Before Jane, Heathcliff, and Agnes: An Introduction to the Brontës’ Worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal by Nicola Friar

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The Brontë sisters are three of the most successful and beloved authors of all time. Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were born to Patrick and Maria Brontë in the small village of Thornton in West Yorkshire. In 1820, the sisters, along with their parents and siblings Maria, Elizabeth, and Patrick Branwell (more commonly known as Branwell), made the short move to the parsonage in the village of Haworth, which is famous today as The Brontë Parsonage Musuem and attracts thousands of visitors every year. When we think of the works of fiction produced by the Brontës, we conjure up images of brooding anti-heroes, poor governesses, and wild Yorkshire moors. In short, we tend to think of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey, novels seemingly written by three lonely and isolated sisters in their family home against the backdrop of the harsh environment of northern England. The minds of Brontë devotees may stretch a little further to include Charlotte’s other published novels (The ProfessorShirley, and Villette), and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Many Brontë enthusiasts may also be familiar with the poetry of the sisters, a volume of which was published prior to their literary success in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and sadly sold just two copies. However, there is much more to the Brontë sisters’ legacy than a few novels and poems written in adulthood.

The Brontë sisters left behind an incredible and substantial body of work dating back to their childhood which consists of hundreds of short stories, plays, poems, and novellas. The largest part of the Brontës’ literary canon is their juvenilia, set in the paracosmic worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, and shared with their only brother, Branwell (1817-1848). Contrary to the belief which sprang up after the sisters’ deaths that, tired of scraping a living as teachers and governesses, they suddenly decided to sit down one day in adulthood and become writers; they, along with Branwell, had years of writing experience before being published. There was no fairy tale, no miracle, and no spontaneous bursts of creativity and genius. Instead there was hard work, practise, and perseverance.

Children’s Study, Brontë Parsonage, 2016

Patrick Brontë’s gift of twelve toy soldiers to Branwell in June 1826 was the catalyst for the creation of the Brontë siblings’ paracosmic world of Glass Town. Each of the surviving Brontë siblings (Maria and Elizabeth both died in 1825) chose a soldier of their own, played with them, created storylines concerning them, and eventually recorded these events on any scrap of paper they could get their hands on to create their famous tiny books. Charlotte chose her political hero, the Duke of Wellington; Branwell chose a character who was the antagonist of Charlotte’s hero both on and off the page, Naopoleon Bonaparte; Emily and Anne chose Gravey and Waiting Boy, who would eventually evolve into the famous explorers, Parry and Ross. Both Charlotte and Branwell wrote separate accounts of how each soldier was chosen and named, with the former writing a brief description on March 12th 1829 of this event in a fragment headed simply “Young Men’s”.1 Branwell wrote a somewhat more detailed description titled The History of the Young Men From Their First Settlement To The Present Time (15th December 1830 – 7th May 1831) which was written in the persona of the Glass Town historian, Captain John Bud. This is a fascinating example of both the close collaboration between Charlotte and Branwell in particular, but also their individual imaginations and interpretations of characters and events. 

Two Romantic Tales is a hand-sewn booklet which is signed by Charlotte and dated April 28th 1829 (when she was just thirteen years old). The manuscript contains two tales: A Romantic Tale (or The Twelve Adventurers) which was written on 15th April 1829, and An Adventure in Ireland. In the former tale, Charlotte lists the origins of the Twelves and their journey to Africa, naming them as:

Marcus O’Donell, Ferdinand Cortez, Felix de Rothsay, Eugene Cameron, Harold Fitzgeorge, Henry Clinton, Francis Stewart, Ronald Traquair, Ernest Fortescue, Gustavus Dunally, Frederick Brunswick, and Arthur Wellesley.2

Of these characters, it is Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and Charlotte’s chief man, who becomes the most prominent in the saga until he is phased out due to the increased focus on his sons, the Marquis of Douro (later the Duke of Zamorna), and Lord Charles Wellesley (later Charles Townshend). It is interesting to note that in his account of the origins of the Twelves in The History of the Young Men, Branwell records the different names of thirteen characters:

Butter Crashey, Alexander Cheeky, Arthur Wellesley, William Edward Parry, Alexander Sneaky, John Ross, William Bravey, Edward Gravey, Frederick Guelph, Stumps, Monkey, Tracky, Cracky.3

The names of Branwell’s characters, unlike most of Charlotte’s, appear in some of the early Glass Town stories, and he includes Emily and Anne’s chief men, Parry and Ross in his list. Other memorable characters from the earliest juvenilia include the four Chief Genii: Tallii, Brannii, Emmii, and Annii. These often ruthless, god-like characters are alter-egos of their creators on the page who play with the lives of the Glass Towners. However, as the siblings grew older, they broke away into pairs, with Branwell and Charlotte continuing to develop the world of Glass Town, (later Verdopolis and Angria), whilst Emily and Anne focused on their own world of Gondal from 1831 onwards. Unfortunately, very little of the Gondal saga survives as the writings have been either lost or possibly destroyed over time. There are no extant prose pieces, although some of the sisters’ poetry remains; there are also a handful of vague references to Gondal and incomplete character lists in Anne and Emily’s diary papers which leave tantalising clues to their lost world. From the remaining fragments, we can ascertain that Gondal is an island in the North Pacific, and its capital is Regina. There are four parts to Gondal (Angora, Alcona, Exina, Gondal), and unlike Charlotte and Branwell’s exotic African world of Glass Town, it is reminiscent of the Yorkshire the Brontës knew and loved. The names of Gondal’s characters have been difficult to establish as, like the Glass Town/Angrian saga, several characters seem to have different aliases. Some interesting characters from the saga include Rosina Alcona, a haughty member of the Gondal aristocracy who reads like an early version of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights; Alexandrina Zenobia, a speaker of four of Anne’s poems who shares a name with the beautiful bluestocking and heiress from Glass Town/Angria, Zenobia Ellrington; and Augusta Geraldine Almeida, the ruthless and beautiful Queen of Gondal who has many lovers including Lord Alexander Elbë and Alfred Sidonia, and is eventually overthrown and assassinated.

Charlotte and Branwell continued to enjoy a close creative collaboration throughout their adolescence, even when Charlotte was away at school. 1833-34 proved to be a turning point for the juvenilia as the siblings moved more firmly away from the childish supernatural elements of the early works (Charlotte used the Chief Genii for the final time in The Foundling), introduced new characters who would become central to the saga (Mary Percy), re-developed existing ones who would dominate the later tales (Douro became Zamorna, Rogue became Percy/Northangerland/Elrington), and said farewell to those who were no longer useful (Marian Hume). This period also saw the shift in focus from Glass Town to the Kingdom of Angria, the principal setting for their later juvenilia. The kingdom has seven provinces (Angria, Arundel, Calabar, Douro, Etrei, and Northangerland) and was created for one of the saga’s principal characters, the Duke of Zamorna (also known throughout as Arthur Wellesley, the Marquis of Douro, and the King of Angria) by the Verdopolitan Parliament in 1834 as a reward for his success in the War of Encroachment against the native Ashantees. Zamorna is the son of Charlotte’s chief man, the Duke of Wellington. He is also brother to her preferred pseudonym throughout her early work, Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley, the spiteful and celebrated child prodigy, author, and observer of Glass Town society. He eventually evolves into the fashionable figure of Charles Townshend, a dandy and struggling author who writes/narrates most of Charlotte’s Angrian novelettes such as Stancliffe’s Hotel, Mina Laury, and Henry Hastings, the latter of which features a Jane Eyre prototype named Elizabeth Hastings. 

Branwell continued to write his own poetry and prose based on the Angrian saga and characters, including an unfinished novel titled and the weary are at rest until his death at the age of just thirty-one in 1848. Charlotte continued to write her Angrian tales until 1839 when at the age of twenty-three she attempted to turn her back on her childhood world forever. Her final completed Angrian narrative is the novelette, Caroline Vernon, where the young protagonist begins to explore her sexuality and make sense of her attraction to her guardian, Zamorna. It is certainly plausible to see shades of Edward Fairfax Rochester in this late incarnation of Charlotte’s favourite hero. Depending on your interpretation of the narrative, it can also be argued that perhaps Caroline is an Adèle figure without a Jane to care for her. The fragment now known as Farewell to Angria (1839) is actually Charlotte’s final Angrian text; however, she could not shake off the influence of her paracosmic world, following this with an unfinished novel, Ashworth, which although is not set in Angria, has strong links to her earlier works. Even her adult novel, The Professor retains some names and characteristics of her juvenilia; the theme of feuding brothers runs throughout Glass Town and Angria with characters such as Zamorna and Charles, and William and Edward Percy. 

In order to debunk the myth that the Brontës sprang into being as fully formed writers, we must read, study, and appreciate the earliest works of the siblings, and acknowledge that as talented and remarkable as the Brontë sisters were, they honed their craft for many years before their work was published. Although Brontë fans will probably continue to conjure up images of brooding anti-heroes, poor governesses, and wild Yorkshire moors when thinking of the sisters’ work, it is about time that joining those ranks are the likes of the Twelves, the Genii, Zamorna, Lord Charles, Northangerland, Zenobia, and Rosina Alcona. In the Brontës’ case, the child writer was parent to the adult author, and these characters are the literary ancestors of the creations who came after them and deserve their own place in literary history alongside Jane, Heathcliff, and Agnes. 


WORKS CITED

  1. The heading of this fragment is Charlotte’s and appears in An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. Volume I. The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), edited by Christine Alexander. 
  2. Charlotte’s list is taken from An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. Volume I. The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), edited by Christine Alexander. 
  3. Branwell’s list is taken from The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë. Volume 1, 1827 -1833 (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), edited by Victor Neufeldt.

Nicola Friar is a blogger and independent researcher whose main focus is the works of the Brontë siblings. She became obsessed with the Brontë juvenilia in 2011 after discovering Charlotte Brontë’s short tale, The Green Dwarf, and has never looked back. Her website, Brontë Babe Blog, aims to introduce both Brontë fans and new readers to the Brontë juvenilia. She wrote her MA dissertation on Charlotte Brontë’s Glass Town and Angrian writings. Whilst studying for this she was lucky enough to handle archival material, including some of the famous Brontë tiny books, in the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s library. In 2018 Nicola presented a paper on the early fiction of Charlotte at the Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference at Durham University. In 2019 her essay, Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld, was published in The Journal of Juvenilia Studies. In 2020 her short, Brontë-inspired story, A Tale of Two Glass Towns, was published in the anthology, I Know Ghosts Have Wandered the Earth. She is looking forward to making another pilgrimage to Haworth after lockdown.

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