In amongst last week's Knit-Fest I downed needles occasionally and cast my eyes over The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson, published in 1931, another of those books I'd meant to read for years and then a buzz around the blogs drives me to pick it up.
I'm being really restrained because I don't want to overdose on the genre and you know how susceptible I am to gorging, but having read Violet Powell's excellent biography, The Life of a Provincial Lady, A Study of E.M.Delafield and Her Works and felt none the worse for the experience I decided I could risk another foray.
The Carne family, (digging deep I discover this is a name from the Penzance side of the Brontes, Maria Branwell's mother was a Carne) seemingly eccentric and bohemian have fallen on hard times with the death of Mr Carne and with it comes a freedom of expression that indeed seems quite batty but within the family circle completely normal. Having invented a coterie of imaginary friends and acquaintances based on real-life people, they must then invent everyday lives and personalities for them and it is indeed quite confusing as you read to figure out who exists and who doesn't.
Daphne du Maurier's family would have called this Pegging (investing someone with a romantic glamour) and Gondaling (to make-believe or pretend, after the Brontes invented world of Gondal ) and did it all the time and Daphne used it frequently to help develop her fictional characters.More about Daphne and the Brontes to come, it's all fascinating.
When one notable participant a High-Court judge and his wife do take human form for the Carne family, and play along with their foibles, things become even stranger.
Nicola Humble makes much reference to The Brontes Went to Woolworths in her excellent book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s, Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism and published by Oxford University Press. If you feel the least whim of an addiction to this genre and want to know more, this book alongside Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession are probably the books to have on hand.
Nicola Humble elaborates on the overt treatment of class in Rachel Ferguson's book and now I'm thinking it would be interesting to read it again with that in mind, alongside her observations about Woolworths.
Here's the Wallington High Street branch I worked in as a Saturday girl twenty-eight shillings for the day, wooden floors, green overalls and each light bulb tested before it was sold, imagine doing that now? Woolworths apparently
'captures a key moment of transition in middle-class life and behaviour'
as economic privation hit home. Rachel Ferguson using it in her title as a contrast between the practical and the imaginary as well as a demonstration of the
'dour limitations of the Brontes' nineteenth-century middle-class poverty and the plucky adventuring of contemporary middle-class forays into Woolworths.'
Of course perfectly possible to read the book without any of this background reading and enjoy a window on the quirky and unusual world that was then, but you might not want to miss Nicola Humble's fascinating chapter entitled The Eccentric Family.
The discussion ranges far and wide across Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton and countless other 'sprawling, dysfunctional middlebrow families' with their 'dramatic unlikeness to the conventional nuclear family' of post-war Britain. The family as both haven and cage, a source of creative energies and destructive neuroses with an identity largely established through private games and invented language.
Then I'm all agog as Nicola Humble starts to analyse the middlebrow use of the Brontes as the perfect example of such a family and the frequent references to them in many of the books and the inferences that can be taken from that.
Books as diverse as E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady, At Mrs Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor, I Capture the Castle and Cold Comfort Farm all have their Bronte moments.
Suddenly, as Nicola Humble lists books about large families who thwart the trend, Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh,(six children) The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (seven children) Antonia Forest's Marlow family series (eight children) my interest is awakened and I see a whole new reading list blossoming before my eyes.
Must pace myself, the food for the feast is far too readily available.