Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 1:50 am by M. in , ,    No comments

Thanks to Austin MacCauley for sending us a review copy of this novel
St. John in the Wilderness
Alan Titterington
Austin MacCauley Publishers Ltd.
ISBN: 9781786121943 (paperback)
ISBN: 9781786121950 (hardback)
ISBN: 9781786121967 (ebook)
This book is obviously a labour of love. A book born and bred of the necessity of reconstructing a family history, tracing your ancestors and establishing a connection, a continuity with your past. Something everybody can sympathise with. Who has never felt the necessity of exploring their family tree?  Who has never tried to find their origins and the chain of events, ordinary or extraordinary, that helped to shape what is now their place in life and history?

Alan Titterington has done just that but with a twist. He has researched extensively the times and facts of his great-great-grandfather, John Titterington (1815?-1852) worsted spinner, manufacturer who resided at Higgin Chamber Mill, Sowerby, Halifax. He has traced details of his quarrels with his father Ely, his stay at the Debtor's Prison in York, his marriage, children (legitimate or not)... and particularly he has imagined what sort of relationship he could have had with Branwell Brontë.

We know that John Titterington was an acquaintance of Branwell Brontë from his time at Luddenden Foot. It is recorded in his notebook at the time:
At R. Col last with
G. Thompson
J. Titterington
R L. Col
H. Killiner and another.
I quarrelled with J. T. about going but after a wrestle met him on the road and became friends — quarrelled almost on the subject with G. Thompson. Will have no more of it.
August 18th, 1841. P. B. B
Regrettably, this is the only factual link between Branwell and J. Titterington(1). The rest of the details described in the present novel are more or less plausible what-if-accounts which are disseminated through the narrative. Some of them are indeed possible, as the vivid account of the setting of the scene drawn by Branwell as 'The rescue of the punchbowl, a scene in the Talbot' (1848), now at the Brotherton Collection in Leeds. Alan Titterington suggests names and backgrounds for all the figures represented in the sketch, introducing John Titterington as St John in the Wilderness(2). Other details are certainly intriguing like the two portraits of John Titterington and his wife Mary Holdsworth which have been attributed to Branwell Brontë in several occasions(3), but which have not been authenticated even after extensive study(4). Other details are more far-fetched and certainly difficult to believe, such as the encyclopaedic knowledge that John Titterington has of the works and lives of the Brontës.

The author also repeats some of the Branwell-wrote-parts-of-Wuthering-Heights storyline, directly descended from Fancis Grundy's Pictures from the Past but luckily this is not over-emphasised, and although we don't buy it, it is certainly more palatable than Branwell discussing their sisters published works at a public house (which is also featured). The legend claiming that Branwell had fathered an illegitimate daughter is also briefly mentioned(5).

The book will certainly benefit from a more exhaustive revision. Many paragraphs are fully saturated with information (i.e. the visit to the York Minster, but also many, many others) which can be edited into footnotes and which often stagnate the narrative annoyingly. The novel, as a story, needs to be shortened. The rhythm and internal pace will be greatly improved without some distracting elements which are in the way of the main narrative and don't add anything to it. A paradigmatic (and paradoxical on a blog like this) example is the whole Scarborough narrative about Anne Brontë's death. Moving as it is, it feels foreign and can be completely purged with no change to the main plot(6).

We could continue enumerating further problems or loopholes in the novel but it would be pointless and certainly stupid. As we said before, this is not a historical novel with mass-media designs, it's a labour of love. Can it be improved? Certainly. Does it feature an interesting and consistent story? For sure. Is its setting believable? Yes, and the research is also compelling. Are its Brontë connections plausible? Well, read it and judge for yourself.

(1) J. Titterington was identified by Daphne du Maurier in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë as James Titterington, the brother of John. Nevertheless it seems plausible attending the inner story of the Titterington family as digged up by the author, that Branwell was talking about John.
(2) Nevertheless, Daphne du Maurier identified St John in the Wilderness as John Brown: "out of his usual milieu, perhaps, and thus dubbed 'in the wilderness'".
(3) In The Brontës, Juliet Barker says that he 'possibly' painted them. As a matter of fact, they were used in the exhibition Branwell Brontë and his Circle at Cartwright Hall in Bradford in 1994.
(4) https://bronteblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/titterington-connection.html.
(5) Another novel which also explored this possibility:  Daughter of The Northern Fields by Pamela Haines (1987), also mentions James (probably confused with John) Titterington.
(6) Proof readings are also needed. I.e. Haworth in inconsistently written correctly (on few occasions) and as Howarth (most of the time).


Post a Comment