Tales of a Juvenile Genius: The Fantasy Worlds of Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë is a name that looms large in the English literary canon. She and her sisters, Emily and Anne, produced some of the most celebrated and beloved novels of the 19th century. Although her other major works, Shirley and Villette remain critically esteemed, Charlotte Brontë’s most iconic work is indisputably Jane Eyre, which follows the eponymous heroine in her journey into adulthood, becoming a governess, and falling in love with the temperamental and mysterious Mr. Rochester. It is considered a revolutionary literary work, along with its exploration of themes including classism, female expression, and sexuality, the novel is a landmark in the use of internalised action, which has led the Brontë to be considered the 'first historian of the private consciousness' and the forerunner to Joyce and Proust. The novel is also considered one of the greatest examples of Gothic literature, utilising many of the genre’s tropes such as a mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere, a Byronic hero, the unveiling of dark secrets, and elements of the supernatural. That Brontë crafted a novel which masterfully balances characterisation with social commentary and atmospheric setting, leaves little doubt in her place as an author of eminent talent and importance.
With all this in mind, it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Jane Eyre didn’t come out of nowhere, but rather out of a “long apprenticeship in writing,” that had some surprising beginnings. So, in the style of a parent bringing out the baby photos, let’s take a look at some of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia, to find some of her most charming, and occasionally cringeworthy moments.
Brontë’s writing began after a turbulent and traumatic experience at school. She, along with three of her sisters, Emily, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. The harsh conditions and abusive teachers there would later serve as Brontë’s inspiration for Lowood School in Jane Eyre. It did not take long for the school’s treatment of the girls to have a devastating effect on the Brontë family. The girls arrived in August 1824, and by June 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth had died of tuberculosis. Charlotte and Emily were withdrawn from the school and returned home to their father and their younger sister Anne and only brother Branwell. It was in this time that they played games, and escaped into fantasy world of their own creation, and it was about these paracosms that Charlotte, and indeed all of the children, began to write.
Among some earliest surviving examples we have of these writings are a series of stories called Tales of the Islanders. Written in 1829 when Brontë was just thirteen years old, the stories describe an idyllic island containing a magnificent school. That the children should create such a fantasy is perhaps unsurprising given their recent experiences with education. Here, instead of the overworked and underfed students found at Cowan Bridge, the siblings are the Little King and Little Queens of the island. The writing reflects Brontë’s age, filled with over-the-top imagination, and childish self elevation. She describes the “palace school” with a lavishness that is charmingly naive.
[I]n the midst of the hall is a colossal statue holding in each hand a case of crystal from which rushes a stream of clear water and breaking into a thousand diamonds and pearls falls into a basin of pure gold and disappearing through an opening rises again in different parts of the park in the form of brilliant fountain.
However this is no utopia, there are plenty of villains and “naughty children”, and the school includes a dungeon filled with instruments of torture, that she and Emily hold the keys to, in order to ensure its proper use. With the characteristically morbid glee of children, Brontë puts her and her siblings in power over those around them as can be seen here, “I forgot to mention that Branwell has a large black club with which he thump’s the children upon occasion and that most unmercifully.” Along with this Brontë also populates her island with her favourite celebrities, in what we might now term fanfiction. Brontë was besotted with the Duke of Wellington and his two sons, Arthur, the Marquess of Duoro, and Lord Charles Wellesley. All three of them feature heavily throughout her early work. In Tales of the Islanders, they are invited by the Brontë siblings to rule the island, where they they are variously kidnapped, poisoned, and injured in battle, with the Bronte siblings as enthralled observers and chroniclers. While there are certain elements that echo her later writing, such as the use of supernatural horror and Byronic heroes, these are clearly the stories of children. The plots are fragmentary, and are resolved through wild and improbable coincidences. The interest and charm of Tales of the Islanders lies mainly in the opportunity to take a peek inside the head of the young Charlotte Brontë and to look at the teetering baby steps of a renowned writer.
Even at this age, Brontë was precocious and confident in her writing, she signed some of her work ‘the genius C.B.’ a title that carries all the self-importance of childhood, and while the literary merit of these early writings is debatable, she did ultimately do herself the credit of living up to the title. In addition, what she can be credited with at this stage of writing, is a decided industriousness and dedication to her craft. It was at this time that she and Branwell began making miniscule books for their stories. Measuring just 3.5cm by 5cm, these nine books are carefully hand bound and contain dozens of pages filled with almost microscopic writing as well as numerous illustrations and maps. Made from scraps of paper and clumsy pens, Brontë and her brother produced objects of marvellous beauty, befitting the wondrous world that their pages describe. These tiny books are some of the first examples of the series of stories that would become central to the young Brontës’ writing, at that time titled The Glass Town Confederacy but later known as the Angrian Saga.
The genesis of the Angrian Saga, came from twelve toy soldiers that were given to Branwell in 1827. The children were captivated by them and began to construct a world and a history for these figures. From there they were inspired by their reading of Blackwood’s Magazine, which introduced the children to the heroic figure of Byron, as well as a great number of stories of adventure and horror about the exploration of Africa. The children’s resulting story was of a fictionalized West African kingdom settled by the ‘Twelves’ where they overcame the native Ashantees and established the city of Glass Town, which would later be renamed Verdopolis. In 1832, Emily and Anne broke off from this initial game to create their own kingdom of Gondal, while Charlotte and Branwell continued with original story, which in 1834 branched out eastwards to create a new kingdom called Angria
Over time their imaginary world underwent some aesthetic changes, Glass Town was renamed Verdopolis, the kingdom branched out eastward to new nation called Angria, and the Duke of Wellington’s sons were transformed into newly created characters, Arthur became the Duke of Zamorna, an enigmatic Byronic hero, while Charles became Charles Townshend the gossipy narrator of the stories. We get a glimpse at the extent of world building Brontë was conducting, in her 1833 novelette The Green Dwarf. Here, rather than focussing on her usual hero, the Duke of Zamorna, she explores the generation previous to him. The plot centres on a young romantic heroine, Lady Emily Charlesworth who is caught between two suitors, one a struggling artist with a mysterious past, and the other an arrogant and possessive aristocrat. Brontë enlists a great number of gothic tropes in this story, lovers are kept apart, disguises are revealed, heroines are kidnapped. This is all set against what we might now consider a typical fantasy landscape. While the stories are ostensibly set in Africa, Brontë has little knowledge of the continent and shows little interest in recreating it. Instead she presents a world of archery competitions, high towers, and Regency-style social settings, all of which sit much more closely with what we might now call an English fantasy setting. She is also writing from a very English perspective, with uncomfortably pro-colonialist perspective in which the colonisers are seen as the rightful occupiers against the native Ashantee and their allies in Senegal. In terms of her development as a writer The Green Dwarf is a work that both looks backward and to the future. Elements are still caught in her childhood ways of storytelling, much like Tales of the Islanders the Duke of Wellington here provides a surprise resolution to all of the narratives conflicts, however readers will also be treated to Brontë’s first iteration of the character of Bertha, here an old and malevolent woman who conspires to lock the story’s heroine Emily away from her betrothed. Overall it shows a marked refinement in Brontë’s writing, it’s a strong and coherent work, filled with political intrigue and amorous deceptions. While it’s tone is swashbuckling and exotic where Jane Eyre is sedate and realistic, The Green Dwarf begins to engage with the narratives that would preoccupy Brontë throughout her life.
It is clear that Brontë is flexing her muscles and gaining momentum as a writer. Even as she was crafting her fantasy world, she was still continuing to explore other avenues of expression. One of the most fascinating pieces she produced in this time was her poem Richard Coeur de Lion and Blondel. The narrative of the poem is based on the legends and folklore surrounding the of Richard of Lionheart, which describe his imprisonment in Austria on returning from Crusades, and his subsequent discovery and rescue by the troubadour Blondel. Brontë’s poem describes the moment Blondel finds his beloved king. Her writing here is florid and romantic without the sinister tones of gothicism. Her description of the natural world is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and abound with natural imagery
O! how that wild strain o’er the river swelled,
And mingled with its gentle murmuring,
From the true fount of Song divine, it welled
This poetry has a very different feel from her more famous work.
It feels like textbook romanticism poetry, natural world, medieval inspiration, the sense of the sublime, but it lacks the emotional passion with which she is so associated. However, Brontë’s skill and interest in poetry are certainly evident and inform her writing in Jane Eyre, which was characterised by a heightened intensity previously only seen in poetry.
As the years went on both Charlotte and Branwell continue to delve into their kingdom of Angria. Branwell tended to explore stories of military interactions, while Charlotte focused on the social interactions and various romantic entanglements of the beau monde. The writing of these stories went on well past what could be considered juvenilia, when Brontë wrote her final Angrian stories in 1838 she was 22. The climax of these paracosmic stories was her five novelettes titled Tales of Angria. Here, Charles Townshend is once again the gossipy narrator of the various exploits of the enigmatic and magnetic Duke of Zamorna. The stories largely centre around the duke’s love life, as he is caught between his two lovers, his nervous and possessive wife, whom he loves for her almost pathetic dependency on him, and his childhood sweetheart and steadfast mistress Mina Laury. It’s here that Brontë really hits her stride, in the midst of her fantastical setting and intricate chronology, she finds the core of her writing, the tortured implications of love. It is clear these are not the childish games of previous years, but a serious space for her to refine her chosen craft. We see her skill in constructing the tangle of relationships and connections which would play such a part of her later novels such as Shirley and Villette. She explores the conflicts and ambiguity associated with love and fidelity, and the inward reflection on emotion and desire. Some of her descriptions of the relationship between the duke and Mina feel very familiar. Consider her description of Mina’s sentiments about the duke,
He was sometimes more to me than a human being, he superseded all things: all affections, all interests, all fears or hopes or principles. Unconnected with him my mind would be a blank - cold, dead, susceptible only of a sense of despair
This description could almost slot into the description of Jane Eyre, with her inescapable love for Rochester,
I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.
Tales of Angria marks the last excursion into her fantasy realm, and indeed a break in her writing. She took up the activity again in 1846, writing a collection of poems and a then-unpublished novel The Professor. The year 1847 would see her finally a published author, with Jane Eyre becoming her official debut novel. Yet, as we have seen, Jane Eyre can hardly be considered her writing debut, and instead sits at the climax of many years of her juvenile imagination. She took a childhood activity and transformed it into a life time’s works, and a historical landmark. These tales of fantasy worlds are a fascinating look at the literary master that is ‘the genius C.B.’ and the precocious child who would name herself as such.