|The lovely Bloombsury edition |
I borrowed from the library.
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 (http://chriscross-thebooktrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/batty-but-beautiful-story.html). 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.
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.
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.
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.
Window display in Woolworth's store, London Road,
Liverpool, in 1931, the year The Brontes Went to
Woolworths was published.
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’.
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.
|A Tenniel drawing of Humpty Dumpty - does Lewis Carroll's 'Alice |
Through the Looking Glass' offers clues about Rachel Ferguson's novel?