I have not fallen off the face of the earth; I’m not even all that overwhelmed with the beginning of classes and trying to finish a draft of the Current Project before getting on with that pesky R&R (countdown in the sidebar). I just haven’t had anything I wanted to blog about. Classes look okay so far, though I’m still struggling to retain some sense of denial that they have started. I’m working my way through the print-out of the CurPro, revising and expanding as I go, and finding considerable satisfaction in this work.
And I recently read a book I loved, and that I want to tell you about, although of course my musings probably won’t make much sense until you read it. I found Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s through a reference in a biography of Barbara Pym, which seemed to me an excellent recommendation. The Amazon summary is all right, but the comments there and some other online reviews seem to me to miss the point in various ways (the book was published in 1931, okay, so it’s not describing 1930s London. Or maybe it’s just that I am sufficiently steeped in 1920s British culture (thanks to my near-obsession with the Mitfords, Dorothy Sayers, and other high spots of the era, and my mother’s obsession with the Brontes) that I don’t read altogether as a twenty-first century reader. Or maybe being an English professor is good for something, even though professionally I deal with rather older texts.
Or maybe being a sci-fi/fantasy fan helps. The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s reminded me very strongly of Diana Wynne Jones’s The Time of the Ghost, another book I’m very fond of (and where I would quibble with the School Library Journal‘s review of it, quoted on the Amazon site). Why do people seem to think books should start with a clear expository statement of what is going on? Have they never heard of the principle in medias res? Part of the fun of reading is figuring out what’s happening. “Cryptic communication” (SLJ about TotG)? Huh. If you divide your time between reading Middle English and reading Cherryh’s Er-Series (as I call it: you know, ForeignER, DefendER, etc), with a dose of Mitfordiana somewhere along the line, the in-jokes of either book are no trouble at all. So, okay, that does rule out a lot of middle-schoolers, but I don’t think I have any of them reading along here. And even if I do: learn to figure out what’s going on from the context! Imagine that you’re over-listening to a conversation you ought not to be hearing: how would you figure it out IRL?
Anyway, what strikes me most strongly about Ferguson’s book is how much a product of its time it is, even as in many ways it anticipates current YA interests. In a world gone mad for vampires and other such critters, The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s seems remarkably wholesome. I kept expecting it to be more menacing, to slide over into real spookiness, but instead its point (or one of them) seems to be to domesticate the uncanny, to say, “Look, whatever you call up with your imagination you can also tame, using your imagination.” Despite my protests above, I do not read wholly as a 1930s reader: more recent fantasy literature, especially, has conditioned me to expect certain conventions being put into play. But those conventions were not in place for Ferguson. She’s working with the conventions of her time, in which séances were a popular party game (see Unnatural Death), pierrots were glamorous figures (see Murder Must Advertise; and I must point that the pierrot figure is not the same as the lower-class comedian), and the music-hall was still a viable form of entertainment. The music-hall atmosphere is one of the elements that keeps this novel comic. As is the domesticity: the setting is definitely this-world, not other-world, mostly indoors or in the garden; and the girls’ mother is a significant figure, in contrast to many similar stories where parents are dead, ill, or hopelessly distracted.
Byatt’s The Game, to which she alludes in the introduction to the Virago re-issue of The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s, is far more frightening in its treatment of where the imagination can take you, even though (or because?) it is a wholly realistic novel. Her short story about the little girls in war-time England who encounter Malory’s Questing Beast (sorry, I can’t remember its title) is a good example of how literature, reality, and imagination can intersect in the sort of chilling way I expected of Ferguson’s book.
As for its classism, well, duh—what would you expect? Read as an anthropologist: this is how people of this time, class, and education thought. Byatt says when she first read Brontes . . . Woolworth’s, she was hoping Love Would Conquer All, so Katrine would marry Freddie. I get a bit tired of that narrative. I thought the sisters had a good point about the lower-class in-laws Katrine would have had to cope with all her life (read the Mothers-In-Law thread over at the Chronicle if you don’t think you marry a family as well as a spouse). Some people wouldn’t mind that, but if you do, then you do, and better to think about it beforehand than to regret it afterward.
Basically, everything the reviews I’ve linked to criticize is IMO a point in the book’s favor, and if you like Diana Wynne Jones and Dorothy Sayers, then you would probably like Ferguson. Or at least this book. I need to order myself some more Ferguson to find out if her other books are similarly delightful.