Friday, September 15, 2006

The Brontës... Adieu

(Hurrah! I've finished it - and I've also written a review for potential publication on proper paper...)

“The Brontës Went to Woolworths” - Rachel Ferguson

Best known simply as ‘Rachel’ in the magazine ‘Punch’, former suffragette Rachel Ferguson went on to become an actress and dance teacher before writing nine novels. “The Brontës Went To Woolworths”, originally published in 1931, was her second – and possibly her best known.

A little delving has found that “The Brontës…” is something of a cult classic, which the recent reprint of Ferguson’s more heavy-going novel “Alas, Poor Lady” by Persephone Books will hopefully rejuvenate once again.

Although it’s a relatively short novel, “The Brontës…” will totally capture the reader’s imagination. AS Byatt, who first loved the book as a teenager, writes in her introduction, “I was intrigued by the title, which seemed to suggest some impossible meeting of the urgent world of the romantic imagination and the everyday world of (in my case) Pontefract High Street”. And indeed, the title alone is precisely how the book caught my eye.

The three Carne sisters – Deirdre, Katrine and Sheil – live with their widowed mother and starchy governess in a state of relative poverty, but construct for themselves a fantastical world where the dead come back to life and the inanimate becomes animate. The protagonist, Deirdre, is a journalist and becomes infatuated by Lord Justice Toddington, who she first discovers archly presiding over his London courtroom. Fascinated by his presence and what she imagines his life and wife to be like, Deirdre and her family incorporate their fictitious version of him into their real home life. And so ‘Toddy’ joins the ranks of Dion Saffyd (a pierrot doll named after a real-life cause celeb they have never actually met in person), Ironface (the French doll) and Freddie Pipson (a larger-than-life music hall producer), among countless others. But it is during a bored night away from London that the family finds themselves reluctantly welcoming the real Brontë sisters into their world… and suddenly Toddy has a much larger role to play.

Through “The Brontës…” it is possible to see where contemporary writer Kate Atkinson found inspiration for her early novels (“Human Croquet” and “Behind The Scenes At the Museum”), seamlessly blending reality with the supernatural to create a haunting story.

And as “The Brontës…” picked up pace, I found myself turning the pages ever more rapidly as I not only feared for the characters at certain points but also rooted for them and willed them to succeed. The way the family incorporates both the imagined and the real Toddy into their lives is touching, and it is easy to imagine how much they not only felt they needed him in their lives but how much they really did need him in their lives… and vice versa. But when the Carne family’s security blanket of their fictional world starts to seep into reality, the girls pull together and face up to the fact that real-life may not be quite so cosy as the world they have built up to protect themselves.

Where “The Brontës…” succeeds is with it’s beautifully written and wonderfully eccentric style, and with it’s simple story of three girls struggling to cope without a father figure and trying to make the best of what life has dealt them. As well as being a touching comment on grief and questioning the possibility of an afterlife, the book is also a good example of London life pre-WWII for many families.

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