The tiny books in which the Brontë siblings recorded the history and literature of their imaginary worlds, Angria and Gondal, are the least childish of any writers’ juvenilia, packed with surprisingly worldly tales of love, war, death and ruthless ambition.
No outsider was ever meant to see them, of course, and they were never written to make sense. The names of the characters, careers, personalities, even, change all the time; people come back from the dead, plots are lost or forgotten: the young authors’ joy was simply to keep on inventing.
Isabel Greenberg, the prize-winning author of two previous graphic novels, has recognised the sheer energy and oddity of this material and brought it to life in a wonderful way, telling the story of the creation of Glass Town and interspersing it with long strands of the Angrian stories themselves. She starts with a woman alone on a moor in 1849, a double spread of petrol blue and grey frames. It is Charlotte, the last surviving sibling, whose solitude is interrupted by a smart young man in a mustard-coloured coat and sunglasses. “Is it you? After all this time?” she asks.
Charles Wellesley, one of the main characters from her long-abandoned stories, has come to take her back to the world she created as a child, and to recall the anarchic pleasures she enjoyed there. In the process, they spin more stories around the exotic personnel of Angria and Gondal (Emily and Anne’s invention); characters such as the Ashantee princeling Quashia Quamina, Zenobia the bluestocking and Charlotte’s beloved, wicked, Zamorna.
Greenberg has entered into this world as enthusiastically as any young Brontë, shaping and honing the stories with glee, and lighting up Glass Town in blazing colours and strong charcoal lines. The four children, gods in nightgowns, move pieces around a vast map, talk over each other and displace one plot with a fresh one. There are rivalries and fallings-out (resulting in the break-away of Emily and Anne to create their own, even more private kingdom) but the presiding spirit is that of play, with the toy soldiers talking in funny accents and thumbing their noses at each other. “My love is as bottomless as a well,” Greenberg has Mary Percy say of her doomed feelings for Zamorna, “As endless as a ball of string. As filling as rice pudding. Oh, that’s good, I should write that down.”
On adjacent pages, and in stark contrast, the life of the parsonage goes on. The children progress through school, where the girls are being prepared for drab futures as teachers or governesses. They each hope that somehow they might be saved by the power of their imaginations, but that seems increasingly unlikely. Greenberg’s subdued palette is particularly effective in the scenes showing Charlotte’s breakdown at Roe Head school, all gloom and stark windows, blending into colour when Zamorna appears in her bedroom at night (he’s been hiding in a chest) and whisks her off to Glass Town. The wafer-thin line between Charlotte’s real and imagined life at this date, and her drug-like dependence on escape, finds perfect expression in these dreamy pictures. It’s a wonderful book. Greenberg is impressively well-informed about the Brontës, but handles her facts lightly, allowing full power to the beautiful and sensitive images. She knows exactly when to scale up a frame, or leave it wordless, and keeps coming back to Charlotte’s sad bespectacled face. “You made all this, Miss Brontë. This is your world,” Wellesley reminds her. It’s strange how moving these images are.
Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (Cape, £18.99), buy it here.