Verdopolis for ever

From Greenberg’s Glass Town

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.

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Supported by experience 

Rebecca Solomon (1832-86) ‘The Governess’ (1851): public domain image

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey
Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1847)

There is a stock image of the Victorian governess, isn’t there: the stern, plain figure in black who is given charge of the upper- or middleclass family’s children, shepherding them from classroom to drawing room, and thence to bed. It’s easy to caricature this figure, as Joan Aiken did with the figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or to portray her as a dominatrix for men (and women) of certain tastes, but I suspect that mostly the romantic view of the governess will rest on the titular person of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).

However, the life of many a governess is portrayed more realistically in Charlotte’s sister’s novel, the semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey, which even more than Jane Eyre exposed the circumstances which governesses were expected to tolerate without a murmur. Clues that much of the story of Agnes (“pure, holy”) is based on Anne’s own experiences come in the opening paragraphs: both their fathers are clergymen in the north of England; both young women are twice engaged as governesses, the first post being short-lived though the second lasts a few years; and both are involved in plans to begin a school with family members (though in only one case does it come to fruition). And, from what we know of Anne’s life, the circumstances of Agnes’ treatment parallel the author’s own.

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Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

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