I hadn’t thought about The Brontë Girls in years. Weirdly, it was May Sinclair’s The Three Sisters which reminded me of it. When I went looking online, it was as if the book had never existed. It appears to be out of print, there are no blogger reviews and indeed, I have certainly never met anybody else who read it. I discovered it in the library when I was around nine and I borrowed it repeatedly. When we moved house and my new local library failed to stock it, I requested it on Inter-Library Loan so many times that they got their own copy. Then, when I was about thirteen, I abruptly lost interest. I haven’t read it in over fifteen years but yet I remember huge chunks of it perfectly. Garry Kilworth is far better known for his fantasy and folklore related work but this odd and overheated little tale did offer a fascinating reworking of the Brontë myth.
The twentieth century Craster family bear no relation to the Brontës of Haworth, but James and Hannah Craster do have three daughters named Charlotte, Emily and Anne. They live in an isolated part of the countryside surrounded by marshes, the girls are home-schooled and their father is determined to keep them in ignorance of the modern world. The opening pages see him putting his daughters through their catechism, ‘Who was the traitor’, to which they chorus back obediently, ‘Branwell was the traitor’. The Craster girls have no brother, but they know that the Brontë brother was the downfall of his family – all men are to be avoided where possible.
Kilworth follows some solid Brontë clichés in his characterisation of the sisters. There is the sixteen year-old Charlotte, subtly indicated as the pretty one but also morbid and depressive with a hinted tendency towards self-harm. Emily at fifteen is the free-spirited passionate sister, the rebel of the family. At twelve, Anne is, as Brontë tradition suggests she always must be, generally ignored but with a tendency towards hypochondria which just may be an attention-seeking strategy. For the three of them, the world consists of their mother who is also their teacher and their father, plus Dan the farmhand who leaves every evening. The house operates to nineteenth century standards of technology and the girls are not allowed to read anything post-Victorian. Stumbling into all of this is fifteen year-old Chris.
When you look at the book cover and see the curtains hair-do on the Chris character, you realise just how 1990s this book really was. He is an ordinary boy from the local town, struggling with the pressure of his parents’ break-up and on a solitary walk across the marshes, he happens to catch a glimpse of the Craster girls. Emily’s curiousity about this boy is over-powering and she is determined that they will meet again. Already, she has been having confusing dreams about Lord Byron – the girl is growing up. As Emily’s actions cause the Craster family’s Victorian microcosm to crash into the modern world, the consequences are devastating.
Reflecting on the story now, it is interesting that the last time I read this book was the point when I was going through adolescence myself. I had been fascinated by the idea of a family deliberately cut-off from the modern world and by the imagined parallels with the Brontës, but as I recognised the theme of burgeoning sexuality, the novel lost its ability to engage. Chris and Emily go for a walk and visit a funfair together, an experience the sheltered Emily finds truly alarming – she has been brought up to believe the twentieth century ‘a terrible place’. Her father has made a bubble in which to keep his daughters pure and unsullied. He tells Emily when she asks that God will provide a husband for her when the time comes. Their mother has euphemistically explained to Charlotte and Emily that babies come when men and women lie down together in the sight of God. Yet Emily is dreaming of Lord Byron and what he might look like without his clothes.
Thus, on closer inspection, I realise that The Brontë Girls is a rather overheated piece of young adult fiction. The Crasters have kept their children in such ignorance that they are incredibly vulnerable when they are forced to join in with the wider world. When I was reading this story, I was fascinated to think of how confusing the sight of a functioning television would be to someone who had never encountered such a thing. Emily looks around the back of it to see where the pictures are coming in and her new schoolmates laugh at her. The confrontation between Victorian and twentieth century values is extreme but yet there was something familiar to me in how the bookish Emily struggled to fit in and integrate with her bored and detached fellow teenagers.
The true message of The Brontë Girls is around the shedding of innocence. James Craster believed that he was a good parent, protecting his daughters and when the world takes a different view, his self-righteous sulking makes the family hideously uncomfortable. I remember my own indignation at his behaviour – there was something very powerful to be able to recognise as a child that a grown up who claimed to be right was still totally wrong. Emily did not know that her father had no right to strike her. Weirdly, that episode stuck in my memory and was one of the reasons I always read For Every Child (a book which states the Rights of the Child in accessible language) to all of the classes I taught, just in case any of them were similarly unaware. I do wonder if Kilworth intended Craster as a Patrick Brontë proxy. He does fit the classic overbearing father figure so familiar within the Brontë myth, right down to making his wife miserable. I do hope not though, because James Craster’s small-minded viciousness would be such a terrible betrayal of who the real Patrick Brontë was. Mrs Gaskell really does have a lot to answer for.
There is a sadness but also a strange sweetness to how Emily finally accepts her father’s imperfections and that she loves him just the same, acknowledging that her blind acceptance of his authority had to be set down ‘like a child’s belief in fairies’. I am not sure I understood it fully back then but perhaps I can now. Like The Three Sisters, this novel takes the starting point of three sisters and takes it into a whole different direction. Brontë Girls is much more up-beat though than Sinclair’s version, the relationship between the sisters is not so jagged and the conclusion far less crushing. Despite making use of their names, Kilworth has little interest in the real-life inspirations for his characters – there is no Tabby figure urging them to ‘pillopotate’ and Angria and Gondal feature not at all – but it is nonetheless a thought-provoking story on how we can overthrow the mentality of our parents and create our own story.
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Published by Mammoth on 1995
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