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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Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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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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Dido and the Brontës

Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880
State Library of Queensland, negative number 65320 (credit: http://www.globaleducation.edu.au/case-studies/australian-pacific-islanders.html)

Are you wondering what’s happened to Dido Twite, the engaging young heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles? Yes? Then read on. No? Still, do keep reading, because if you’re a fan of the Brontës you may find the following note of interest!

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A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.