How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters. It is usually called They Were Seven, or Three-Not Out, and one spends one’s entire time trying to sort them all, and muttering, ‘Was it Isobel who drank, or Gertie? And which was it who ran away with the gigolo, Amy or Pauline? And which of their separate husbands was Lionel, Isobel’s or Amy’s?I feel that there isn’t much I can add to this opening paragraph. But what if I tell you that, also on page one, we have:
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 liking having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation.I might as well call it a day at this point, no? Unsurprisingly, The Brontës Went to Woolworths is about sisters, but there are only three of them and they couldn’t be easier to tell apart. Deidre, a journalist and aspiring novelist, is our narrator. Her older sister Katrine is an actress, and the third sister is Sheil, still in her childhood.
The three sisters and their mother have the habit of making up stories. Nothing unusual so far, right? Only the stories they make up are often about real people – they have a series of ongoing jokes, a sort of family mythology really, in which they pretend to know intimately people they haven’t actually met. Among them is Judge Toddington, a high-court judge they often read about in the papers, and his wife, Lady Mildred. But when Deidre actually meets Lady Mildred and is invited to the Toddington’s home, the friends they have been imagining for years inevitably clash with the real friends they’re just starting to get to know.
The Brontës Went to Woolworths is such a delight. It’s quirky and charming and unique, and it made me laugh out loud several times. I should probably give you a little bit of context: this novel was originally published in 1931, and has recently been reprinted as part of the Bloomsbury Group series of lost classics from the first half of the twentieth century (previously, it had been reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic).
I had heard a lot about how funny this book was, but I confess that part of me wondered how much of the humour required knowledge of certain cultural references – a kind of knowledge that I lack. I needn’t have worried – there’s absolutely nothing about this book that is impenetrable. It’s very English, and possibly also very 30’s, but I never really felt lost. Part of its charm comes from the language, which is dated, but in a charming way. Most of it, however, comes from a cast of characters who are eccentric, witty, not afraid to be silly, and fun to spend time with.
The world of The Brontës Went to Woolsworth is a world of writers, theatre people, and creative types. Rachel Ferguson was a first wave feminist, and it shows: this is also a world of smart, imaginative girls who are having too much fun to ever worry about Behaving Like Proper Ladies, much to the scandal of Sheil’s governess. Unfortunately, another thing that shows is her blatant class prejudice, which adds an ugly streak to an otherwise flawless novel.
I loved this book for what it said about storytelling, the role of the imagination, and the clash between actual people and our idealized images of them. But most of all, I loved it for the family dynamics: there’s such tenderness and real affection between the three sisters and their mother. And the way this affection is conveyed is both heartwarming and completely unsentimental.
And where do the Brontës come in? you ask. Well, I can’t tell you everything, but it involves a holiday in Yorkshire, eerie happenings in All Souls’ Eve, and new additions to the family mythology. If you’re curious, I strongly recommend that you pick up this book and find out for yourself.
More bits I liked:
I adore the autumn and all its smells, and the schoolroom would soon be dark enough to be lit for tea. This October was doing and being all the right things: warm as a June night, and full of subdued colour.Reviewed at:
I wonder, if I were dead and allowed to return once a year, whether I should like best to look in at windows I knew and see the living having fun and playing games, or whether I should feel less forgotten if they were sitting there being sad about me? All Souls’ Eve should never have been put into November, because of the chilly doubts in the hearts of the dead. They should have been allowed to come to us in high summer, when the air is still, and smelling of hot grass and sweet peas, and the moon is large and bland.
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You can read the first chapter of The Brontës Went to Woolworths here.