Thursday, 13 January 2011
Penguin no. 245: The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
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.