Last week's Left of Cool piece on it is here. Here is the original version; both may contain spoilers.
If there’s one thing that people know about the Brontë family (apart from that the three sisters wrote books, of course. Or that story that Somerset Maugham tells of how Branwell Brontë died standing up.) it is that they spent their youths inventing fictional worlds. The siblings collaborated in the development of the kingdoms of Gondal and Angria. Branwell and Charlotte were responsible in the main for Angria, while Gondal belonged to Emily and Anne. In addition to the creation of maps, stories and histories, Emily and Anne were known to pretend to be particular characters themselves. This continued into their adulthood, and apparently shocked poor Charlotte.
The relationship of the Brontë siblings with Angria and Gondal is the sort of thing that was made for fiction. And so other writers have riffed off the idea. I’m particularly fond of Antonia Forest’s brilliant Peter’s Room, in which a group of teenagers try their hand at “Gondalling” and find it soon getting out of control.
Rachel Ferguson’s 1931 novel The Brontës went to Woolworths is another book that plays on the Brontës’ tradition of make-believe. The Carne sisters (Carne was the name of the Brontës’ cousins on the maternal side) live in a world of make-believe. The three sisters (Deirdre, Katrine and Shiel) and their mother have made up elaborate fantasies about a number of people whom they do not really know. Chief among these are the Judge Toddington (“Toddy” to the Carnes) and his less-remarkable wife Lady Mildred. Shiel’s governess, the comparatively dull Miss Martin, is alarmed by the entire family’s willingness to live a make-believe life. She is even more concerned by her young charge’s inability to tell the difference between the real and pretend.
It’s hard to decide how I feel about these books and the characters. On the one hand, the Carne sisters are frequently charming. Take this, from the beginning of the book:
A woman at one of mother's parties once said to me, "Do you like reading?" which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread - absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.
On the other (and quite apart from all the willful self-delusion and the borderline stalking of the Toddingtons) they are also rather despicable. Lady Mildred’s inferiority (imagined at first; real once they meet and befriend the couple) is signaled throughout by her vocabulary and pronunciation of certain words marking her out as Not One of Us. Katrine can seek a career in the theatre, but a man she works with is acknowledged to be an unfit partner. And governesses are contemptible – Miss Martin is dull for being uncomfortable with their games, but the governess who succeeds her cannot join in without getting it all wrong.
Yet these problems are resolved if you focus on one factor in the book – the Brontës (and those concerned with plot spoilers should stop reading now). The trip to Woolworths mentioned in the title actually happens. The Brontës appear in the story as ghosts. And the real Brontë sisters all worked as governesses.
I suspect my reading of this book might surprise the author. But she is dead; literally as well as in a Roland Barthes, Death of the Author way. And so in her absence I’m choosing to read The Brontës Went to Woolworths as a horror story. One that features charming, terrifyingly deluded upper-class child-women (the possibilities for psychological horror are immense) and real, live ghosts. And the governess, (like her literary predecessor in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) seeing horrors all around her, and, (like her other ancestor Jane Eyre) quite possibly the only sane person in the place.