04 April 2010
"How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters." So begins The Brontës Went to Woolworths with a touch of playful irony, as this happens to be a novel very much about sisters. The oldest (who also happens to be the narrator) is Deirdre Carne, who works as a journalist and has been attempting to get a novel published. Katherine, who is a little younger, is an actress still trying to achieve success in her career. The youngest of the three is Sheil. She is still young enough to have a governess present to guide her education. All three live together with their widowed mother in a London house in the 1930s.
The family members are drawn together by a very playful imaginative life. A large part of it revolves around humorous anecdotes regarding "family friends" which can be anything from childhood toys to prominent strangers. Among them is Judge Toddington, who Deirdre first saw when she had to serve jury duty. Deirdre describes these "friendships" in a such a matter-of-fact manner that I sometimes felt a little lost early in the novel, unsure as to what was real and what was not.
The family appears to have built up this world in part as protection for the challenges they face. Katherine gets kicked out of her acting class and has to decide whether to join a travelling show. Deirdre agonizes over whether her novel will find a publisher. Even the fantasy realm provides some degree of discomfort. Sheil's governess considers it foolish and grows increasingly frustrated with the sisters' talk about their "friends." While on holiday, the family attends a séance, where they appear to draw some attention from a couple of mysterious phantoms.
The major development comes when Deirdre gets a chance to know the real Lady Toddington during a charity bazaar. As the two become friends, the two families begin to get to know each other. The Toddingtons have no children of their own and so are flattered by the attention of the Carne family. What follows is a negotiation between imagined and real friendships.
I confess I'm more familiar with this sort of shared imaginative world in somewhat darker contexts, as in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," and so for a good part of the novel felt sure that something awful was bound to happen. The novel never takes that sort of turn, though there is a sense of the disappointments of the wider world. Deirdre's narration was very entertaining, reflecting a very sort of English literary quirkiness. (Deirdre even tells how she once turned down a marriage proposal because she was too in love with Sherlock Holmes at the time.) While the Carne's fantasy world serves to bring them together, it proves surprisingly fluid, presenting an intimate portrait of how people connect with each other.