Title: The Brontës Went to Woolworths
Author: Rachel Ferguson
Genre: Fiction, published in 1931
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths begins with a wink to bookworms, and to call it charming would be a criminal understatement. When Deirdre Carne and her family are asked if they like reading, Deirdre tells us:
“…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. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.”
Deirdre also says that she hates books about sisters, but that is just what this book is. The Carne family consists of a widow and her three daughters: Katrine, the eldest; Sheil, the youngest; and Deirdre, the middle daughter and our narrator for most of the book. Sometimes the story slips into a third-person narrative; this becomes significant as the story progresses.
The Carne family is lost somewhere between reality and imagination. After Mrs. Carne was chosen as an alternate for a trial, they pretend to know the judge, lovingly called Toddy, who, Sheil says, “yawns like tiny jam tarts”. Toddy is always there for them, even if not actually physically present, and helps them to get through difficult times. Other imaginary companions include a Pierrot named Saffy and a snobbish doll called Ironface. Their dog, Crellie, was a hero in the Boer War or the Pope depending on the mood of the family. Their governess, Miss Martin, is exasperated by their inability be absolutely present in reality.
During a trip to Keighley, which is quite close to the Brontë sisters’ home of Haworth, the family experiences the intrusion of ghosts into their existence. This frightens Sheil, who has difficulty coming to terms with the lines between reality, imagination, and death. Further complicating matters is Deirdre’s real-life meeting with Toddy’s wife, Mildred. Mildred takes an instant liking to Deirdre and her family, and so reality begins to mesh with imagination as the real Toddy becomes their friend.
This is the sort of book that I personally love, but I could understand that others might hate it. The Carnes are sometimes snobs. Their attitude towards their governesses seems off, but I felt like that was the point, since the Brontës play such a large role in the book. Miss Martin apparently went to Newnham College, Cambridge, before her family lost their money, and she is so caught in an outdated belief in the way things ought to be that she becomes a governess. Since she doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching, this felt like old-fashioned thinking in the extreme, given that Katrine tries for a life on the stage and Deirdre is a writer. Would fiery Jane Eyre have been a governess if she had had other options?
In varying ways, the characters cling to the past and tradition in a rapidly changing world. Although she is well-educated, Miss Martin is still a governess during a time when it seems an increasingly irrelevant profession. As a real-life comparison, Dorothy L. Sayers, who went to Oxford, worked in an advertising agency during the 1920s. Miss Martin lacks the imagination to find a different life for herself, eventually following the man she loves (who possibly does not return her love) and choosing the life he has chosen. Even the Carnes, while modern in some ways, are terribly snobbish about marriage, rejecting Katrine’s suitor as being of the wrong social class.
As readers, we might wish to be accepted into the Carne circle and not excluded like the steady stream of governesses. However, with the change in point-of-view, from the intimate first-person to the distant third-person, we, too, are kept away from being part of the fun. We are reminded that we are only spectators. We are here to watch the story unfold, nothing more.
Despite the distance created by the ending, the landscape of the family’s imagination instantly took me in and held me. Lines like this became a favorite of mine:
“I often think that perhaps there is only a limited amount of memory going about the world, and that when it wants to live again, it steals its nest, like a cuckoo.”
At just about 200 pages, this is a slim book that somehow manages, in its few pages, to create so much character depth that I am constantly amazed at it with each re-read. The characters seem to pop off of the page with their quirky view of the world. The Carnes are not perfect, but it is their dreamy inventiveness that brings me back to this novel again and again.