A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Have you read Charlotte Bronte’s excellent novellas ‘Mina Laury’ ‘Henry Hastings’, ‘The Duke of Zamorna’, ‘Stancliffe’s Hotel’, or ‘Caroline Vernon’? You haven’t? Get thee to a bookshop. (Preferably one that pays its taxes, and employs people under decent working conditions. Not like this example.) Order Charlotte Bronte’s Tales of Angria, but be careful which edition you buy.
The Penguin Classics version, with the sombre and Romantic cover painting of a woman in black looking out into the hills (absolutely Mina Laury), is the right one, because it has the extensive commentary and background notes by Heather Glen. The other Penguin edition (not a Classics) has a dramatic cover of a rearing white horse, but this, as I now know to my irritation, has no notes of any description. These novellas really need to be read with the information about their background and context handy, because they are fragments from the teenage and young adult writings of Charlotte Bronte and her brother Branwell, when they were developing their colossal fantasy world of Angria. Much of the detail about characters in these five novellas comes from the backstory, so if you’re curious about where these stories fit into the Angria saga, who the characters are and how they relate to each other, buy the edition that has the notes.
On the other hand, if you’re happy to wallow in passionate drama, seduction, scandalous political manoevuering, family in-fights, flirtations at balls and in the opera house, and moody romantic walks at dusk with dangerous men, then just buy any edition and enjoy. These are epic tales, told with such assurance about conversations in bars, the habits of risky aristocrats, how long it takes a gentleman of means to dress in the morning, and the jealousies of discarded mistresses, that it seems extraordinary that they were written by a young woman of such limited experience in life as Charlotte Bronte. Her unique imagination was operating at full power in these tales.
I was particularly taken by her narrative persona of Charles Townshend, a casual recorder of Angrian political scandal, and a rather charming young man about town. I could feel prickles of recognition when I read about Elizabeth Hastings and Caroline Vernon, and glam-but-dim Jane Moore, because here are the beginnings of Jane Eyre and the ladies of Shirley and Villette. I was even more intrigued to read about Mary Percy, Duchess of Zamorna and Queen of Angria, suffering the infidelities of her licentious husband. She’s a woman of spirit and beauty, but she favours faintings and the dramatic shriek to get her husband’s attention, rather than the sound sense and perfect abasement of Mina Laury, her number one rival. We see hardly anything of Zenobia, Countess of Northangerland, who was formerly the lover of her now son-in-law Arthur, aka Mr Wellesley, Marquess of Douro, Duke of Zamorna and (for it is he) King of Angria, because the action does tend to focus on the men. The women wait, and languish, and weep, and sigh, when the men fail to arrive.
Some of the men we only see though the descriptions of others, like Colonel Sir William Percy, brother of the Queen and also of Zamorna’s latest mistress. (Yes, Zamorna installs his former ward and illegitimate half-sister in her own secluded house in the woods for his private visits. He has so many mistresses, from the evidence of these stories alone, that it’s a wonder that he gets any state work done.) Colonel Sir William is the nearest thing we get to a heroic character, since he doesn’t actually do anyone down, and we feel sorry for him for his inexplicable neglect by his father, the formerly wicked but now just redundant Earl of Northangerland, who does a fine line in carpet-chewing rage. Warner Warner Esquire is a terrific portrait of an exasperated civil servant, running the country for the charismatic and powerful Zamorna. Henry Hastings is held to be a portrait of Branwell, a good brother but a bad man, hidden by Elizabeth until Colonel Percy’s police arrive at the old Moore family mansion.
This is, as we say in the trade, ‘silver fork’ fiction, novels from the turn of the 19th century that deal in passion and romance with a strong whiff of the roman à clef. Charlotte and Branwell peopled their world with the names and titles of great political operators of their day, and researchers have had a lovely time finding correspondences with the Bronte children’s own friends and acquaintances, and with their later novels. What I enjoyed most in these tales was the sense of writerly freedom, of no-one judging the author by what she wrote. These are stories told with recklessness and abandon, because nobody was correcting Charlotte’s failure to abide by Christian decency, or insisting that she only tell stories suitable for a young lady. She was writing here before she had to think about publishers, and the criticism of propriety. They are energetic and magnificent, and deeply enjoyable.
Charlotte Bronte, Tales of Angria (Penguin, 2006). The Penguin Classics edition has notes by Heather Glen. Christine Alexander’s The Early Writings of Charlotte Bronte (1983) is the standard edition of all CB’s juvenile writings.
Kate podcasts about books she really, really enjoys at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.