The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1931. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60819-053-9. 188 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10. Cleverly imagined, if a bit high-strung. I found it rather a sad story, behind the relentlessly bright chatter of the heroines.
How to start with this one? Well, first off, I must confess that I had a truly difficult time finding my stride here. I started reading one night when I was, admittedly, very tired, and made it to Chapter 5, about twenty-five pages in, when I gave up in utter dismay. What was this frenetically paced, brittle, self-complimentary mess all about, anyway? And who in their right mind would recommend it?!
A few days later, in a much less sleep-deprived state of mind, I tried again, starting from the very beginning, a thing I seldom do – most books get one chance and one chance only – but I really wanted to see what this one was all about, because I’d heard it praised so highly be several other bloggers whose tastes I often share: Shannon, Jenny, and Simon Savidge, to name just a few.
Three fatherless sisters and their recently widowed mother live an upper middle-class life in the London of the time between the two World Wars. The eldest, Deirdre, is an aspiring novelist with a day job as a newspaper writer. Middle sister Katrine is a drama student, and young Sheil (not short for Sheila, by the way, but rather named for the Scottish birthplace of her father) is a schoolgirl under the tutelage of an earnest governess, Miss Agatha Martin.
The three sisters, as well as their gently witty mother, Mrs. Carne, are doing the best they can after the death of their obviously beloved father and husband. They have created a vivid fantasy world which runs parallel to their real world; they make no distinction between the real and the imagined in their conversations with each other, and the reader is thrown into the melee with few only a few clues to go by that this is not all as it seems. I sympathized with the sober governess Miss Martin, who continually tried to make sense of the nonsense, until finally giving up in dismay and fleeing to a more traditional, if bleaker, refuge as a parish worker, two-thirds of the way through the story
Imaginary members of the Carne circle are Dion Saffyn, based on a real-life figure of a pierrot entertainer glimpsed during a summer holiday, and his family, and the imaginary Ironface, a childhood doll, who has morphed into the snobbish wife of a member of the French nobility. Even the family’s raffish terrier, Crellie, leads a double existence as the Pope, with some off-putting doggish habits and tendencies.
But the most elaborate of the characters the Carnes have created is a take-off on the very real Judge Herbert Toddington, “Toddy” as they familiarly style him, ever since Mrs. Carne’s jury duty brought the elderly justice into their focus. When Deidre meets the real Judge Toddington, through his wife Lady Mildred’s attendance at a charity bazaar which Deidre is covering for her newspaper, fantasy becomes something much more solid.
All of the nonsense and make-believe are, it seems to me, a way for the four Carnes to deal with their deep grief at the loss of their fifth member. Deidre makes no secret of her interest in placing Toddy in the role of an auxiliary “man of the family”, as she has felt her own fulfillment of that position extremely difficult.
The fairy tale aspect of the story has its sobering moments, brought into focus by the confused governess Miss Martin, who cannot cope with the continued “weirdness” of her charge, the sisters, and Mrs. Carne, who plays along with the rest of the family in their complex game. Once Miss Martin flees in despair, a replacement, Miss Ainslie, is reduced to confusion in her turn, being soundly snubbed when she seeks to play along.
And that brings me to the only thing I did not like about the Carne family, once I allowed myself to enter their story: their extreme snobbishness. I realize that this was a commonplace trait of people in their position and their time, but it bothered me that they were so scornful in attitude to people like their governesses, not giving them any sort of explanation as to the goings on with the imaginary characters, and relentlessly shutting them out of the game. And when Katrine falls in love with a truly good man of a decidedly lower social class, her elder sister advises her to harden her heart, which Katrine obediently does – “It just wouldn’t do” seems an acceptable reason to deny what seems like true love.
The Brontës come into the story in a rather mysterious way towards the end of the book, and if you make it that far their appearance will make sense, as you’ll have suspended your considerable disbelief and will be enjoying the hectic ride which this novel takes you on.
I ended up liking this book much more than I thought I would from my initial experience with it. It will be given a permanent position on my shelf, though I would like to read some of the author’s other novels before I allow myself to claim any sort of Rachel Ferguson fandom.
Often compared to classics such as I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith, 1949), and Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons, 1932), I will admit a certain resemblance, but feel this novel is not as sincere as the first, and not as satirical as the second. It is in the same genre, though – young heroines muddling their way into their inevitably adult lives.
Recommended, with reservations. Not for everyone, and may take a few tries to fully engage.