Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

The lovely Bloombsury edition
I  borrowed from the library. 
As children, the Brontes wrote about their imaginary worlds of Gondal and Angria, enacting the stories and playing the parts of the characters they created. The adult Brontes make brief, ghostly appearances in The Brontes Went to Woolworths, by Rachel Ferguson, and their spirit pervades this strange novel about a family who keep the real world at bay by creating a fantasy land, inhabited by invented people.

It may sound similar to Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’, where Norman makes up a story about an eccentric, elderly spinster and is horrified when she comes to life ( But this is different. Mrs Carne and her daughters - journalist Deirdre, drama student Katrine, and Sheil, who is still in the schoolroom with a governess - spin intricately detailed stories about real people, making it difficult to determine what (or who) is real and what is pretence. Then, when one of their characters dies, and they actually meet another, reality intrudes on their imaginary world.
Anne,  Emily and Charlotte painted by their
brother Branwell.He took himsel out of the
picture, but the ghost image can still be seen.
One of their favourite fabrications is Toddy, or Judge Todddington, who they encounter (at a distance), when Mrs Carne is called for jury service. She never sits through a case, spending the week in reserve, but Deirdre, who narrates most of the novel, attends court and becomes obsessed with the elderly judge. “From that moment I think, he owned, occupied and paid taxes on our imagination,” she says. She collects photos of the judge, researches his life, tracks down people who know him, walks past his house, looks through his windows, and tells stories to the rest of the family.

After meeting him she tells us: “Toddy, from negative, had turned into a print, and inevitably during our half-hour together he had spoken out of character, and shown himself to be possessed of his own personality as against the semi-fit that we had allocated him. I had expected this, but the little shocks were no less real.” Fortunately, from her point of view, the judge and his wife join the game and even close ranks with the family to maintain the fantasy and protect Sheil from hurtful reality.

Author Rachel Ferguson may have used
her knowledge of the theatre -  she was
 an actor and drama critic - when writing the book.
Intellectually and socially snobbish, the women are waspishly sharp, very intelligent, and rather Bohemian, giving the impression they have come down in the world since the father died. Despite Deirdre’s work and Katrine’s theatrical studies, they seem cut off from outside world, hiding behind self-imposed barriers, with few friends – they don't relate to others and are quick to make fun of people they regard as lesser mortals, like the governesses, or Deirdre’s editor. They delight in the pretence of talking to strangers as if they know them, and enjoy comic, mock Shakespearean speech among themselves, that others can't understand.

Strangely, the girls don’t play conventional games, don’t believe in fairies or Father Christmas, and don’t like Peter Pan or dolls (with exception of plain Ironface, who ran off and married a French aristocrat, but returns to offer observations on life). Similarly, they have scrapped the usual ‘fairytale nonsense-literature’ for Sheil’s toy theatre, and instead stage their own pantomimes with ‘genuine illusions’, for ‘charities’, like the Tabbies’ Protection Union (with offices in Great Cream Street). Presumably, all this indicates that they want to concoct their own fancies, rather than relying on the dreams of others.
The Woolwoths store in Wavertree Road, Liverpool, pictured
in 1931. 
The photo, commisioned by FW Woolworthe and Co Ltd
 can be seen at, .
But there is a darker side to all this whimsy. The obsessive nature of the family’s interest in their chosen subjects (for Toddy is not the only one) is deeply disturbing. “We learn everything there is to learn about people we love,” explains Deirdre. In this day and age it would probably land them in court on a charge of stalking, while their habit of inviting these imaginary ‘friends’ to dinner, and ensuring the ‘guests’ send presents for birthdays and Christmas would almost certainly result in some lengthy counselling sessions.

It’s never clear why they go to such lengths to transform living people into imaginary characters. I assume they are unable to deal with the father’s death (indeed, at one point Deirdre wishes Toddy was her father), but the fantasy goes beyond that: they have retreated into the refuge of a made-up world, unable to cope with actuality. 
Window display in Woolworth's store, London Road, 
Liverpool, in 1931, the year The Brontes Went to 
Woolworths was published. 
And what about poor Agatha Martin, the first governess, who obviously feels threatened by the Carnes, and is desperate to shock Sheil out of her make-believe world, yet has a pretty shaky grip reality herself. She fantasises about a curate whose unsatisfactory letters are brotherly and matter-of-fact – so she's written love letters from him to herself, and is as obsessive about him as the sisters are about Toddy and all their other creations.

The three sisters and their mother live in an enclosed world in which they play an elaborate game with rules of their own devising that few others can understand. It raises issues about the way we treat life and death, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the differences between illusion and reality. But they never break free: as the novel progresses they don’t grow, or learn, or change – which makes me wonder what kind of novel might have emerged if Ferguson had allowed the judge and his wife to reject the peculiar saga played out by the Carnes.

On a second reading I noticed how many references to the Brontes are scattered throughout the book – even the family’s name owes a debt to Brontes because, apparently, Maria Branwell's mother was a Carne. And, of course, there is the imaginary trip to Woolworths which, claims Deirdre, Charlotte described as ‘a queer shop, much favoured with their custom by a class which I do not think to be our own’.
A Tenniel drawing of Humpty Dumpty - does Lewis Carroll's 'Alice
Through the Looking  Glass' offers clues about Rachel Ferguson's novel?
 Theatrical references abound (even the court can be seen as a performance where the judge plays a role) and there’s a quote from Lewis Carroll’s looking glass world: “How right was Humpty Dumpty to abuse words and then pay them on a Saturday night! It was a really magnificent gesture, and one which slaves to split-infinitives would do well to copy.” Perhaps that choice from an author whose work abounds with puzzles about illusion and reality, and the real meaning of things, offers a clue to the way we should look at Ferguson’s novel. Perhaps life, like words, can be shaped to make what we want, and we can take control by abusing the conventional view of reality and forging a new version of the world for ourselves. Or perhaps the whole novel is a fairy tale, or a dream, and not to be taken seriously at all.


  1. This is not a book I want to read, but your report on it is so wonderful, so in-depth. I think you could publish it in some literary review. It really is special.

  2. Nan,I just love reading and writing... the nice thing about being redundant is that it's given me more time to read, and to think about what I read.

  3. I just finished this book, and I agree with so much of what you said. I think the book is about layers of what we think is reality but may well be wishful thinking. For instance, after I read how Deirdre described all four women joined together for a quick Can-Can on the landing, I asked myself, "Did that really happen, or is it fantasy?" And then I remembered - it's a novel. By definition, the whole book is a fantasy, created completely in someone's imagination.

    Along the same lines, I was fascinated by how the 'real' and the 'fantasy' constantly intertwined. Miss Martin seems solidly real with a resentment towards the Carnes' fantasy life. And then it is revealed that she is writing herself love letters from a man whose interest in her is probably just platonic. And the Brontes come to visit HER!! Similarly, the Carnes build up a detailed fantasy about the Toddingtons, meet them in reality, and then the Toddingtons ultimately grow into the Carnes fantasy of them, concluding, brilliantly, with the remark about seeing the Brontes in Woolworths.

    I am obsessed about the role the governesses play. How they seem to represent the harsh realities of life, how they are excluded by the limits of class from knowing what these strange women are talking about, and how, ultimately the governesses' efforts to bring the family back to 'reality' are foiled by the much more appealing fantasies the family has spun.

    I haven't expressed myself very well, but I was so excited to read someone else's take on the book, I couldn't wait to compose my thoughts in a cogent form.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth. The governesses intrigued me as well, especially Miss Martin, and I like your point about a novel being, by definition, a fantasy. I keep thinking about the theatrical references, and the fact that a court is also a kind of drama, with the judge and lawyers all dressed up and the various people all playing roles, and this seemed to reinforce questions about the nature of reality. It is one of the oddest books I have ever read and, like you, I felt it was not easy to come up with a coherent view. I borrowed it from the library, but want my own copy so I can read it again, not because I love the book, but because I keeping thinking about it and wanting to explore different aspects and characters.