The Brontës’ early writings: Combining fantasy and fact

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria, created by the Brontë children, and the lasting influence of these on the sisters’ later novels. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

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As a family – their mother dies very young – and they have an extraordinary literary childhood, so that their father gives them the run of the library and together they collaborate on these two extraordinary fantasy worlds, Angria and Gondal and there's an amazing little illustration by Emily Brontë. She draws them, working together on these fantasy worlds they create – they create little magazines, they have drawings, they have maps, they have extraordinary violent political events and together the two younger ones – that's Emily and Anne – they create a world called Gondal and then the two older ones, Charlotte and Branwell – they create a world called Angria and they live in it in the most profound way, I think – throughout their adolescent years and into their early twenties, creating and elaborating these fantasy lands in which all sorts of things that couldn't happen in the everyday world can happen. It was very often quite violently erotic, often very military and they lived them in the most passionate and excited way.

So, this is Emily Brontë's diary paper and it's dated June 26th 1837 and it's a lovely piece, because she's actually included a sketch of herself and Anne seated at the dining room table and you can see all the papers around them. She always starts out by setting the scene, so she gives us an account of where each member of the family is at the time. So we know that Charlotte's working in Anne's room and that Branwell's reading to her and that her and Anne are sitting at the dining room table and they're working on the Gondal saga. It's evident from the diary paper that Emily's fantasy world of Gondal is every bit as real to her as any of these domestic events that she's kind of chronicling in this diary paper, so it's a weird mixture of fact and fantasy, so in the paper, Emily's telling us about events in Gondal and she's talking about the emperors and empresses of Gondal and Gaaldine preparing to depart from Gaaldine to Gondal to prepare for the Coronation which will be on the 12th of July and then she goes on to say, ‘Queen Victoria ascended the throne this month’, so clearly events that were taking place in the real world, were having an influence on events in Gondal in the fantasy world. 

She's also reporting conversations as they take place – a quite mundane conversations – for example, her aunt has clearly walked into the room and said, “Come, Emily, it's past 4 o'clock” and Emily replies, “Yes, Aunt”, so I don't know what the significance of 4 o'clock is – maybe it's time to clear the table for tea – but, so you get these little conversations reported in the papers.

It's quite interesting because when Branwell was a child, his father bought him some toy soldiers as a birthday present and this was really the beginning of the Brontës fantasy world. Each of the children adopted one of the toy soldiers and gave him a name and a character and they would create little plays around the toy soldiers, which continued as they got older and they got more and more complex and sophisticated. So they invested these soldiers with character and they went from acting out little plays to writing them in these tiny books which were intended to be small enough for the toy soldiers to read, if you like.

During Charlotte's time as a teacher at Roe Head School, near Mirfield, she kept what we call The Roe Head journal and it's not a journal in the normal sense of the word – it's a series of jottings, poetry and prose, along with accounts of what is happening at school and it's very clear that Charlotte was completely absorbed with the fantasy world of Angria and longing to escape into that world and from the realities of her duties as a school teacher – and you get accounts of her being completely absorbed and then being jolted back to reality by one of her pupils demanding something of her. You get all kinds of accounts of that happening in the journal.

There's a really remarkable bit of writing that Charlotte does when she's a young teacher at a school and she says it's been the end of a very long day. She's obviously tired out and she starts to fantasise about one of these imaginary worlds, about Angria and it's this very erotic, a rather exciting, sexually charged kind of scene set in Africa, and then suddenly someone knocks on the door and brings in a plate of butter and she just moves seamlessly from one world to the next and so often I think, in the earlier writing these two things are separated and gradually, as they refine their art and so, although they don't write many novels, by the time they're writing them, they're really really experienced writers – they've tried lots of different genres, they've experimented. It's been like a literary kind of workshop – the four of them working together and so by the time they're writing Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, they're very sophisticated users of those forces and bringing them together into a fiction that can speak to all that excitement and passion – at the same time make it disciplined and realistic too.

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