June 19, 2005

The Brontës Went to Woolworths, Rachel Ferguson

This is obviously a novel about a family's use of imagination and literature, our era might say 'creativity', to ameliorate the loss of their father and associated income. Most of the Carne family interactions manage details of how the game is worked out, how a joint fantastical narrative is agreed on, how they negotiate what's in what category of reality without admitting that different categories of reality exist.

A. S. Byatt's introduction (I recommend reading it after the novel) is particularly interested in how dangerous this degree of fantasy is. I think she's thinking of the danger that the players will forget they're playing; her novel The Game, she mentions, obviously owes a lot to this. This is an evident danger, and the more seductive because the imaginary world uses the eerie as material.

Me, I was struck by the plodding predictability of the class structure of the game. The Carnes make up stories about real people, including people they know. It never occurs to them to tell a (charming, kind, successful, imaginative) comedian that he's in their game, because he has the wrong kind of relatives. At the opposite pole, they go to some effort to invite a judge and his wife into the game and make the game comfortable for them. But their governesses, who live with them, are constantly shown the game and consistently shut out of it. Governesses live an unpleasant divided existence... The Brontes, literature's champions of the governess, are the only defenders of the governess in the game; perhaps they have enough reality to overrule not only the Carnes but Ferguson herself.

From the intro in the Virago reprint I have, Ferguson was well read in her day (1920s through the 1950s) especially by professionals, or not-too-radical New Women, or decaying gentles. There are, accordingly, a fair number of old copies of her books for sale, or still in the more thorough libraries, but she seems to be just comprehensively out of print. I think The Little Professor remarks that the Virago reprints made more happiness than profit, as they were bought in ones and twos by professors of literature, but not assigned in their scores and hundreds. (Googling doesn't confirm my memory of that, although she does refer to at least one case of even a reprint being much-sought-after.) Anyhow; if you want a more thorough and scholarly view of similar and earlier novels, I recommend her summaries. I also find that just picking out the dark green Virago Modern Classics spines at the used bookstore is a good search algorithm for novels that are not actually hard to read, but not trivial; they spread over enough of the exciting history of the last century to be a gentle reminder of history, too.

Oh! I should also tip a bit to Greer Ilene Gilman, who has been recommending this for years, and whose Moonwise is soon to be reprinted, hurrah.

LCCN: PR 6011 E7 B76 1988

ISBN 0860689360

So wrote clew in Fiction (20th c.).
And thus wrote others:
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