In 1826 Branwell Brontë was famously given a set of toy soldiers by his father, Patrick. It is well known that Branwell and his sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, each seized a soldier, named it, and went on to create a whole world centred on these figures. Charlotte chose Wellington, Branwell opted for Napoleon, Emily claimed Gravey (later re-named Parry) and Anne chose Waiting Boy (later re-named Ross). It is also well known that the siblings created tiny books in which they documented the actions of their characters and the events of their fictional world. What isn’t common knowledge amongst Brontë fans are the actual events of the narratives that were set in the African fantasy world of Glass Town, and later, Angria (Emily and Anne’s own world was Gondal). When I began Brontë Babe Blog, it was my mission to promote the Brontë juvenilia to a wider audience, and with over 10,000 views on my blog this year, I think it’s safe to say it’s working (thanks for reading!). Far from being literary curiosities, juvenilia are fascinating insights into the childhood and apprenticeships of three of the most beloved authors in English Literature as well as an established poet whose literary legacy has been tarnished by what we think we know of his personal life.
In this post I’d like to discuss a short but curious and quite profound piece of juvenilia that Brontë fans may not be familiar with. Strange Events is a short tale by Charlotte Brontë written in 1830 at the age of fourteen. It featured in the the fifth issue of the second series of the siblings’ Young Men’s Magazine. The magazine was “advertised” as the December 1830 edition, however the stories it contains were actually all completed on or before the 1st of September that year. The siblings were incredibly organised regarding the production of their family magazines and they worked hard to imitate the printing practices of the day, listing editors and booksellers etc. On the title page, Charlotte herself is listed as the editor, whilst characters such as Sergeant Tree (son of one of Charlotte’s pseudonyms, Captain Tree) are listed as the booksellers in the Great Glass Town. The manuscript was formerly in the Law Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, however, it has been lost for a number of years. Fortunately, a transcript made by Davidson Cook in 1925 survives. Esteemed Brontë scholar, Christine Alexander, used this transcript for her anthology of Charlotte’s juvenilia, An Edition of The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë: Volume I The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (Basil Blackwell, 1987). However, this is an extremely rare book to track down and I was unbelievably lucky to have located a stray copy for just £21 earlier this year. You can click here to be re-directed to the British Library’s website where you’ll find photographs of the third edition in the series. This edition features Charlotte’s tale, A Day at Parry’s Palace which provides a glimpse of Emily’s Gondal, and which I wrote about earlier this year.
The other stories featured in this edition of the magazine are On Seeing an Ancient Dirk, etc., A Frenchman’s Journal, and Conversations.
Strange Events is a short tale attributed to Charlotte’s favourite pseudonym, Lord Charles Wellesley, and is also narrated by and features him. Despite its short length and lack of any real action, it is one of the most unique pieces of Charlotte’s juvenilia. Charles begins the tale by discussing the general lack of faith and belief in the supernatural, but states that he is a believer. He then goes on to describe a strange event from the previous June where he encountered a supernatural entity. A bored Charles (readers more familiar with the Brontë juvenilia will notice just how often Charles is bored throughout the saga) visits the Public Library in search of occupation or amusement. The bright fire and tranquillity of the empty building cheers him and whilst there he falls into “the strangest train of thought that ever visited even my mind, eccentric and unstable as it is said by some insolent puppies to be”. Charles, lulled by the peace and the fire, has arguably fallen into a slumber and dreams the strange encounter where he feels as though he is somehow outside of himself, and that he is “a non-existent shadow … the mere idea of some other creature’s brain”. However, the explicitly supernatural elements of the Brontë juvenilia, such as the four Chief Genii, were still present in the narratives in 1830, so it is quite possible that the strange event which follows is a genuine supernatural encounter. Charles’ pondering the nature of his own reality, and that of the people and places around him adds an existential tone to the narrative, and demonstrates what Christine Alexander refers to as “A curiously sophisticated concept of the symbiotic relationship between the creator and the created”.
Charles’ existential and metaphysical musings are not the strange event of the title though. He remains in the library grappling with the nature of his own reality and “striving to fathom a bottomless ocean of Mystery” for several hours, until he is disturbed by a loud noise from above him. Looking up, Charles cannot clearly see the source of the noise, but he can hear the sound of voices, “one like my own but larger and dimmer … and another which sounded familiar, yet I had never, that I could remember, heard it before”. This passage demonstrates the usual complexity of Charlotte’s work and mind as the voice that sounds like Charles’ own is arguably Charlotte’s, and the other is Branwell’s. However, it could also be the voice of another character. Charles is a pseudonym and alter ego of Charlotte within the juvenilia, however, another alter ego used by Charlotte is Chief Genius Tallii, one of the four Genii who control the world of Glass Town. Brannnii, Emmii, and Annii are the other three Genii, helping to create and control Charles’ world. Charlotte is Tallii, but Charlotte is also Charles, both of whom are creators of events within Charlotte’s fantasy world.
Following this, Charles witnesses books moving about on the top shelves of the library, apparently of their own accord. He then states, “I felt myself raised suddenly to the ceiling, and ere I was aware, behold two immense, sparkling blue globes within a few yards of me”. Charles has been lifted up by a “hand wide enough almost to grasp the Tower of All Nations” and has come face to face with his creator. Although Charlotte’s eyes were not blue in reality (see Elizabeth Gaskell’s description of their unique colour in The Life of Charlotte Brontë), the supernatural entity that has plucked Charles from the library is almost certainly some version of Charlotte, whether as herself, or as her alter ego, Chief Genius Tallii. This incident astonishes Charles and he is more convinced than ever of his state of non-existence. The reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Colonel Crumps and the apparition vanishes. Charles is “left in dismal uncertainty” as to the true nature of the events, and offers up another supernatural tale in order to persuade readers of the true nature of his encounter.
A few years before Charles’ encounter in the library he visits an old friend, but is dismayed to find him bedridden in a darkened room and in “mortal agony”. Charles is moved by his friend’s bleak situation and allows his tears to mingle with his own. Charles’ friend clasps him round the neck like a child and informs Charles that he will be dead within the next twelve hours. Charles insists he is strong and healthy, but the supernatural is revealed to be his imminent cause of death. Whilst at a party twenty years ago, the topic of superstition was raised and it was said that if a man walked out during a full moon and said the words, “‘Moon, thou knowest all things, number to me my days'”, then a being would appear and reveal the exact time of death. Foolishly, Charles’ friend tried this and the figure appeared with the news that, “‘At this hour twenty years hence, thy body will be given to the worms”‘. His friend implores him to return in order to see his dead body. Charles does and notes the look of shock on his face. He then closes his eyes, something nobody has been able to do until Charles’ arrival.
This is rather an abrupt end, and the second tale does not have the same metaphysical nature, but the supernatural element cannot be denied. Charles offers this as proof that he was not dreaming his first strange event in the library, and that the supernatural realm is real. The tale as a whole demonstrates Charlotte’s awareness of the relationship between creator and created, as well as her own complex relationship with her own creations. It is clear that Charlotte had a great interest in not only fantastical supernatural elements such as the genii and magic, but also of supernatural and religious elements in her everyday life during this period, and it evidently found its way into her stories. It is also an interest that clearly never left her as is evident from Jane Eyre (1847) where Jane hears Rochester’s cries despite being separated from him by a great distance.
On 22nd June 1830, Charlotte recorded a strange incident where a mysterious man knocked at the parsonage door asking to see Patrick Brontë, but is turned away by the servant named Tabby due to Patrick’s illness. The stranger stated that his message was from the Lord and that, “‘He desires me to say that the bridegroom is coming and that he must prepare to meet him; that the cords are about to be loosed and the golden bowl broken; the pitcher broken at the fountain and the wheel stopped at the cistern”‘. The stranger made such an impression upon Charlotte that despite him being “some fanatical enthusiast” she “could not forbear weeping at his words, spoken so unexpectedly at that particular period”. Charlotte clearly took the stranger’s words as an omen of some kind, or a warning, one that is reflected in Strange Events where a death is foretold. Her preoccupation with the supernatural and other realms is evident from her stories featuring the genii, magic, and mysterious beings. Her fascination with this topic continued to make its way into her work in 1830 as she followed Strange Events with An Extraordinary Dream by Lord Charles Wellesley, which appeared in the sixth volume of the second series of the Young Men’s Magazine but was actually penned just days after the former on 4th September. The piece is a response by Charles to Strange Events where he offers up further proof of the supernatural and the truth of his encounter. That’s a tale for another post though.
Reader, I hope you have enjoyed this piece. I just wish that Strange Events was easier to track down for those who want to read it for themselves as it demonstrates that writing by children and adolescents can have a depth to it that most adult works lack. Needless to say, I would love to hear from anyone familiar with this tale.
Click here to access the journal of juvenilia studies. This is a free, open-access publication featuring scholarly articles on juvenilia. The current and inaugural edition features “In Search of the Authorial Self: Branwell Brontë’s Microcosmic World” by Christine Alexander.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
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All quotes are take from An Edition of The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë: Volume I The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).