The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s – Rachel Ferguson

With a title like that how could I resist? For those of you unfamiliar with the Woolworth’s name it was a high street range of budget stores in various parts of the world starting in America and later arriving in the UK up until 2008 when the UK side of the business went into administration with over eight hundred shops closing just after Christmas that year. They sold everything from records to sweets, children’s clothing to household goods, toys to books, indeed Woolworth’s was the first big customer for the newly launched Penguin Books back in 1935. It is therefore inconceivable that the Brontë’s would have shopped there even if their timelines had crossed, but Charlotte, the last of the Brontë sisters, died fifty four years before American businessman Frank Woolworth opened his first store in the UK. So what is going on with the title?

OK, time for a confession, I wrote that opening paragraph back on the 24th May intending to read this relatively short book quickly, get this blog written and free up time around my birthday when I was going to meet a very good friend for the weekend whom I hadn’t seen for almost three years due to covid restrictions. As I write this paragraph it is the 25th June, my birthday is long gone, I am still only 84 pages into the full 182 and I hate the awful, shallow, self-centred characters that make up most of the story. The widowed Mrs Carne has brought up three daughters two of which are now adult, Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine starting on a career as an actress and Sheil, the youngest is only eleven. All four of them live fantasy lives still referring to talking dolls from the childhood of Deirdre and Katrine, writing letters from the dolls and sending them to themselves and making up stories about, and correspondence from, people they have met or simply read about as though they know them well. At this point in the book Deirdre has managed to insinuate herself into the home of Sir Herbert and Lady Toddington; a couple that all four of the dreadful Carne’s have obsessed about for three years ever since Mrs Carne did a week of jury service and Sir Herbert Toddington was the judge to the point at which Agatha Martin, Sheil’s governess, is convinced that they do actually know them.

Will I get any further into the book? It’s been haunting me for almost a month now since I put it down mid chapter totally frustrated by the characters and haven’t picked it back up apart from this morning to check the names for this entry.

Right it is now the 13th of July and I have finally completed the chapter where I gave up and the book is at last beginning to make a bit more sense, good job as I am now almost two thirds of the way through. The Brontë’s had even been discussed at the end of that chapter, if only rather disparagingly, with a comment by Sir Herbert that Anne Brontë never wrote anything quotable. So a quick reference to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I have the 4th edition) to check this out only to find that none of the Brontë’s appear in this rather large volume, which as an English writing family probably makes them unique in that nothing any of them wrote is regarded as quotable. This book is a real struggle and if I wasn’t writing this blog then I would probably have given up long ago but it now feels like a challenge. This is also the first of these blogs to have become a sort of diary entry, I wonder when I will actually finish it?

Well I can now answer the question at the end of the last paragraph with the 2nd September finally seeing the conclusion of the book, and I would never have done it if I hadn’t looked up other reviews and found others with the same problem but saying that it got better. And yes it did with the last sixty pages if not flying by at least manageable in one sitting. The governess, Miss Martin, finally had enough of the family and left during this section and I knew exactly how she felt, but not before meeting the ghosts of Charlotte and Emily Bell, as they introduced themselves although they are clearly two of the Brontë sisters, when they came to visit the Carne’s. This is where the book completely pivots so that the reader isn’t sure what has been going on in the previous 150 pages as it is explained that whilst in Yorkshire the Carne’s had been holding seances and had contacted the entire Brontë family before rapidly leaving to come back south and this was them returning the visit. Are the fantasies of the family more than that? I don’t know and frankly don’t care enough to try to work it out especially when the Toddington’s start to completely step into the fantasy lives created for them by the Carne’s and all pretence of reasonableness from them also slips away. When Lady Toddington says, at the end of the Christmas party which is where the book also finishes, that she saw the Brontë’s in Woolworth’s the other day buying notepads I was half relieved that I could finally answer the question posed at the beginning of this review and half just pleased that I was at the end of page 179 of 182 so the end was near.

Rachel Ferguson wrote at least eight other books, according to the back flap of the dust wrapper, but Penguin only ever published this one. As you can probably gather I don’t recommend reading this book and her entire oeuvre is probably worth avoiding.

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