A Brontëful Season

I’ve been somewhat immersed in the Brontës for the past month. I didn’t mean to be, but it all started with a podcast and it snowballed from there.

The podcast in question is On Eyre from Hot and Bothered (a Not Sorry Production). The hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Lauren Sandler do a thorough and wonderful close reading of Jane Eyre—each hour(ish) long episode focuses on one or two chapters of the book. Be still, my heart! I can’t tell you how much I love a close read, and this one does not disappoint. Questions of power, desire, colonialism, class, gender, and agency abound and it’s so interesting and thought-provoking to listen to the discussions—especially in the areas where Vanessa and Lauren disagree.

A question they return to again and again is: should this be a book that we give to future generations of women? Do the genuinely radical and feminist parts of it outweigh its many problematic aspects, or not? This is a question that I am deeply interested in, not just about this book, but about all beloved older texts. I am about halfway through On Eyre, and I am loving every second of it.

Not Sorry Productions also has a program called Common Ground, in which they organize Reading, Writing & Walking retreats based on literary texts. Their Jane Eyre pilgrimage is scheduled for this month in the West Yorkshire moors (pandemic allowing) and looks like an absolute dream come true. (Maybe one day?)

Listening to On Eyre inspired me to pick up a book I’d been eyeing at the library: The Vanished Bride: A Brontë Sisters Mystery by Bella Ellis. It is exactly what is advertises in the title—a historical mystery novel that imagines Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë as a trio of sleuths. A bit silly, but it seemed like it would be a fun and light read, and I do love me a mystery novel.

Berkley Books 2019

While the mystery was fairly well-crafted, overall the novel wasn’t my cup of tea. I really have only myself to blame for this, since I knew exactly what it was going in to it. But the earnest portrayal of the sisters rubbed me the wrong way. A lot of the dialogue was doing double duty as exposition and it seemed heavy-handed. And I realized that I actually quite disliked having someone put words in their mouths at all. It seemed presumptuous, and I resented it. (This makes me question my own life’s ambition to write a biographical novel of Harriet Vane. But maybe that’s different because she is already a fictional character? I will have to ponder this…)

And now to utterly contradict myself with my next Brontëful choice, I read The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente. And I adored it.

This is another fictional representation of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, with the inclusion this time of their brother Branwell. But in this novel, Catherynne M. Valente takes the Brontës and runs wild with them. It tells a spectacular, fantastical tale of the siblings (aged 8-12) getting swept into the imaginary world of their own making and having adventures.

Simon and Schuster 2017

Brontë enthusiasts will know that the juvenilia of the siblings is vast and full of incredible worldbuilding. They created elaborate worlds, including Glass Town and the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, in which they set their early fiction. The Glass Town Game transports them to this world of their own making—and what a world it is! In true Valente style, the novel is bursting with the gorgeous, the sinister, the magical, but underlaid with a foundation of true grief and fear, as the children grapple with the deaths of their mother and two eldest sisters, as well as their imminent separation when Charlotte and Emily are sent back to school (the same school that killed their sisters).

In Glass Town, everything is literal. The “Iron Duke” (The Duke of Wellington) is made up of iron bits; “Old Boney” (Napoleon Bonaparte) is a shining skull riding a porcelain rooster; Josephine is made of roses and Marie Antoinette of cake. The cities are gloriously coloured—Glass Town in ruby reds, Verdopolis in greens, Ochreopolis in golds. A spymaster is made of books and Charlotte and Emily attend Wildfell Ball where they meet Mary and Percy Shelley: “…a most extraordinary pair—a young man nailed together out of the parts of a shattered ship and a young girl all of crackling electricity and steel.”

Perhaps because the novel is so outrageous and gorgeous, or perhaps because the Brontës are children in this story, or perhaps simply because Catherynne M. Valente is a genius wordsmith and worldbuilder herself, I did not in least resent her portrayal of the siblings. They felt all the more real for having to contend with this fantastical situation. Because this is not a book in which they say, la la la la la, magic is real, moving on. Instead they force themselves to confront what it means if their stories have come alive and what their responsibilities to these realms are. There is a lot going on in this book, and it is wonderful.

‘New worlds just…come on in the dark like fireflies. Every time a choice between two roads is made, a universe fires up to follow each path. Every time a war begins or ends. Every time a child huddles up in his room imagining stories for his dolls. Nothing is too small to create a world, the theory goes. Each beautiful in its way. Some as similar to ours as twins. Some so strange that they would be, to us, as we are to lantern fish under the sea. Some even speculate that what we call heaven and hell are merely other worlds such as this, and death is but a swift carriage from here to there.’

‘There must be another way to travel between these places,’ Charlotte said. ‘Other than by dying or…or…by…’ Charlotte’s voice died in her throat. This was the moment. She could either say it all at last or keep mum. Would they believe her? Would it matter if they didn’t? Did it actually matter at all that they’d made this world in their little house above the churchyard in Haworth?”

The Glass Town Game

Next up in my Brontëful season (oh, it’s not over yet!) is going to be a reread of one of my all-time favourite short stories, “Tea with Mr Rochester” by Frances Towers, in the book by the same name from Persephone Books. I promise you that this collection of short stories is SO WORTH taking the trouble to get your hands on. My ravings about it will wait for another blog post, though.

And, finally, I am going to take another stab at Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which I am frankly embarrassed not to have read yet. A couple of years ago I got as far as the parrot catching on fire and had to put it down. But with all this Brontëing, it feels like time to pick it back up again.

Happy Reading, all. And wishing you a safe and restorative new year. ❤️

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