A short novel about a family of girls who, though beyond the usual age for make-believe, happily live in a world populated by their collective imaginings. 1931.
Yesterday, I was in the mood for a particular kind of book. For one, it needed to be very short—just a quick breather from the thick tome I’ve been chugging my way through. Second, and more specifically, I wanted a book about family.
I come from a very close, tightly-knit family. Like the characters in The Brontes Went to Woolworths, I am part of a trio (except I have an older brother, so we’re not all sisters). Growing up, strangers and friends alike continually remarked to my parents, “Are they always like this??” This was because my brother, sister, and I loved each other’s company. We made up new games every day; we made up a language; we created clubs and anthems and dozens of silly names for each other. Our parents would turn to each other and know they had created something magical but beyond their reach. We three kids lived in our own world.
Still, even I will admit that our world was nothing compared to what I encountered in The Brontes Went to Woolworths. The beginning of the story, narrated by the oldest of the three sisters, Deirdre, is pretty confusing. It’s like jumping into a conversation that’s already been going on for twenty years. Our narrator patiently explains the origins of the family’s very “inside” jokes, but this explanation comes all at once. It’s hard to keep straight not only who’s who, but who is entirely fictional, who is a doll (literally), who is a dog (literally), and who is real but not someone the sisters have ever met, much less had tea with yesterday. Once you get this sorted out, though, what follows is both hysterical and immensely rewarding.
The setting is London, around the time of the novel’s publication. There’s passing mention of Bright Young Things and shingle hairstyles, but otherwise the story just has a vague and jolly period feel to it. As stated, there’s Deirdre, the oldest sister, who is a journalist/aspiring novelist. She admits to such scenarios as this one:
Three years ago I was proposed to. I couldn’t accept the man, much as I liked him, because I was in love with Sherlock Holmes. For Holmes and his personality and brain I had a force of feeling which, for the time, converted living men to shadows.
Next in line is Katrine, also grown, who wants to be on stage. Youngest is Sheil, the baby of the family and happily treated as such. At only eleven years old, she’s still young enough to require a governess.
The three sisters have a longstanding habit of making up characters, giving them extensive life stories and realistic goings-on…and then never letting on that this is all made up. What’s more, their mother plays along with almost as much dedication as the girls do. There’s their dog Colonel Crellie, who speaks in an abrasive Cockney accent and once nearly became pope, except he barfed all over the altar. There’s Ironface the doll, who has long since been cast from the nursery but whose aeronautical adventures and French pretensions live on. To hear the family talk about the Colonel and Ironface, you’d never know they’re not real (albeit eccentric) people.
Their greatest gag, though, is a close friendship with “Toddy.” Once, a few years back, their mother had jury duty, and Judge Toddington (aka Toddy) presided over the case. The girls latched onto his persona, following his real-life movements through the newspapers and mutual acquaintances. Wherever they lacked facts about Toddy, they filled in with imagination. The make-believe is so thorough that even the governess, living with the family day in and day out, concludes that they must be very close indeed with this famous judge.
The first half of the book is a means of setting up all of these various stories, which is a clever device on the part of the author: like the poor governess, we are confused at first as to what is real and what is imagined. Then, gradually, the imagined parts become less confusing and are simply funny, and the sisters themselves become known and familiar entities. In effect, the first half of the novel takes the reader from being a confused outsider, to an in-on-the-joke member of the family.
The shift in the action happens when Deirdre goes as a journalist to cover a charity auction, where Judge Torrington’s wife—his real wife—has a stall. Deirdre manages not to bungle the whole thing by betraying her intimate familiarity with Toddington and his wife, both the true knowledge and the made-up stuff. Torrington’s wife is childless, aging, and clearly a bit lonely. She takes a liking to the quirky Deirdre. And then Toddy himself—er, Toddington—shows up!
For once, the sisters are faced with a collision of real life and their make-believe world, and it looks like the spell of their complex imaginings will have to be broken. But let us not assume that the girls and their mother are the only people who possess imagination…
‘My dear, we figure in a family saga. I mean, they’ve got a story about us,’ his face wrinkled with amusement, ‘and you’re well and truly in it.’
‘What do I do?’ she asked eagerly.
‘Just what I asked about myself. I don’t know, yet, the full scope of your activities (we must find that out gradually), but my own include a singularly helpless dependence upon Mathewson, who chooses all my luncheons for me, plus ill-bred scenes with a defunct pierrot.’
What follows is equal parts hysterical and heart-warming. This is a story about family and familial bonds, as the sisters, who have grown up without a father-figure, clearly long for that fatherly protection and cherishing. There’s also a bit of light paranormal stuff (that’s where the Brontes come in), a touch of romance, and passages so funny you’ll guffaw. Yes, guffaw! Trust me.
In short, I can’t wait to re-read this one! Also, this book is pretty easy to find, as it’s been reprinted by Penguin, Virago, and, most recently, The Bloomsbury Group (the pretty purple cover in this review). So go ahead and take your pick!