12 January 2017

Review: The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson

Trade paperback, 188 pages
Published 2010 (originally 1931)

Acquired March 2010
Previously read May 2010

Reread October 2014
The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
What I can never get my editors to realise is that every soul who is alive is ‘modern,’ and that when they use the word they privily mean depraved or racketty. (12)
When I was assigned to teach The Modern Novel, I absolutely knew I wanted to teach this book, even though it's not exactly canonical, as I would argue that it takes the narrative techniques of modernism-- stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and so on-- but deploys them to make jokes. Jesse Matz, in his book The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction, argues that "whereas writers of the past might have thought they could take a certain 'reality' for granted and get right to the work of writing, modern writers had to pause at the outset and self-consciously ask: what is 'reality,' exactly – and how do we know it?" (32). This is exactly what's going on in The Brontës Went to Woolworths, except it's got jokes in it. (There aren't a lot of jokes in Mrs. Dalloway as I recall.) The whole book is about the complications that ensue for three sisters and their mother who have a menagerie of imaginary friends, but Ferguson deliberately writes it so that it's difficult for the reader to tell who's real and who's not.

Matz argues that after the advent of modernism, "Reality now becomes not a thing, but a process. It is not something out there, for sure, that the novelist must describe. It is a process of engagement, a set of subjective acts, a psychological performance, something always ongoing" (36). But unlike in other modernist texts I've read, this book's attitude seems to be that the breakdown of our conventional ways of knowing the world creates the possibility of fun. Matz says, "Questioning reality transformed realism in the modern novel, producing a new realism based strangely on doubts about reality itself" (33), but I can't recall any other modernist text where the doubts about reality were used as an excuse for game-playing. Or perhaps not an excuse-- maybe the only choice in the face of the collapse of epistemology is to play games. Except you can't acknowledge they're games; you have to commit to them as being part of reality because you no longer have yardstick for distinguishing objective and subjective realities from one another.

Anyway, like with a lot of my more esoteric teaching choices, some of my students had trouble with it, and we spent one whole 50-minute class session just working out what had happened and what hadn't. But for me as a teacher, that's a feature not a bug.

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