The Brontes Went to Woolworths, a book by Rachel Ferguson, is one of the strangest novels I’ve read in some time. The Carne family – a widow and three daughters – occupy center stage in this novel, and they were great fun – highly imaginative, theatrical, and personable. But I confess that I felt a bit of the slowcoach as far the Carnes were concerned: forever left behind.
The basic premise of the novel is that the Carnes tend to embellish their lives with imagination; sometimes they “adopt” real people and make them into elaborate personalities that figure in the Carnes’ daily lives. What might happen if you actually met in person someone for whom you had already designated space in your life, whom you felt you already knew?
Spending time with the Carnes is a little like spending time with your most fun, most imaginative, and most energetic friend: someone who appreciates nonsense as much (or more, even) than you, whose conversation you adore, and whose flights of fancy may leave you a little in awe. It was like that with the Carne sisters. Admiring their intelligence, their conversation (with its liberal sprinklings of literary references), I liked them instantly. But, inevitably, as the story progressed, I felt a bit like I might in real life with such a friend: I am too conservative or too inhibited, or perhaps my imagination is too tightly tethered to reality to be either a full participant or an equal contributor to any flight of fancy.
The story is as much about the Carnes’ lives as it is about the lives that they touch – their governesses, for instance. In the closing chapters, the governess (the second governess, which I don’t think gives too much away) believes she has caught on to their “games” and makes an attempt to join in that falls flat, greeted as it was with a certain amount of bemusement by the Carnes.
And thus it was that I found myself relating, not to Deirdre, Katrine, or Sheil Carne, but rather the governess, particularly in that final moment. I can recall all too well being that person – carried away by the moment, perhaps, where I said something, thinking it would be well-received, and that painful knowledge afterward that it didn’t fit. The governess’s pacing in her room that night, reliving the awkward moment, did not help dispel the feeling of relating more to her than to them.
Still, I thought the novel was entertaining and lark-like. I read the majority of this book while on vacation this weekend, a vacation in which a great many things went wrong (stories for another night!). The Carnes go on vacation in this book, about which it is said:
Even a holiday that is going to be a successful one should never be preceded by irritating and exhausting details. One should simply walk out of the house into a car, and be driven, coolly, to the station. And when one arrived, a maid would have unpacked.
Indeed. On that point the Carnes and I definitely agree.