Sunday, 9 October 2011

"The Brontes Went to Woolworths" - Rachel Ferguson

(The review below is an edited version of one I wrote for the Virago Modern Classics edition of this book in 2006. Rachel Ferguson's novel has now been beautifully repackaged and republished as part of the Bloomsbury Group series, so I decided it was worth a revisit...)

Best known as ‘Rachel’ in Punch, suffragette Rachel Ferguson went on to become an actress and dance teacher before writing nine novels. The Brontës Went To Woolworths, 1931, was her second.

Although it’s a relatively short novel, The Brontës… will totally capture your imagination. AS Byatt, who loved the book as a teenager, writes in her introduction (NB - this is in the Virago edition only): “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 the title 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.  Deirdre, is a journalist and becomes infatuated by Lord Justice Toddington, who she 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 life. And so ‘Toddy’ joins the ranks of Dion Saffyd (a pierrot doll named after a real-life cause celeb they have never met in person), Ironface (the French doll) and Freddie Pipson (a larger-than-life music hall producer), among 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.

As The Brontës… picked up pace, I was turning the pages ever more rrapidly as I not only feared for the characters at certain points but also willed them to succeed. The way the family incorporates 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 also 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 its beautifully written and wonderfully eccentric style, and with it’s simple story of three girls struggling to cope without their father 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.

2011 note: The Virago Modern Classics edition (with AS Byatt introduction) is readily available for 1p (plus P&P) from Amazon Marketplace. And the Bloomsbury Group edition is also easily available (both new and second hand). There's something to be said for both editions, so I splashed out and bought the Bloomsbury one to complement my Virago edition.

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