Thursday, 13 January 2011

Penguin no. 245: The Brontes Went to Woolworths
by Rachel Ferguson

This is a perplexing book. It has this wonderfully inventive and intriguing title, so I had to find out what it was about. But my affection for it followed a trajectory like a sine curve; there were times when I loved it, and times when I when I felt less enthusiastic. And then it ends on a disquieting note. I came away with a feeling of intense distaste for the main characters.

These main characters are the three Carne sisters and their mother. But I'm reluctant to say more: I think it is essential to know as little as possible about the plot when you first take up this book. The beginning is all confusion.You tumble straight into the story and stumble about blindly; it takes a while to understand what is happening. But this is how the characters in this book experience the family. And as the reader, provided we are not forewarned, it is our experience too. This family exists within a self-created world of fantasy. Some outsiders are welcomed into this world, and some are left outside. This is very much a story about exclusion.

I loved the literary aspect. The pointer to other books and other stories. And the recognition of what it is to be a lover of books. There are passages in the book which capture it exactly. On the first page:

"A woman at one of mother's parties once said to me, "Do you like reading?" which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread - absolute necessities which one never things of in terms of appreciation."

And later -

"I used to walk all over London finding addresses where Dickens' characters lived, and I shall never forget the moment when I came down Kingsgate Street, High Holborn, and found the bird fancier's that Mrs Gamp lodged over." 

In this sentence she articulates a shared excitement. As soon as I could get a plane out of Australia I went to Lyme Regis to stand on the Cobb described in Persuasion and the French Lieutenant's Woman, and to Haworth to visit the Bronte parsonage. I love that she recognised this feeling and wrote it down.

But in a way this is what the book is about, only taken to an extreme. When we read a fictional book we engage in a willingness to take fictional characters to our heart, to personify them and suspend our knowledge that they are not real. But it is a personal and private experience. This family simply does this at a shared level, and extends it beyond the literary.

The excluded are represented by the two governesses. The first tries to prevent the fantasy, and the second tries to enter into it. The last two chapters are from the second governess' point of view, and this gives the novel is poignancy, because we see, despite the effort, that there is no way in.


  1. Well you've made it sound intriguing enough for me to want to try and find a copy. I've certainly known that feeling of excitement when you share a location with a writer or a character. It doesn't matter how full of tourists the streets of Stratford are I still thrill to the thought that Shakespeare walked there every time I'm in the High Street.

  2. Stories of exclusion always give me conflicted feelings because on one hand you identify with the excluders, the characters everyone wants to identify with, yet on the other hand you feel outrage and pity for the excluded.
    This novel was reprinted by Bloombury Group and has been quite popular in the blogosphere lately.



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