With all the talk of whimsy and wackiness about The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson, my experience with the novel was a little different than what I expected. While it is true that this story of the Carne household, a mother and her three daughters making their way in 1930s London, is full of hilarious eccentric behavior, it is also true that there is a bit of sadness and uncertainty that hangs about their bohemian existence. This coupled with classist undercurrents left me on edge on numerous occasions, but unable to tear myself away from their story.
The novel begins in an amusing burst of frenetic energy in which the reader absorbs that this is not your stereotypical portrait of sisters, that reading is a necessity not an appreciation for the Carne women, that actress sister "Katrine is absolutely sick of elocuting indecencies, and always says that when anybody gets taken pornographic in Shakespeare's plays, the part is allotted to her automatically." They suffer "a frenzy of desire to join the resident pierrot troupe," and the eldest daughter, Deirdre once refused a proposal of marriage because "I couldn't accept the man, much as I liked him, because I was in love with Sherlock Holmes. For Holmes and his personality and brain I had a force of feeling which, for the time, converted living men to shadows."
After these fun first bits though, I promptly got a little lost for thirty pages or so. I tell you this so the same does not happen to you. My orienting problems arose from the huge imaginations of the family and the fact that they have imaginary relationships with real life people. Whom they have never met. Once I established the line between fact and fiction, it became much easier to dive into the fantastic. However, once the family gains an actual acquaintance with Toddy, better known as Judge Toddington who presided over Mrs. Carne's jury duty, the tenuous grip that the Carne family has on domestic bliss is revealed. The strain of their fatherless situation comes to us in small moments, and the outcomes of their forays into real friendships really left me on edge waiting for resolution.
Without revealing too much, like where the Brontes and Woolworths work into the picture, this book was much more than I expected. The Carnes have staked so much of their happiness, especially in regards to youngest sister Sheil, on an imagined engagement of life that it is only natural to fear for them. The two adults daughters are literally and figuratively afraid to leave the nursery, the school room. And Deirdre, the eldest, has actively sought a father replacement for the family in Toddy. Further enriched with small references to feminism and classism, The Brontes Went to Woolworths was all I wanted for whimsy but with much more depth than I imagined. Just to read the general premise and look at that lovely cover design, one might skip right ahead to the "charming" label but that would be an incomplete description of this rich and riveting and unique novel. Surprising depths here.
This book is part of the relatively new line from The Bloomsbury Group, books from the early twentieth century chosen by readers for readers. Many of which had fallen out of print. The line was available in the UK beginning last year but new to the US and Canada this year. Bloomsbury has been kind enough to offer 5 copies of The Brontes Went to Woolworths to US and UK residents reading here. Simply leave a comment here by Friday night, February 5, and the winners will be posted on Saturday.