I first saw the virago edition of this book in a charity shop about two years ago when for some reason I didn’t have any cash on me, it stuck in the back of my mind but foolishly when I went back to buy it went to the wrong shop and bought Barbara Comyns ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ instead (you can see why I might get confused). It was definitely serendipity given that the blurb on the back of ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ had not attracted me in the slightest so it’s an amazing book which would have passed me by. I got home, realised my mistake, and hared back into town to get the right book before somebody else beat me to the prize. (I’m sure Leicester really is full of Virago hunting maniacs tracking my every move and just ready to pounce on my rightful prey – after all what could be more likely?)
Fortunately for me I won out and ended up with a brace of excellent books. I read ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’ soon after I got it and loved it. It’s a book I’ve meant to write about for some time but it’s particularly forced itself on my attention over the last week – Waterstone’s have the Bloomsbury Group edition on 3for2 (it’s worth a look they have some brilliant titles – I know, I already have most of them and don’t know whether to feel smug about ownership or disappointed about missing out on a bargain). I bravely held out against the lure of spending money I haven’t got on a book I have, only to find a 1940 penguin edition in Oxfam for £1.99, it took me two whole days to give in to temptation and make it mine (maybe there aren’t really book hunters on my trail after all; if there are they’re not doing a very good job).
The only way I could possibly justify the outlay (yes I am that badly paid) was by reading it straight away which has been something of a revelation. I don’t know much about Rachel Ferguson beyond scant biographical details, Persephone published ‘Alas Poor Lady’ which I didn’t initially associate with ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’; ‘Alas Poor Lady’ is one of the angriest books I’ve ever read, it makes an important point and there is absolutely nothing light hearted about it. ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’ is a different matter, on first reading my impression was of a sheer flight of fancy; a fantastical ghost story. Second time round and I’m picking up altogether more.
Basically it tells the story of a household of women – the three Carne sisters, their mother, and a governess. At some point Mr Carne has died, and whilst he seems to have left his family with enough money to live reasonably comfortably I sense economies are being made. The family live on nerves and make believe, weaving terrifically complicated stories around figures that take their fancy; this also includes behaviour that’s essentially stalking by modern standards. On a trip to Yorkshire they engage in table turning which brings unexpected consequences, the repercussions of which follow them back to London. They also manage to make the real acquaintance of a couple whom in imagination they have been entirely intimate with – this merging of fantasy and reality brings its own problem, and the way Ferguson makes it all seem eminently possible is truly masterful.
Looking beyond the fantasy there’s the equally real problems faced by a family of women bereft of men folk in the 1920’s. Dierdre, the oldest girl (probably in her mid to late twenties) earns her living as a journalist and refers to herself as the man of the house. She’s turned down one (presumably eligible) offer of marriage – on the grounds that she was in love with Sherlock Holmes at the time – but I suspect that it’s through a sense of responsibility to the family; it seems likely that her salary contributes to the household and it’s unlikely that a married women would be able to go on working to provide for her mother and sisters, moreover she takes on the role of protector to the family. The Carne’s have a close and happy relationship, but they also seem somewhat isolated – Dierdre who could leave has chosen not to, and this is in stark contrast to Miss Martin the first governess we meet. Her home has been broken up due to an impecunious father, leaving her unhappily adrift in a life that offers little scope for personal fulfilment. The Carne’s intimacy, and rich fantasy world puts her well out of her depth, adding immeasurably to her unhappiness and frustration. Something Dierdre is certainly aware of, and sympathetic to, but unable to help.
I love this book, it sometimes verges on the disturbing and uncomfortable, yet is full of optimism and bravery. Essentially a Cinderella story – by the end fairy god mothers in the shape of an elderly judge and his wife have appeared along with an explanation of the title. It is nothing short of remarkable, not least because of how fresh it still seems. Bloomsbury did a good deed in reprinting it and I’m adding my name to the list of ringing endorsements it’s already got.
By the by I notice that Ferguson published several books few of which are easily available – if anyone has read any I’d love to know more and get recommendations of which ones to save for.