Isabel Greenberg: Glass Town
Jonathan Cape 2020
Before Charlotte wrote The Professor or Jane Eyre, and Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey the three Brontë girls and their brother Branwell were creator gods. The self-proclaimed Genii founded Glass Town, a place to populate with characters based on public figures of the day (such as the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon), literary ideals such as the Byronic hero, and social archetypes such as revolutionaries and blue-stockings.
Though Emily and Anne, fed up with their domineering brother Branwell and an acquiescent Charlotte broke away to create their own lands of Gondal and Gaaldine, the two older siblings continued with their country of Angria, while Charlotte continued with Angria stories when she became a teacher.
Isabel Greenberg has created her own version of the creation of Brontë juvenilia: in what she identifies as her historical fiction she has “embroidered, embellished and indulged in a great deal of supposing.” More than that, she has illustrated her fiction — full of “inaccuracy and anachronism and many flights of fancy” — with her own distinctive style, producing a delightful graphic novel in which Charlotte discourses with the imaginary Charles Wellesley as they survey the birth, development and fate of this unique paracosm.
A prologue shows us Charlotte alone on her moors in 1849, not long after the tragic deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne in the space of a few months. A surprise ‘encounter’ with the imaginary Charles Wellesley starts her reminiscing about how the four siblings became Genii in 1825, then takes us through the ups and downs of colonialism, political and romantic intrigues, secession and insurrection until in 1847 the three sisters become published authors in their own right. Yet a bald summary scarcely does this novel justice.
Greenberg’s fantasy introduces us to the family dynamics that parallel the fates of Angria and Gondal: the belligerent enthusiasm of Branwell, the intensity of Charlotte and the introspection of Emily and Anne, more like twins than the difference in ages might suggest. We see things through Charlotte’s eyes, however, especially her realisation that any future as a published writer must have fiction grounded in realism. But yet the lure of her secondary world remains.
Though necessarily wordy Glass Town has the spaces that typify most graphic novels in which the visuals express feelings and visions more than text. Luke Healy’s sparse colouration — frequently just three shades to a double page, all in muted or dun tones — complements the nature of the narrative; Greenberg’s mannered drawings — the characters with squared features, stiff physiognomy and tiny hands so like the toy soldiers that the siblings knew, the landscape largely bare and dreamlike, and the interiors severely angular like a toy theatre — produce an otherworldly atmosphere of an existence distant in time and geography.
I loved this novel on two levels: first for its own sake, as a idiosyncratic yet loving recreation of secondary worlds cocooned in an equally imaginary world, a set of Russian dolls with a ethereal and enigmatic beauty; and secondly because as an introduction to the siblings’ own writings about Glass Town, its evolution and its inhabitants it feels ideal, despite the liberties the author takes. Like the stories of the Brontës’ own lives it is both joyous and melancholy, steeped in mischief and anger and magic and tragedy.