selection is more Gondal-centered than Emily's even if she seems to have weaved more personal matters into it than Emily. Charlotte said that when she first read them in 1846 she found her sister's poem 'had a sweet sincere pathos of their own'. The poems in this edition will - or should - convince readers that Anne is no second-best. Her poems, her themes are not bland or without merit at all.

This edition of juvenilia also highlights two more relevant things. It vindicates Patrick's open-minded education of his children, which should nowadays be the widespread notion people have of him and not Gaskell's untrue portrait.

And more to the point - it also makes clear why a writer's juvenilia is important but it is even more so in the case of the Brontës. Christine Alexander writes,
Their juvenilia represent the apprentice works of writers who produced such renowned novels as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; but they are also important documents in themselves: evidence of the making of literary minds, the collaboration and particularly the rivalry of writers--that 'intelligent partisanship' with which the Brontës imitated and 'played at' the lively publishing scene of the nineteenth century. The Brontë juvenilia provide the richest record we have of youthful literary activity: a fascinating uncensored world where the young writer can create a parallel political and social space, experiment with adult relationships, test genre and technique, and experience the power of the author and editor.
In short, without the juvenilia we wouldn't in all probability have Jane Eyre and definitely not Wuthering Heights. What Christine Alexanders has put together is a compact, readable collection of writings that should both dispel and increase the myth of the Brontës, paradoxical as that may sound. A Brontëite's library is no longer complete without it.

Notes:
(1) A notable exception is the pioneer work of  TJ Wise & JA Symington (eds), The Miscellaneous and Unpublished Writings of Charlotte and Patrick Branwell Brontë (Shakespeare Head Brontë), 2 vols: 1 (1936) and 2 (1938)
(2) Alexander, Christine (ed), An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 1. The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987);  vol 2. The Rise of Angria 1833-1835: part 1, 1833-1834, part 2, 1834-1835 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), vol 3 (forthcoming).
Neufeldt, Victor (ed), The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: An Edition, vol 1 (New York: Garland, 1997), vols. 2 and 3 (1999). 
Paperback editions: Barker, Juliet (ed), Charlotte Brontë: Juvenilia 1829-1835 (Penguin, 1996)
Glen, Heather (ed), Charlotte Brontë: Tales of Angria (Penguin, 2006)
It should be mentioned also Christine Alexander's coordination of the Brontë juvenilia volumes of Juvenilia Press, a pedagogic press which publishes juvenilia edited by graduate students.
(3) In the Editor's Preface to the New Edition of 'Wuthering Heights', 1850:
Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is. But this I know: the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master - something that, at times, strangely wills and works for itself.
(4) Emily made fair copies of her poems and divided them into two notebooks. One famously inscribed Gondal poems (which is at the British Library in London) and another one inscribed E.J.B. and known as the Honresfeld manuscript, which is usually understood to contain poems of a more personal nature, but that is not exactly known. The Honresfeld manuscript is unfortunately lost, although a facsimile of it was made prior to that.

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