The Brontës Went to Woolworths

The Brontës Went to Woolworths

'How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters'; so proclaims Deirdre at the beginning of The Brontës Went to Woolworths, one of three sisters.London, 1931. As growing up looms large in the lives of the Carne sisters, Deirdre,

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A life spent in the company of books has made the real world recede in favour of imagined realms, particularly useful when Deirdres novels rejected and Katrines career prospects look shaky but then reality starts to make a comeback. The early sections are hard to follow at times, I wasnt totally sure who was real and who imagined in the Carnes household, but as the scenario started to come into focus things improved.

When Deirdre, the eldest, meets one of these imaginary friends in real life, and the Brontes appear during a séance, the Carnes have to figure out how to reconcile their fantasy life with reality.

The plot is a a little hard to summarise, but roughly it goes something like this: The Carnes, a middle class family of four women - a mother, two adult daughters and their young sister - live together in London in the 1920s after their father has died a decade or so before. The problem with this, of course, is that there is a deep current of danger in this game, because the Carnes' imaginings are not fantastical -- the "creatures" they create are important to them because they are based on real people and made to be alive with fastidious detail, to make each character as mundane and comfortable as possible, and thus as lovable as a real person. However, this is not a genre novel and not really a serious one either -- it's meant to be light-hearted and the plot, in which the real flesh-and-blood version of one of their imagined characters ("Toddy") and his wife become a real-life fixture of the Carnes' lives, serves more as a means of romantic/comic relief than as a psychological study. That said, there are a lot of interesting things explored in what is essentially a slender volume -- about identity ("Toddy" begins to take on the characteristics of his imagined counterpart because he has never imagined himself in such detail), "good" and "bad" imagination (the governess who is generally treated as quite commonplace writes letters to herself "from" the man she hopes will propose to her), and class (the Carnes prove themselves to be snobs, rejecting in real life characters they "love" in the game).

Reason for Reading: I've heard much praising of this book over the years. The family has invented a whole passel of imaginary friends (often based on real life people) and guests who have become a part of their daily lives. It all seemed rather strange to have twenty year olds living an imaginary life and I wondered what I had got myself into reading! The governess, recently hired, is a drop of reason for the reader as she writes to her sister of the "weird" family and "weird" goings on.

The Carne sisters, and their mother live a fantasy life in the midst of their real existence - Katrine is an aspiring actress, Diedre a journalist, their eleven year old sister Sheil is in the rather pitiful control of troubled governess, Miss Martin - who is driven rather mad herself by the stories and make believe.

This is not a Persephone book, but Ferguson is a Persephone author. Brocket may very well like it, but I think I got her confused with another blogger.) I'm now considering buying the Persephone copy of Ferguson's ALAS, POOR LADY, because it deals with governesses from a different perspective.

The story is, in part, narrated by Deirdre Carne, one of three sisters living with their widowed mother in 1930s London: Deirdre is a journalist working on her first novel, Katrine is an aspiring actress, and the youngest, Sheil, is still at home being looked after by her governess Miss Agatha Martin (my favorite character). One of these fantasy objects of desire is high-court Judge Herbert Toddington the Carne women refer to him affectionately as "Toddy" and create a lavish make-believe story around him. Similarly, I would have been grateful for a little more time spent with Miss Martin, the governess; she provided a bit of welcome relief from all that frenzied whimsy and fabrication.

The fun really starts when some of their imaginary friends impinge on their real lives; but I must say the "paranormal" Bronte thread doesn't really fit. That said, it is refreshing to read a novel set in the 20s and 30s that was actually written then. The title grabbed my attention and made me curious, and I could forgive the plotholes for these lines alone: A woman at one of my 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.

In 1911 Rachel Ferguson became a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She enjoyed a brief though varied career on the stage, cut short by the First World War. After service in the Women's Volunteer Reserve she began writing in earnest.

  • English

  • Fiction

  • Rating: 3.47
  • Pages: 188
  • Publish Date: March 5th 2010 by Bloomsbury USA
  • Isbn10: 1608190536
  • Isbn13: 9781608190539