The Glass Town Game is a 2017 children’s novel by Catherynne M. Valente which is based on, you guessed it, the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings. As I’m not simply a diehard Brontëite, but also very slightly obsessed with the worlds of Glass Town and Angria, this was a book I just had to read. I was not familiar with Valente’s work before stumbling across a mention of The Glass Town Game somewhere in the depths of book reviews on WordPress, so I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, in my excitement at finding a book based on the childhood tales of the Brontës, I’d neglected to find out any other information about the text, so I was slightly surprised after opening the first page of the hefty 531 page volume, that it is in fact a children’s book. However, my library/bookshelf is full of texts ranging from fourteenth century romance to the Brontës, and the works of Philip K. Dick so this did not discourage me. I am a bookworm, and I devour literature.
Warning: this review contains spoilers. My advice? Read The Glass Town Game and then return here when you are done. You can also skip to the end of this review for more general thoughts, etc. Or simply plough on if you’re curious about the text but don’t fancy wading through a 531 page kid’s book. You’ll be missing out though.
The Glass Town Game begins in Haworth, Yorkshire, home of the real life Brontë siblings as well as their fictional counterparts. Still mourning the death of their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in addition to their mother, the four surviving Brontë children (Anne, Branwell, Charlotte, Emily) seek solace in one another’s company, inventing games and worlds in the nursery room at the top of the stairs. However, everything is set to change when Charlotte and Emily must return to the school they blame for robbing them of their older sisters. Anne is still too young to attend, and Branwell, a boy, will be tutored at home by his father. When “the Beastliest Day” (Valente 22) arrives, the four siblings head for Keighley train station where they will be parted when Charlotte and Emily board the train for school. As the siblings await the train’s arrival, the most extraordinary thing happens; a man made out of books and newspapers who they christen “the Magazine Man” (Valente 49) appears at the station. Startled, the children soon realise that the adults at the station cannot see the strange scene unfolding around them, a scene made stranger with the arrival of The Glass Town Express train and Crashey and Bravey, soldier characters from the Brontës’ fantasy world, Glass Town.
Enticed by the mystery of the Magazine Man, Crashey, and Bravey, and terrified of being parted, the siblings board the train to Glass Town, sampling a small piece of the magic to come with a wonderful dinner, quite unlike anything back in Haworth. However, their journey is interrupted due to an attack by Boney, a villain from their stories (based on the real Napoleon Bonaparte) and they are forced to disembark at Port Ruby. As a lover of the juvenilia, it was immediately apparent that Port Ruby is one of Valente’s own creations, however, she is an author who is entitled to embellish and expand the Brontës’ world to fit her own story. And Port Ruby is an enchanting and breathtaking setting that the Brontës would have been proud of, a place where “Branwell, even in his bloodiest dream, had never imagined so many shades of red existed in the universe” (Valente 73).
As the battle rages around the Brontës and their now life size toy soldiers strive to keep them safe, Charlotte’s own personal hero within and without her stories, the Duke of Wellington, comes to their rescue with his limey army to defeat the French frogs and Boney and his magnificent demonic rooster pet. If it all sounds bizarre, that’s because it is, but it’s nothing the Brontës weren’t capable of dreaming up for their famous tiny books. However, their world is shattered when one of the children is killed during the battle, and Valente’s passage depicting this scene is beautiful and haunting, and quite possibly my favourite part of the book. Read it and you’ll see why. It’s too good to spoil here.
One of the soldiers is also killed in action, but quickly revived along with the recently deceased Brontë sibling by a substance named grog, a substance the siblings are understandably desperate to get their hands on and spirit away back to Haworth. However, they must first make the evening train home, but entranced by the world around them, the parts both familiar and unfamiliar, and desperate to see more, the children agree to escort Brunty (the magazine man) to prison in Ochreopolis. The city is another of Valente’s original and stunning creations, a mix of Oxford and Vienna with “Golden glass bridges arched over a branching river of bubbling champagne” (Valente 167) and “saffron shadows and bright sunshine” (Valente 167). I’m sure the real Brontës would have ached to have found themselves in such a place. The siblings travel to the city courtesy of Charlotte and Emily’s suitcases which are capable of transforming into dwellings and transportation in Glass Town and which are affectionately named Bestminster Abbey.
Thinking they are alone whilst travelling in Bestminster, the siblings finally discuss the world around them and their role as creators, possibly a nice little nod to their roles as the Chief Genii in the original Glass Town stories. However, Brunty, the prisoner and spy, is listening and tries to extract information from them before Charlotte literally shuts him up. When arriving at the prison, they find it is actually Bud & Tree Publishing House, run by Mr Bud and Mr Tree, two more characters borrowed from the juvenilia, and is covered in the pages of Shakespeare plays which now contain the names of other places and characters from their own stories. Although there is a good joke about the Ghost Office/Post Office, this is one of the few parts of the novel that don’t work for me; as the siblings hand Brunty over to be edited, they become distressed at the idea and I’m not entirely sure why. They criticise Bud and Tree for editing Brunty whilst admitting that in their own world people are locked up or executed. However, with issues of loss and death weighing them down, it seems strange that the children see editing as being worse that imprisonment and execution. This gives Brunty his chance to escape using a mysterious and slimey substance and he flees through a hole in the floor, taking Anne and Branwell with him.
This is where the narrative’s action really begins. Bud and Tree refuse to accept responsibility for what has happened but work out that Brunty has probably fled to Verdopolis, which once belonged to Glass Town, but is now disputed territory between Glass Town and Gondal. They also conclude that Brunty will take Branwell and Anne to the Bastille prison. Charlotte and Emily must now work out how to rescue their siblings and avoid four becoming two, just as six previously became four with the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth. They ask Bud and Tree for help but they say that they can do nothing as “working class Angrians” (Valente 208), and insist they need Wellington, Douro, or Byron by their side.
In order to do this, Charlotte and Emily attend Wildfell Ball to drum up support for their cause whilst Anne and Branwell travel on a time fly to Bravey’s Inn where Bravey meets his ultimate end thanks to Brunty and a lack of grog, and then to the Bastille where they meet up with Anne’s own creation, the kidnapped Glass Town princess, Victoria. This is also where Brunty’s part in the plot is revealed; another part which unfortunately did not work for me. He was sent by Boney to Switzerland in the real world to steal a battery in order to harness its power to destroy Glass Town. However, the narrative is never quite clear what exactly was going to be done and therefore the terror of the situation is lost and the villain feels flat.
At Wildfell Ball, the sisters meet other characters from the juvenilia such as Mary Percy, Douro, and Young Soult, however, Wellington turns down Charlotte’s request and Emily gets romantic with Byron. In an amusing passage which to me was reminiscent of scenes from Charlotte Brontë’s 1830 short play, The Poetaster, Young Soult uses his bad poetry to expose Douro as a traitor and he flees the ball. Rogue is also revealed to be traitorous in a nice little twist that I enjoyed as a lover of the juvenilia despite the fact I knew it was coming. Wellington then reveals he knew about Douro and will help Charlotte to rescue her siblings. They deliver a letter to Branwell and Anne using the Ghost Office and calling up the spirit of Cathy who tells her tale in what is basically Valente’s recap of the plot of Emily Brontë’s adult novel Wuthering Heights. The sisters also discover Crashey’s role in the creation of grog, and eventually its true source.
Meanwhile Branwell makes a deal with Boney and shares the information sent by Cathy the ghost which will result in the Glass Towners defeat. However, desperate to prove himself to his father, and to keep his sisters safe, he believes he has done the right thing. The Bastille is eventually revealed to be a giant and distorted version of the Brontë Parsonage, explaining why all of the inhabitants are made of pieces of their possessions. When Wellington’s army storms the Bastille, Charlotte and Emily attempt to find Branwell and Anne, but first Emily borrows Byron’s horse and the ghosts to put an end to the strange battery men (including Brunty and Douro) who can destroy things with a force like lightening. It’s a good idea for a villainous plot device, however, the threat of it is never really explored enough to make an impact. The book’s real big bad though, just like in the Brontës’ earliest games, is Boney. Unfortunately he is also easily dispatched by Bestminster who appears to eat him and his wife Josephine. During the battle, Charlotte is revealed to be one of the Chief Genii, which is another nod to the original Glass Town stories. There is also a nice little reference to Jane Eyre with Aunt Elizabeth’s desperate calls for the children.
The siblings are reunited and Branwell even manages to fulfil his role and the expectation of his father by protecting his sisters, even saving Charlotte’s life. Wellington is killed however, and all of the grog, along with its source is gone. Charlotte is devastated and Branwell, tortured by his deal with Boney confesses everything. His sisters are furious however he is saved by the ghost of Wellington who delivers a note to Charlotte and pins medals on the children for their efforts in the battle. The siblings’ trip to Glass Town is ended and they return home via a portal in the Bastille to their anxious Papa and Aunt, but not before Byron rather comically attempts to brick it up due to his love for Emily.
The novel ends on a rather poignant note with the children gathered around the graves of their mother and sisters. They attempt to use a bottle of grog spirited away by Anne to revive their relatives. The grog fails to work and the children are collected by their Aunt who wonders “How anyone can ever imagine unquiet slumber for our dear sleepers in that quiet earth” (Valente 530-31), as indeed, the real Brontës, and certainly Emily, probably came to wonder themselves during adulthood.
More General Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and all of its references to both the juvenilia and the Brontës’ adult works. I think having a prior knowledge of the characters and places will give you an extra level of enjoyment, but it is not a necessity as Valente is a powerful enough writer to conjure up creations that the Brontës would be proud of and desirous to explore. It certainly makes me want to track down some more of her novels. However, it might be a bit long for a children’s book and unfortunately I can’t imagine many kids sticking around for the final battle, which is a real shame. For me and other adults the length is not an issue, but I can’t help feeling that splitting the book into a series may have been a better idea in order to appeal to its target audience. Some of the playful language choices (which I adored) may also go over the heads of younger readers, however, anybody will be able to appreciate Valente’s wonderful and often otherworldly descriptions of places the Brontës would have been proud to call their own. Branwell’s promise to Princess Victoria at the end of the novel to return with her writings hints at a sequel, and if Valente ever decides to use either the Glass Town Express or the portal in Haworth ever again, I would certainly be available for another trip.
Some of the issues I had with the novel stem from my obsession with and work on the Brontë juvenilia, including the fact that characters who have different aliases in the juvenilia appear here as separate characters which gets a little confusing, and also the fact that some of these character names would not have existed in 1828 when I believe this story is set based on the ages of children in the text. Although they admit to things being jumbled up in this version of Glass Town, the children in the story claim to have created Zamorna and Mary Percy when they did not exist at this point in time. I was also disappointed that there was no Lord Charles Wellesley as he is one of the most prominent characters throughout the Glass Town and Angrian saga. Maybe we may one day see him a sequel. Fingers crossed! The connection between Emily and Mary Percy in the text confused me a little as Branwell actually created the character of Mary and she eventually became one of Charlotte’s favourite heroines. These are minor things and I am being incredibly pedantic here. I absolutely adored this book and kudos to Valente (an American) for her use of Northern English words and phrases.
Some themes to look out for include gender issues, battles, and expectations, which I found were most surprisingly expressed through Branwell, in addition to love, loss, power, creation, and of course, storytelling. As a champion of the real Branwell’s work and creativity, I do appreciate depictions of him that steer clear of the drunken disgrace of the Brontë myth. There was much more to him than that and The Glass Town Game, although portraying a child, hints that there was far more to Branwell than mythology tells us.
I would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the early life of the Brontës as there is much to enjoy and some wonderful references to their works. Valente is a wonderful author and if you haven’t done already, read this book! I’m already tracking down more of her work as you read this.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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A fan of Catherynne M. Valente? Check out my review of her dreamy Science Fiction novel, Radiance, here.