In addition to featuring posts on the works of the Brontës, I also like to discover and post about Brontë inspired fiction. This time it’s the turn of Lena Coakley’s 2016 novel, Worlds of Ink and Shadow: A Novel of the Brontës, which I recently finished reading and included on my list of 30 of the Best Books About the Brontës. Like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Glass Town Game (click here for my review), this is a narrative which focuses on the Brontës’ early writings, or juvenilia, set in their fictional fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria. I’m going to avoid spoilers in this post and attempt to review by summarising and sharing my overall thoughts on the text. Forgive my digressions on the history of the Brontë juvenilia, but why write a review of a text based on it without bothering to mention it?
The novel is set in the real world of the Brontës’ Haworth, and the fictional settings of Verdopolis and Gondal . Verdopolis is a setting from Charlotte and Branwell’s juvenilia and is the federal capital of the Glass Town Federation which is located at the mouth of the Niger. It is a glittering, glamorous city, with an expanse of countryside known as the Verdopolitan Valley where the aristocratic and elite own large estates. Gondal is a setting used by Emily and Anne in their own works, most of which have been lost. From the fragments that remain, we can ascertain that Gondal is an island in the North Pacific, the capital of which is Regina. There are four parts to Gondal (Angora, Alcona, Exina, Gondal), and unlike Verdopolis, it is reminiscent of the Yorkshire the Brontës knew and loved. From my calculations the novel is set in 1834 as the creation of the Kingdom of Angria (created in February 1834) is mentioned, making Charlotte 17, Branwell 16, Emily 15, and Anne 14. Coakley may take some artistic license here and amend some facts/details, she is the author of this particular story after all, and is simply basing events on aspects of the Brontës’ lives and literature. This is what I find hardest to deal with and let go of when reading Brontë inspired fiction.
The novel begins with Charlotte and Branwell not merely writing about their world, but writing it into existence, and transporting themselves into the action in Verdopolis. Anne and Emily have previously crossed over with their siblings, but are now restricted to sneaking around in the children’s study in Haworth, trying to read the narratives their siblings are living in their fantasy world. Whilst in Verdopolis, Branwell transforms into the wild and youthful Lord Thornton Witkin [Wilkin] Sneaky, and Charlotte transforms into her preferred pseudonym and narrator throughout their literary saga, Lord Charles Wellesley. In the Brontë juvenilia, Thornton actually becomes the guardian of Lord Charles, who continues to plague him throughout the saga, even after transforming into the more independent figure of Charles Townshend. When Emily and Anne cross over later in the novel, they become cousins of Charles and his older brother, the Duke of Zamorna.
Emily is angry at her siblings for continuing their world without her, and desires to cross over into her own world of Gondal, however, she is unable to as she and Anne are merely the passengers of their older siblings if and when they decide to take them to Verdopolis with them. However, Emily and Anne do not know the terrible price Charlotte and Branwell will pay for crossing, and that they have desperately tried to protect their sisters from the same fate. Problems arise when Charlotte announces her intention to abandon Verdopolis in order to lessen the damage from the bargain she and Branwell made, and their fictional creations begin to haunt them and intrude on their daily lives.
Haunted and weakened, Charlotte and Branwell decide to visit Verdopolis one last time in order to destroy it and save themselves, and their sisters. When Anne and Emily make the same bargain and arrive in Verdopolis to help, their characters realise that their creators (or Genii) are there to destroy them and turn on them. The Brontës must work together to avoid becoming trapped in Verdopolis forever, and leaving behind the home in Haworth they love so much.
This is a delightfully playful and clever text with layers of storytelling which question the nature of reality, issues of control, and who is really pulling the strings: character or author? There are of course some Brontë stereotypes thrown in for good measure (Anne is quiet, Branwell is obnoxious, Charlotte is bossy, and Emily is a loner), but stick around until the end and you’ll see a different side to each sibling. I especially liked Anne’s hidden strength, which seems to be trending with Brontëites at the moment, and a more fleshed out and human version of Branwell which examines his role as an author, and more importantly, a brother, rather than the wastrel he is normally portrayed as, although there is a sad hint of what is to come for the Brontë brother in Coakley’s text.
I promised no spoilers but I’ll admit that I guessed who the villain was based on my knowledge of the juvenilia, and chances are, if you’re familiar with certain characters, you will too. However, I appreciated Coakley’s choice, and for me, it worked far better than The Glass Town Game’s rather disappointing antagonist. That’s not to say there isn’t any real conflict, because there is between characters, between the Brontës and their creations, and between the Brontës themselves. The plot is also tight and pacy, keeping up the reader’s interest as one delves deeper into the Brontës’ worlds.
One minor issue was that I felt that Zamorna in particular was far too gallant for a large part of the text. Despite his origins in Charlotte’s work as a noble, dashing, romantic hero and poet, by the time he morphs into Zamorna, he is anything but. However, if this novel is set in early 1834, he is no longer the pure, dashing hero he once was, as is evident from Charlotte’s Something About Arthur (1833), but he is not yet the womanising despot he will become later in the saga, so I guess I’ll let this one slide and chalk it up to the artistic licence again.
I enjoyed the little nods to some of Emily and Charlotte’s adult work and found the comparison between Rogue and Zamorna with later Brontë Byronic heroes particularly interesting. However, it was the nods to the juvenilia that I appreciated the most. Branwell’s visits to the Elysium Club with Rogue, and the scene in St. Michael’s Cathedral were highlights for me. I also enjoyed seeing other characters such as Mary Henrietta Percy (an original creation of Branwell), Mina Laury (Zamorna’s favourite mistress in Charlotte’s stories who rather disappointingly does not interact with him in Coakley’s book), and the wonderful Zenobia (who might have stepped straight from Charlotte’s work but gets tragically little air time here). Most of all though, I enjoyed and admired Coakley’s ability to fuse the fantasies of the Brontës with a fantasy of her own in this wonderful book.
One last thing to note; the bargains made by the siblings for the sake of a little entertainment in their lives is heartbreaking, however, Coakley impressively manages to end things on a positive note, despite our knowledge of the Brontës’ real fate, finding inspiration from everyone’s favourite literary governess. Read this book. Just read it right now, and then tell me how much you loved it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
I’d also love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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