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The Bronte's write Fantasy...

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CHARLOTTE BRONTË IS KNOWN TODAY as the author of Jane Eyre, one of the most popular novels in the English literary canon. More than 150 years after its first publication, it is still the third most borrowed volume in English public libraries. The story of the Brontë sisters’ brief lives is almost as well known. Indeed, their home, Haworth Parsonage, has become one of the most visited of England’s literary shrines.

It may therefore seem surprising that the novelette which follows has never before been published; that until now, its material existence has consisted of 34 pages in the Parsonage Museum, 11.5cm x 19cm in size, crammed with a fading, handwritten “print” so tiny that it is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass. But if only a handful of scholars has hitherto read this story, the reason lies less, perhaps, in the difficulties presented by the manuscript than in the strangeness of the world of which it speaks.

Stancliffe’s Hotel was written in 1838, when Charlotte Brontë was 23. It is not, like Jane Eyre, a suspenseful story of passionate private feeling, but a series of ironic vignettes within which the manners and the fashions of the England of the 1830s appear from an unexpected point of view. For the story of the Brontë family was not simply one of tragedy and isolation. For nearly 20 years before the appearance of Jane Eyre in 1847, the parsonage at Haworth was a place of lively creative activity. The children were avid readers, not merely of poetry and fiction but of newspapers and journals, extraordinarily alert to the literary, linguistic and cultural life of their time. And from childhood, they had been not just readers but also writers, on an extraordinary scale.

When Elizabeth Gaskell was beginning work on The Life of Charlotte Brontë, she came upon “a curious packet . . . containing an immense amount of manuscript in an inconceivably small space” — the equivalent, her husband suggested, of “50 volumes of print”. She had stumbled upon the records of the kingdom of Glass Town, first created by the four young Brontës when Charlotte, the eldest, was 13. Together, these gifted children had constructed an imaginary world with its own geography, politics and dramatis personae — the last modelled at first on real-life public figures (writers, artists, statesmen, explorers) but gradually evolving into fictional characters.

Emily and Anne had soon broken off to create their own country of Gondal, but Branwell and Charlotte went on with the Glass Town saga, producing dozens of miniature novels, poems and imitation journals purporting to be written by their protagonists. Gaskell was baffled by this “wild weird writing” and dismissed it as intelligible only to “the bright little minds for whom it was intended”, a “curious” phenomenon of childhood, hardly to be taken seriously.

But the Brontës had in fact continued their “plays” (as they called them) throughout adolescence and beyond. Emily and Anne were writing books about Gondal at 27 and 25. Charlotte and Branwell transferred their interest (and many of their characters) to the new kingdom of Angria, and were still, in their early twenties, adding to it both in poetry and in prose. Their narrators and protagonists are, as Charlotte put it in a journal fragment, those “many well-known forms . . . faces looking up, eyes smiling and lips moving in audible speech, that I knew better almost than my brother and sisters, yet whose voices had never woke an echo in this world”.

Yet, as I realised quickly when I began to read them — in the course of writing a critical study of Charlotte Brontë — they are not just juvenilia, accessible only to those who want to follow all the convolutions of the complicated Angrian saga. With their debunking, sardonic humour, their alertness to contemporary mores, their play with different voices and narrative points of view, they are very much more sophisticated and more enjoyable than this. Hence this transcription of Stancliffe’s Hotel, one of the last of the Angrian novelettes. Like the others, this was written for an audience familiar with the “plays”. Present-day readers, however, will need an outline understanding of the landscape, the politics and history of the world that it depicts.

Angria lay to the east of the Glass Town Federation. It was divided into seven provinces, each with a capital city and a Lord Lieutenant; its king was the Duke of Zamorna, who had evolved out of Arthur Wellesley, the eldest son of the Duke of Wellington, the increasingly prominent hero of Charlotte’s earlier Glass Town “plays”.

The landscape of Angria is recognisably English. It has moors and forests and great country houses; the city of Zamorna, with its “Piece-hall” and its mills and its Stancliffe’s Hotel bustling with commercial travellers, is like a thriving early industrial Yorkshire town. To the west lies “Senegambia”, a country rather like Ireland, original homeland both of Zamorna and of Mary Percy, his second wife.

At the centre of the Angrian drama, as Charlotte Brontë conceives it (and in the background of Stancliffe’s Hotel, prompting the street-riot in Zamorna), is the love/hate relationship between two men.

The younger of these is Zamorna, a darkly handsome Byronic figure, charismatic, ruthless, unfaithful to a series of mistresses and wives. The other is the Duke of Northangerland, father of Mary Percy, once Zamorna’s ally, and subsequently leader of a rebellion against him. In the course of that rebellion, Angria was devastated by war, and Zamorna driven into exile. By the time of Stancliffe’s Hotel he has been re-established in power, and the ill and ageing Northangerland is confined to his country estate.

Stancliffe’s Hotel will come as a surprise to readers who know Charlotte Brontë only as the author of Jane Eyre. The narrator is not a central, passionately involved protagonist, but a detached, debunking observer of Angrian life and manners, Charles Townshend, a dandy who takes “a full half hour to dress, and another half hour to view myself over from head to foot”. He tells his story to the reader as a series of disconnected episodes. There are sudden changes of scene, marked by gaps in the manuscript; shifts of tone and atmosphere; tensions are left unresolved. Yet the feeling is not of fragmentariness, but of telling juxtaposition: flexible, witty, assured.

Stancliffe’s Hotel is one of a number of later Angrian novelettes which I am editing for Penguin Classics. They have hitherto been published piecemeal, obtainable, if at all, only in expensive scholarly editions: Stancliffe’s Hotel has never been published. Racier than anything their author published in her lifetime, full of comic and haunting vignettes.

Note on the text: The manuscript of Stancliffe’s Hotel, which is in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth.

Should prove to be and interesting read


Edited by Celticwitch_00

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