NancyKay Shapiro: The Last Book I Loved, The Brontës Went to Woolworths


There is nothing else quite lik Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths, in which a family of sisters and their widowed mother in 1920s London live a most unusual life of the mind.

The Carne family are arty and bohemian, but solidly upper class—the narrator Deirdre is a budding journalist, her sister Katrine a beginning actress, and their mother has obviously been left most comfortably off by her deceased husband. Along with the youngest daughter, Sheil, a little girl still with her governess, all the Carnes are at constant play with their imaginations. Fantasy narrative is the central organizing principle of the Carnes’ homelife—these women are fangrrrls before fangrrrls were invented. At table, they spin—or rather, act out—new installments of their collaborative running serial, with a dramatis personae made up of toys and dolls they’ve owned and regard as real people, characters from books, and, most intriguingly, celebrities from the stage and public life whose careers they follow and whom they speak about as if they were intimates. In producing an ongoing play in which they all willfully suppress the line between reality and fantasy, the family are essentially practicing fan-fiction 50 years before that genre really got started.

The family governesses—they have quite a bit of governess turn-over in the eccentric and intimidating Carne family—are at first amused, then bemused, then alarmed and censorious, when they realize that the actors, writers, and government officials who are spoken of with such familiarity by all the Carnes, as if they were always in and out of the house, are in fact strangers to the family. At least, until Deirdre attends a charity bazaar where she meets the wife of Justice Toddington, an elderly high court judge who is the family’s chief imaginary pet (they collect pictures of him cut from the newspapers and like to imagine him in elaborate pajamas, yawning “like tiny jam tarts”). The Carnes and Toddingtons become friends, a friendship which is first threatened, and then gloriously reinvented, when the elderly couple get their first glimpse into the parallel made-up world in which they play a part.

It’s not just this situation that appeals to me so deeply in Ferguson’s 1931 novel, which I’ve read 5 or 6 times since I first got a hold of it in a Virago Modern Classics reprint 15 years ago. The weird story is carried along by the witty, peppery, penetrating and sometimes downright ruthless narrative voice of Deirdre Carne, who is a sharp observer of her London world, and stern parser of its unbreachable class boundaries. She’s particularly unsympathetic to the interloping governesses (though no one in the family ever questions that the little sister needs a governess—being looked after solely by her mother and sisters is not an option in their time and class). But she’s also unbending when a successful music hall star who has long been a (real life) family friend and mentor to her sister’s acting career turns into Katrine’s real life suitor—because it’s one thing to adore Freddie Pipson who, though a Cockney and a professional comedian, is one of nature’s gentlemen, and quite another to marry into his family. That, she advises Katrine, is, no matter how much she might love and respect him, is impossible.

I have to admit that I was so enchanted and persuaded by Dierdre’s voice that it wasn’t until I discussed the novel with an English friend and then reread it again, that I noticed what a complete and often nasty snob Dierdre is. I was too instantly bonded with her to be critical, because of pronouncements likes this, from page 1 of the novel:

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, ‘Do you like reading?’ which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread—absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever. And then Katrine blinked at the woman and said, ‘Yes, a little.’

This is the sort of novel that can inspire that kind of total involvement and sympathy.

So what does all this have to do with the Brontës? Apart from the parallels between the three imaginative Carne sisters and the three Brontë sisters, there’s the governess connection, and this is where the book surprises, because you’d expect the Carnes, with their effulgent fantasy life, to have a little more sympathy for these vulnerable women who come to join their household. But the Carnes’ exuberant ways are no match for the expectations of Miss Martin, the new governess. It takes a visitation from the ghosts of the Brontës —or are they really ghosts?—to make a decisive change for both the out-of-depth governess, and the Carnes as well.

This unusual novel is a portrait of a family seen from the inside (as Miss Martin reflects, “Families were very awful things: showed one face to each other and another to the stranger within their gates.”), and of a certain London social milieu in the time of the Bright Young Things. But most of all for me, it’s a foray into the overwhelming role fantasy and narrative can take in the lives of intelligent women that felt at once so familiar to me, and so astonishing to find going on in fiction. Rachel Ferguson’s novel presents as no other book has, a vivid and specific portrayal of the role of collaborative fantasy in inner—and outer—life.

NancyKay Shapiro is the author of What Love Means to You People, a novel, and is at work on a novel that explores the adventures of a minor character from Jane Eyre. She lives in New York City. More from this author →