- Beloved Objects: Mourning, Materiality, and Charlotte Brontë’s “Never-Ending Story”
Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. Then have I reason to be fond of grief.— Constance, King John, 3.4.93–98 1
Charlotte Brontë’s novels tend to occupy the claustrophobic spaces of dependent gentility, but her imaginative life began more expansively, with the invention and lavish elaboration of a fantastic new world, the imaginary African empire of Angria. The Angrian legend began in 1826, one year after the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth Brontë from tuberculosis contracted at Cowan Bridge School. 2 Inspired by a set of toys given to the four surviving children by their father, probably to mark the end of the mourning year, Charlotte and her three siblings began to “make out” a series of plays, most of them featuring the Twelve, or the Young Men, as the children called the wooden soldiers Branwell received from his father. 3 Three years later (perhaps because some of the soldiers had been lost), the children began to create magazines and journals for their characters, productions which partly consolidated and finally replaced the physical plays with which the stories began. 4 Although Anne and Emily eventually defected to create Gondal, a separate imaginary world, Charlotte and Branwell continued to expand, map, and narrate the legend of Angria at least until 1839, when Charlotte was in her mid-20s, the veteran of two despised governess positions and two uncompelling marriage proposals. By the time they abandoned their created world, Charlotte and Branwell had produced hundreds of stories, many of them novelettes in length, which they carefully wrote by hand, illustrated, and collected in hand-bound volumes. Even more striking than the sheer number of manuscripts is their disproportionately small size. Elizabeth Gaskell, the first to examine the texts of the Angrian legend, describes “an immense amount of manuscript, in an inconceivably small [End Page 395] space; . . . written . . . in a hand which it is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass.” 5 Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë reproduces a facsimile of a manuscript page measuring three and three-quarters inches by four and a half inches, and she has by no means chosen the smallest of the children’s little books; Charlotte’s first book, for example, which she wrote for Anne sometime between 1826 and 1829, measures only half that size, as does Branwell’s History of the Young Men, written in 1830. Even books of folio (half-sheet) size were written in the minuscule hand Gaskell describes.
It would be difficult to overestimate the extravagance of the authorial claims made in the Angrian legend. The children not only appropriate Ashantee territory and English heroes for their imaginary country, but they also cast themselves as Genii, figures no less omnipotent than they are willful. In a story set in 1793, for example, the Genii foresee Arthur Wellesley’s triumphant war against Napoleon and his consequent elevation to the Duke of Wellington, but this triumph does not represent either the culmination of Wellington’s career or the end of Napoleon’s. 6 Rather, the children perpetuate the Napoleonic era, with its prospects for heroic action, in the realm of Angria, thereby reducing Waterloo to a stepping stone by which Wellington rises to higher things, in particular, becoming king of the Twelve and fathering Angria’s principal hero, also named Arthur Wellesley (after Wellington’s real-life oldest son), subsequently Marquis of Douro, Duke of Zamorna, and Emperor Adrian of Angria. This manipulation of external history reflects a larger refusal of causality within the Angrian legend. Writing themselves into the stories as Genii, the children grant themselves godlike powers to reverse effects, including death. They thereby create an imaginative space in which conflicting versions of the same events coexist without possibility or necessity of adjudication—but in which all events assert, though often comically, the absolute power of the children as creators. 7
Critics from Elizabeth...