Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Brontës Went to Woolworths

The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
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's review
May 05, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics, 2010
Read in May, 2010

If it weren't for Chris of Book-a-Rama, I might not have known about this book - for a while, anyway! So thanks again, Chris, because I think I just found my new favourite book.

It is 1930s England and the Carne sisters - Deirdre, a journalist and hopeful author; Katrine, a drama student; and Sheil, their much younger sister - are deep in a make-believe world of their own creation. There is Ironface, a doll with tin arms and head who

developed an intolerably overbearing manner, married a French Count called Isidore (de la so-and-so, de la Something Else), and now lives in feudal state in France, whence, even to this day, she makes occasional descents upon us by private aeroplane-de-luxe, patronising us in an accent enragingly perfect and bearing extravagant gifts which we have to accept. (p8)

There is the pierrot, who they named Dion Saffyn after a real man of minor celebrity status, and discuss his wife and children and their jobs with endless enthusiasm. There's also their dog, Crellie, who has had quite the adventurous life. Sheil's governess, Agatha Martin, is aghast at this make-believe, which she sees as lying and deception, but nothing she says will curb it.

When their widowed mother sits for jury duty they are drawn to the judge, Sir Herbert Toddington, whom they fondly nickname "Toddy". He and his wife, Lady Mildred, become familiar figures in the Crane household, complete with in-jokes (Toddy and Katrine sometimes argue, and Toddy's refrain is to ask to be introduced to this young lady, again), a court assistant who takes pride in choosing Toddy's lunch every day, and help with Deirdre's first novel.

At a summer holiday in Yorkshire - which none of them enjoyed - they had a go at table-turning, in which they communicated with the Brontë sisters and agreed to have them visit the Carnes at home. It being a very silly kind of game, the girls thought nothing of it - especially in light of new events that sees Deirdre meeting Lady Mildred, the real Lady Mildred! Far from being put-out by all the stories and false history the Carne sisters and their mother have engaged in about them, the Toddingtons join in enthusiastically. It all becomes a bit much for Miss Martin, the governess, but for the Carne sisters, even a visit by the ghostly Bells, Charlotte and Emily, isn't so far from their reality.

This book had me laughing out loud, it's so witty and ironic and fun! Deirdre narrates (except for chapters that slip into third-person omniscient that focus on poor Miss Martin and her replacement), and she's a modern woman, very intelligent, a very astute observer, and they all have that distinctive way of speaking that manages to make fun of itself while sounding perfectly cultured and sophisticated; especially delightful when they're discussing darling Toddy:

From the bedrooms a flight below came voices.

DEIRDRE'S: 'What's Toddy doing now?'
MRS CARNE'S: 'Asleep. It's late. Hurry into bed, lamb.'
DEIRDRE'S: 'With one ivory claw against his little face!'
KATRINE'S: 'What are his pyjamas like?'
MRS CARNE'S: 'Blue and white, from Swan and Edgar.'
DEIRDRE'S: 'Darling! Can you see Toddy getting his things there!'
MRS CARNE'S: 'I expect he gets them by the half-dozen from the place in St James's Street where he bought the dressing-gown last summer that was too long for him, and he was so annoyed with us for offering to shorten it.' (p.38)

While at the first I wasn't sure what was real or what a "pierrot" was (had to look that one up - I recognise the doll, but it's been a while since I heard what they were called), you quickly get into the swing of things. This is an interesting time period, the 30s - the 20s are more famous, the 30s dowdy by comparison, but it strikes me as a decade in which society really matured. It comes across in the way Deirdre and Katrine speak, in what they talk about, how frank they are, and how sometimes moving across class boundaries is okay, permissible, and having a job, as a woman, is nothing to make a fuss over.

'It would be a lark, K. Think of the frightful people you'd meet, and singing "Bird of Love Fly Back" at auditions, and being told by an overdressed Hebrew in a hat two sizes too small that he'd "let you know in a few days"! They all say that. It means you don't get the job and he doesn't write to you,' I urged. Katrine brightened.

'I can't guarantee that you'll be kissed much,' I admitted, 'and you'll almost certainly not get "insulted" by the offer of a flat and diamonds, because there's too much competition, so hardly anybody gets offered that any more, and there's a perfect queue waiting to be insulted, and in any case, most chorus girls come from perfectly nice homes in South Kensington and behave like nuns, these days. But you'll be called Kid and Dear by the other sort, and I once heard a producer telling a troupe to "dance it with debunnair".' (p.40)

Oh it makes me laugh! And what's more, because it's not always a straight-forward read, I can read it again and again and find more to marvel at. For a short book, there's a lot going on here. I bought another copy, to send home to my sister Tara, because I know she'll absolutely love this as much as me. I'd say the tone is along the lines of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm and Nightingale Wood (from the same period), but much less cynical - The Brontës Went to Woolworths takes delight in life and living and imagination and creativity and having a sense of humour and really relishing people. At times, the three sisters reminded me a little of the Dashwoods, from Sense and Sensibility - but they're quite different personalities.

This is published by the Bloomsbury Group, an imprint of Bloomsbury which is reprinting old forgotten classics. You can recommend a book to them to publish ... and I think I will do just that! I have been lamenting the fact that no nice new editions of The Blue Castle exist; this could be just the thing! I don't know if it's one they can do, because probably Bantam still has the rights, but they're not doing anything with it and someone has to reprint the book as it deserves!

You can email The Bloomsbury Group at: (that's the address I have; they'd have a UK one as well) with your recommendations of lost classics from the early twentieth century. What a great idea!!
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by newwaytowrite (new)

newwaytowrite I love the title of this book. It just makes me smile.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) The whole book will make you smile!! It's a great title, I agree :D

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