It’s the end of January and I’m already making a good start to my 2019 Reading Challenge. In addition to my Goodreads target of 30 new books, I also came up with a list of specific challenges, including some Brontë related ones. I’ve already boxed off a book originally published in a language other than English and a new Brontë biography, and now I can tick off a piece of Brontë inspired fiction that I haven’t read before. We Wove a Web in Childhood by Cally Phillips is a play about the Brontë juvenilia and the childhood games that led to the creation of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. It takes its tittle from Charlotte Brontë’s poem of the same name which is dated 19th December 1835, when she and her siblings were still deeply involved in their fantasy worlds of what had by this time developed into Angria and Gondal. Despite my belief that Charlotte was actually the weakest poet among the siblings, it’s probably my favourite Brontë poem as it captures her absorption in and devotion to Angria and its characters, and my readers may have noticed that I too am slightly obsessed with this world. Victor Neufeldt sums it up best in The Poems of Charlotte Brontë: A New Text and Commentary, writing that in the poem Charlotte “reviews the creation of her fantasy world, and recalls the solace it has provided her in the past in times of loneliness and despondency, only to be reminded of the debilitating division that exists between the life of her imagination and the demands of her teaching duties”.
Charlotte’s paracosmic world was more real to her than the one around her, and she seems to have preferred inhabiting Angria. This inability and/or unwillingness to break away from Angria is documented by Charlotte herself in what is now known as “The Roe Head Journal” written whilst Charlotte was teaching at Roe Head School in 1836 (click here to see the manuscript housed in the British Library). The journal is a fascinating blend of the real world and Angria, with Charlotte aching and pining for her fictional setting and characters, which are slipped into the entries amongst references to her surroundings in reality. The way in which Charlotte slips between the two worlds as if they both exist alongside one another is actually quite alarming, and yet, for Charlotte, and for Branwell too, Angria did exist alongside the real world they were forced to inhabit, and it took on a life of its own.
Cally Phillips’ We Wove a Web in Childhood was first performed on 18th September 1993 at the Duke’s Head Theatre, Richmond. It still isn’t well known and I first discovered it three years ago at the start of Charlotte’s bicentenary celebrations in 2016. My edition was actually republished to coincide with that event. For some reason though, I got a few pages in and didn’t return to it. Perhaps it was because I was writing my MA dissertation on the actual Brontë juvenilia at the time and didn’t want to get distracted. A few weeks ago I posted a play on Brontë Babe Blog called To Angria which was written by Sophie Marlowe which is based on the Brontë juvenilia and got me thinking about the one I’d abandoned in 2016. A few days ago I decided to give it another try.
The main characters in Phillips’ play are Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë, and their fictional characters who they play within the play. These characters are some of the most prominent from Angria and Gondal including the Marquis of Douro/the Duke of Zamorna, Lord Ellrington/the Earl of Northangerland, Mary Percy, Zenobia Ellrington, Queen Augusta, and King Julius Brenzaida. The play begins with the young Brontës claiming and naming the soldiers that were famously gifted to Branwell by their father, Patrick, in 1826, and later documented by both Charlotte and Branwell. What follows are games, power struggles both within and without the Brontës’ games, chaos, creativity, and death. There isn’t much of a plot in We Wove a Web in Childhood, and if you’re not terribly familiar with the juvenilia, I imagine it will be rather hard to follow. Instead the play is made up of a series of vignettes which, however, does actually capture the chaotic essence and flâneur style of some of Charlotte and Branwell’s juvenile writings.
I initially thought that Phillips had done an excellent job in capturing the voices and spirits of the characters until I realised that she’d actually just taken large chunks from the juvenilia, either directly or by paraphrasing. This isn’t referenced anywhere in the play itself and it’s only because I’m so familiar with the narratives that I picked up on it. Phillips does however acknowledge this in a separate section in the text, stating that “the play is substantially an editing job since it uses exclusively the actual juvenilia and poems of the Brontes [sic]” however it’s still rather troubling that this isn’t acknowledged more explicitly. We Wove a Web in Childhood is actually a collaboration across the centuries by Phillips and the Brontës.
One aspect that I enjoyed though was the depiction of the ongoing battles and deeply complex relationship between Charlotte’s hero, Zarmorna, and Branwell’s alter-ego, Northangerland. Phillips has tapped into the fact that these power battles on the page actually represent the battles between Charlotte and Branwell in reality; the oldest surviving sibling versus the only boy who were both brilliant and creative, and deeply attached to their characters, but also, like Zamorna and Northangerland, to one another. The characters of Emily and Anne do get sidelined a little, but this is referenced in the play as Charlotte and Branwell plough on with their world and the two youngest siblings are slowly edged out. Angria’s loss was Gondal’s gain as in reality they began their own paracosmic world, little of which survives today, but Phillips does shift the focus onto Gondal towards the end of the play so that Anne and Emily are not overlooked. The little I know about Gondal meant I could enjoy the latter part of the play, where power battles are still being played out between Charlotte and Branwell as well between the two pairs of siblings. I also rather liked the poignant final scene which concerns the deaths of some characters – I’ll say no more. I was, however, very disappointed not to find even a mention of Lord Charles Wellesey/Townshend, Charlotte’s favourite pseudonym and alter ego (who possibly even gets a mention in her adult novel The Professor) and Zamorna’s beautiful, faithful, and favourite mistress, Mina Laury, who accompanies him in the exile mentioned in Phillips’ play.
I’m not confident enough in my knowledge of Gondal to comment about the accuracy of Phillips’ quotes and use of characters etc., however, there are some issues with the spellings of some character names including Julius Brenazaida (actually Brenzaida). It’s my aim to devote a little more time to Gondal this year, however, like Charlotte and Branwell, I just can’t seem to tear myself away from Glass Town and Angria. Speaking of which, the play is set from 1826-1848 (a non-linear narrative), and Phillips sets events in Angria in 1832 when Angria, which was a development of the initial setting of Glass Town, did not exist until 1834 when it was created by the Verdopolitan Parliament as a reward for Zamorna’s success in the War of Encroachment against the native Ashantees. However, I must applaud Phillips’ knowledge of the juvenilia in the early 1990s, a time when access to the narratives was even more difficult than it is today. I also applaud her passion for her subject and her attempt to create an ambitious and original piece of Brontë inspired literature. However, I feel the play isn’t completely successful mainly due to the fact that, unlike in the excellent Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley and The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, Phillips’ own voice is absent here, as is her original contribution to the worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. I’m the first to complain when authors get their facts wrong about the Brontë juvenilia, and it’s sometimes difficult to let go and appreciate the artistic licence taken by writers in their adaptations of the Brontës’ worlds, however, if there is nothing new in there, then what is the point?
We Wove a Web in Childhood is an ambitious and solid play for those familiar with the Brontë juvenilia, and a bit of a muddled mess for those who aren’t. It’s a shame the siblings are not officially listed as co-writers as much of the content is theirs. It’s also a shame that Phillips didn’t feel the need to add any original contributions to the worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal; it would have made for a more interesting piece.
You can read Charlotte’s “We Wove a Web in Childhood” and “The Roe Head Journal” in Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings. Ed. Christine Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Victor Neufeldt quote is from The Poems of Charlotte Brontë: A New Text and Commentary (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).
Cally Phillips quote is from We Wove a Web in Childhood (Turriff: HoAmPresst Publishing, 2016).