When we think of fiction produced by the Brontës, we conjure up images of brooding anti-heroes, poor governesses, and wild Yorkshire moors; we do not tend to think of toy soldiers, tiny books, and African fantasy worlds. Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were born to Patrick and Maria Brontë in the small village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England. In 1820, along with their parents, their sisters Maria (1814-1825) and Elizabeth (1815-1825), and brother Branwell (1817-1848) they made the short move to the parsonage in the nearby village of Haworth. As adults the sisters were responsible for literary classics including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and their former home is famous today as The Brontë Parsonage Museum which attracts thousands of visitors every year. However, contrary to popular belief, theirs was not an overnight success.
According to literary legend, the novels published by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as adults were written by three lonely and isolated women against the backdrop of the harsh and bleak environment of northern England. Put to work as teachers and governesses in adulthood, the sisters dreamt of something more; they dreamt of the freedom to write. Whilst this is an uplifting and inspiring tale, they did not suddenly quit their thankless jobs, sit down in the parlour one day and decide to try their hand at writing a novel to earn a living and escape from their unhappy lives. The three surviving sisters, along with Branwell, actually toiled for many years, throughout their childhood and adolescence, perfecting their craft, and, to paraphrase Charlotte, writing because they could not help it[i]. There was no fairy tale, no miracle, and no spontaneous bursts of creativity and genius, instead there was hard work, practise, and perseverance.
The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are now considered to be classics of English Literature and the sisters are some of the best loved novelists in the world, but there is far more to the Brontës than Jane, Heathcliff, and Agnes. The knowledge of Brontë devotees may stretch a little further to include Charlotte’s other published novels (The Professor, Shirley, and Villette), as well as Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Many Brontë enthusiasts are also familiar with the sisters’ poetry, a volume of which was published before their novels in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and sadly sold just two copies. Fewer readers are aware of Branwell’s own published poems which appeared in Yorkshire newspapers such as The Leeds Intelligencer and The Halifax Guardian from 1841-1847. Many Brontë fans are also unaware of the fact that the four siblings left behind an incredible and substantial body of work dating back to their childhood which consists of hundreds of short stories, plays, poems, and novellas.
The Brontë juvenilia are the stories, poems, plays, and novellas penned by the siblings between 1826 and 1848 which were set in their fictional fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. Juvenilia are traditionally defined as childhood works by celebrated authors, although there is a continuing debate amongst literary critics and scholars regarding the accuracy of the term as not all writers of juvenilia go on to become prominent or famous authors, and authors of juvenilia are not always children. The Brontë juvenilia have suffered neglect since their creation, with Charlotte’s friend, the novelist and biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, initially dismissing the juvenilia she discovered as “weird, wild writing”,[ii] whilst later collectors such as Clement K. Shorter butchered the writings by splitting the manuscripts up to sell as novelties for profit[iii].
In recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the existence of the Brontë juvenilia, the story of Branwell’s toy soldiers, and the siblings’ famous tiny books, but the worlds within the pages sadly remain a mystery to most readers. A contributing factor to this increased awareness of the existence of the Brontë juvenilia was certainly the 2018 campaign by the Brontë Parsonage Museum to raise funds to purchase a tiny book created by Charlotte that was being auctioned in France. The book, which is roughly the size of a matchbox, was handwritten by Charlotte and dated 19th August 1830, when she was just fourteen years old. The book is one in a sequence of six, five of which are known to survive and are now owned by the museum; it consists of twenty pages and three stories which are set in Charlotte’s fantasy world of Glass Town, a setting initially shared with Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The manuscript is part of the Young Men’s Magazine series, and the name of Lord Charles Wellesley, Charlotte’s alter-ego and pseudonym within this world, graces the pages. Made up of over 4000 handwritten and miniscule words and folded and stitched in Charlotte’s meticulous fashion, the three stories contained within are: “A Letter from Lord Charles Wellesley”, “The Midnight Song”, and “Journal of a Frenchman”. Thanks to the contributions of Brontë fans from around the world, it was purchased and finally returned home to Haworth after over a century of being away.
The Brontës’ tiny books are remarkable not only for their size, but also for the fact that they contain such an enormous world inside. However, the world within these early books was just the beginning; although initially the four siblings collaborated on what they named The Young Men’s Play and the events of Glass Town, this partnership soon fractured, with Charlotte and Branwell developing Glass Town further and creating the Kingdom of Angria in 1834, whilst Emily and Anne broke away to form their own world of Gondal. Sadly, any written contributions made by Emily and Anne to Glass Town have been lost to time, as has most of their Gondal saga. What remains are fragments which are often difficult to piece together and make sense of. Although many of the Glass Town and Angria manuscripts are extant, their narratives and the overall timelines of events are sometimes complex and confusing, with Charlotte and Branwell both using the same cast of characters, and often writing pieces in response to something written by the other.
In short, four siblings wrote about different but connected worlds, sometimes in collaboration with one another, and sometimes separately. Occasionally these worlds would cross over with characters appearing in Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal narratives. These characters sometimes have several different aliases and the spellings are not always consistent. Additionally, these characters continued to develop as the writings progressed with some remarkable transformations (Douro to Zamorna being the most obvious example), and some characters even being brought back from the dead. The surviving manuscripts have been scattered across private collections and museums all over the world which has proved to be problematic to the understanding of the events of the juvenilia.
Despite being dismissed, ignored, butchered, and misunderstood since their creation, there are readers, critics, and scholars out there who know and love the Brontë juvenilia, and those who have worked tirelessly to bring these remarkable worlds and characters out of the shadows of their more famous literary descendants. It is the work of pioneering Brontë scholars such as Fannie Ratchford, Winifred Gérin , Christine Alexander, and Victor Neufeldt that has enabled these texts, and the type of childhood fantasy worlds which are normally lost to history long before their creators even reach adulthood, to survive centuries and be transcribed for readers to explore and enjoy. The juvenilia are now more accessible than ever before with some new editions of the works being published in recent years[iv].
In addition to the scholars who have worked so hard to preserve the Brontë juvenilia, in many respects, we have the siblings’ father, Patrick, to thank for the creation and maintenance of these worlds. The origins of the juvenilia are well-known, even if their content is not. In June 1826, Branwell was famously given a set of wooden toy soldiers by Patrick, and it was this event which saw the birth of The Young Men’s Play. Each surviving Brontë sibling picked a soldier, naming them, and creating the characters that would become an integral part of their childhood stories and the later expansion of this world over the next decade (or two decades in Branwell’s case). Charlotte chose her political hero, the Duke of Wellington; Branwell chose a character who was the antagonist of Charlotte’s hero both on and off the page, Napoleon Bonaparte; Emily and Anne chose Gravey and Waiting Boy, who would eventually evolve into the famous explorers, Parry and Ross.
Interestingly, both Charlotte and Branwell wrote slightly different accounts of how each soldier was chosen and named, with the former writing a brief description on March 12th 1829 of this event in a fragment headed simply “Young Men’s”. Branwell wrote a somewhat more detailed description titled The History of the Young Men From Their First Settlement To The Present Time (15th December 1830 – 7th May 1831) which was written in the persona of the Glass Town historian, Captain John Bud. Perhaps this is evidence of their differing story-telling techniques even at such a young age. The seemingly ordinary toy soldiers, known as The Twelves, made their way into the Brontës’ earliest writings and eventually became the founding fathers not just of their shared paracosmic worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, but of the Brontës’ entire literary output[v].
Patrick’s gift may well have been the spark that ignited his children’s imagination. However, he also gave another gift to all of his children, not just his only son, and this was the freedom to read. Unusually for a father in the nineteenth century, Patrick provided as much literature as possible for his children to devour and did not attempt to stifle his daughters’ reading by forcing them to read particular texts and abandon others which were not deemed to be suitable for girls and young ladies. Patrick provided novels, poetry, plays, and (along with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell), periodicals of the day such as Blackwood’s Magazine and Fraser’s. These texts allowed the Brontë siblings to fall in love with reading, writing, and story-telling. The arrival of the toy soldiers was the catalyst for the creation of the siblings’ paracosmic worlds and the beginning of their long literary apprenticeship. Patrick really is a hidden hero of English Literature; without his influence and love, the siblings would never have had the freedom to create, develop, and explore their worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, settings not as well-known as the wild Yorkshire moors and bleak northern English landscape that seemingly defines the work and history of the siblings, but ones which played an incredibly important part in their development as writers.
The Brontë juvenilia remain a neglected but significant part of the siblings’ literary canon. It can be daunting to dive into such a complex world when all of the pieces of the puzzle are not easily accessible, however, that does not mean that readers cannot enjoy the parts that are. To truly know the Brontës and their work, we must start at the beginning. The worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal are magical and magnificent. Although the characters of Lord Charles, Zamorna, Elizabeth Hastings, Northangerland, and Rosina Alcona are lesser-known creations of the Brontës, they played an incredibly important role in the development of their creators and the creations which came after them. Reader, let’s explore the worlds within; the exotic African settings; the humour; the passion; the scandal; the political rivalries; and the ancestors of Jane, Rochester, Heathcliff, Agnes et al.
[i] “I am just going to write because I cannot help it” is a line from what is now known as The Roe Head Journal by Charlotte. Brontë scholar Christine Alexander dates the text c. 1836-37. She discusses this in her introduction to her anthology of the Brontë juvenilia, Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal (Oxford University Press, 2010).
[ii] In 1925, Shorter published a volume of Charlotte’s juvenilia called The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories. With no contextual information on the writings and the worlds in which they take place, and drastic editing of stories such as The Green Dwarf (listed as Napoleon and The Spectre in the volume), readers had little chance to understand or appreciate the writings and worlds that had meant so much to Charlotte and allowed her to develop the writing skills which would later produce Jane Eyre.
[iii] The Life of Charlotte Brontë (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1908).
[iv] Editions such as Alexander’s Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal and Heather Glen’s anthology Tales of Angria (Penguin Books, 2006) provide comprehensive introductory notes and backgrounds to the worlds as well as the specific tales in the collections.
[v] A paracosm is a term coined by Ben Vincent to describe the imaginary worlds of children such as Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. It was later defined as “a spontaneously created, but maintained and elaborated, imaginary private world” by theorists Robert Silvery and Stephen A. MacKeith in their essay, “The Paracosm: A Special Form of Fantasy” from Organising Early Experience: Imagination and Cognition in Childhood edited by Delmont C. Morrison (Baywood, 1998).
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.