A few months back a very interesting looking book caught my eye due to some intriguing and exciting snippets that I spotted doing the rounds on Twitter. One of the snippets was an illustration of Charlotte Brontë’s adored hero from her worlds of Glass Town and Angria, the Duke of Zamorna, invading the real world in order to entice his creator to return to the paracosm she’d initially created along with her siblings in 1826. Pretty much anything connected with the Brontë juvenilia will get my attention but this interaction between creator and character in the form of a graphic novel was especially exciting. The book in question is Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg, a title which promises to introduce readers to the Brontës’ worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, as well as providing the biographical background which led to the creation of these worlds and characters such as Zamorna, Mary Percy, the Earl of Northangerland, and Glass Town gossip and celebrated author, Charles Wellesley. I had been so desperate to read it following that first tantalising glimpse and I was lucky enough to be kindly provided with a review copy by the publisher in the UK, Jonathan Cape. What follows is an honest review. Reader, enjoy.
First of all, if you would like information to the background and stories which form the Brontë juvenilia canon then you can find many posts right here on Brontë Babe Blog covering these aspects. Perhaps a good place to start is with An Introduction to the Brontë Juvenilia. Returning to Greenberg’s Glass Town though and I had thought it would be a mix of fact and fiction, covering both the Brontes’ stories as well as the story of the Brontës. It both is and isn’t; Greenberg states right at the beginning of the text that what follows inspired by the Brontës and their creations, but this is a book about her Glass Town. This sounded the alarm bells ringing. Would it be a fresh and original take which pays respect to its source material in the style of Lena Coakley’s fabulous novel, Worlds of Ink and Shadow? Or would it simply be a case of an author seeking to use the name of the Brontës to cash in? Fortunately, it wasn’t the latter, however, there are a fair few deviations from the source material which will play havoc with those obsessed with the siblings’ original writings. More about that later though.
I absolutely loved Greenberg’s illustrations and tackling the juggernaut that is the worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal in this manner is inspired. I have always thought that if anything lends itself so perfectly to graphic novels, it’s the sprawling, epic saga that is the Brontë juvenilia. With so much going on, it would be very difficult to adapt for the screen without the viewer missing huge chunks of background information, character growth, and plot development. A graphic novel really is the ideal platform for 21st century readers to explore these wonderful worlds and I definitely think that anyone picking up Greenberg’s book will continue to explore the source material, and that can only be a good thing. I absolutely loved her depictions of the siblings’ creation of these magical worlds and the ways in which they devoured their creators who gave up hearts, bodies, and minds to fantasy.
I also loved that the characters Greenberg chose to focus on (Zamorna, Mary Percy, Northangerland, Zenobia, Quashia) get their own introductions. One glaring omission from this is the character of Charles Wellesley (Charlotte’s favourite pseudonym, originally named Lord Charles Wellesley) who features prominently in Charlotte’s stories and in this text, but who isn’t given his own introduction by Greenberg. It was however, nice to see more of a focus on Quashia, who, due to the colonial aspect to the Brontës’ works, was very much the token “other” character. Greenberg’s Quashia, in a very short space of time, is more fully realised. However, the original incarnation, as well as his creators, were very much a product of their own time.
As the title suggests, the focus is on Glass Town, so Emily and Anne’s Gondal doesn’t get much of a look in here, but then that’s probably because most of it has been lost over time and many of the surviving writings are fragments. However, beyond the creation of the world, Branwell is also once again left in the background when his role in not only the creation but continuation of Glass Town (later Angria) was extensive. He even continued to pen poems and narratives based on his juvenilia until his death aged just 31. The sisters are depicted successfully publishing their novels in 1847, but there is no mention of Branwell’s published poetry (” Heaven and Earth” was his first published piece and appeared under the pseudonym Northangerland in The Halifax Guardian on 5th June 1841). The Brontë boy remains in the shadows here. As Charlotte was the driving force behind the sisters’ attempts to publish their work in adulthood, she tends to take centre stage in literature about or inspired by the siblings, and she does so once more in Greenberg’s text as over the years Charlotte is haunted and enticed by her own characters. The book poignantly begins and ends with loss and death, and her alter-ego, Charles Wellesley. I have to say that the sections featuring Charles are my absolute favourite; it’s Charlotte thrashing it out not only with her own creation, but with herself and there’s even a nice little nod to her existential tale, Strange Events (1830).
I loved Greenberg’s depiction of the split between the siblings as Emily and Anne concentrated on Gondal, and Charlotte and Branwell stuck with Glass Town and Angria. I also loved how Greenberg captures the essence of the Brontës’ fantasy worlds, the madcap nature of it, the magic, and the obsession. It’s wonderful to see characters and plot-lines I’m now so familiar with come to life in this very modern format. It’s a wonderful introduction to the essence of the Brontë juvenilia and some of the characters, if not a perfect introduction to the actual saga. There are too many deviations from the source texts for that. As a lover and independent scholar of the juvenilia, it’s always slightly frustrating to see an author embellishing the writings (it’s like your favourite book being adapted for TV or cinema). Consequently, there are parts of this which didn’t sit too well with me.
I can get over the skewering of the timelines; here the terms Glass Town and Angria are used interchangeably when in fact the latter is the principal setting for much of Brontë’s later juvenilia with seven provinces (Angria, Arundel, Calabar, Douro, Etrei, and Northangerland) and which was created for Zamorna by the Verdopolitan Parliament in 1834 as a reward for his success in war. Phew. See what I’m like? I don’t even mind little embellishments such as the depiction of Mary’s childhood devotion to Zamorna, or the fact that the Charles who appears to Charlotte has much more in common with his Angrian incarnation, dandy and struggling writer, Charles Townshend than Lord Charles of Glass Town. The all too brief glimpse of one of my favourite characters, Mina Laury, left me wanting more despite some inaccuracies regarding her relationships with Zamorna and Northangerland.
Things I couldn’t get past included the strange alterations to an almost unrecognisable Zenobia (here reluctant wife to Northangerland who first encounters Mary when they are both being courted by Zamorna and champion of the rights of women and the Ashantees) and Mary’s dead brothers (two of whom, the warring Edward and Sir William Percy, feature prominently in other stories from the saga and even make it into Charlotte’s adult novel The Professor as the Crimsworths). I’d have liked a bit more information on Northangerland as Branwell’s alter-ego and pseuondym although I enjoyed the reference to him being a rogue. Mary’s lack of devotion to Zamorna in adulthood was also quite jarring when in the source material she would die for him. I also thought that Greenberg’s text could have focused a little more on the Brontës’ determination to become authors and the fact that their juvenilia was a long literary apprenticeship on the road to success in adulthood.
I realise I sound overly negative but it’s always hard to see alterations made to the source material, the wonderful Brontë juvenilia. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Greenberg’s take on Glass Town and I sincerely hope that people reading this will be encouraged to seek out the Brontë juvenilia for themselves. This is a great text for those familiar with the lives of the Brontës as we never tire of reading about them, and also provides a solid introduction to their history. It also provides a 21st century reader friendly introduction to the magical but confusing and sprawling worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. If Greenberg could provide the artwork for some future illustrated versions of stories from the juvenilia then that would be spectacular. I’d particularly love to see her get her hands on the likes of the Angrian stories Henry Hastings (1839) and Caroline Vernon (1839) as well as the above mentioned Glass Town tale Strange Events. I think the Brontës would have greatly enjoyed seeing their worlds brought to life by Greenberg in Glass Town and I can give it no higher praise than that.
Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg is available to buy in the UK from 6th February.
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.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d 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”.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first. Thanks to Jonathan Cape for providing the high res images of Quashia, the Parsonage, Charles and Charlotte, and Glass Town.