Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Short Stories – Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës, edited and compiled by A. J. Ashworth

I know, I know. Another excuse for me to subtly talk about nineteenth century literature under the cover of modern adaptations of it (just like every review of the Austen Project I’ve written). However, I really did enjoy this book, Red Room, being as it is a celebration of the Brontës, their lives and works. It features stories by Alison Moore, David Constantine, Carys Davies, David Rose, Rowena Macdonald, Tania Hershman, Sarah Dobbs, Venessa Gebbie, Elizabeth Baines, Zoë King, Bill Broady and Felicity Skelton, and a poem by Simon Armitage. Each story takes a novel or an aspect of the lives of the Brontë sisters, and takes a new perspective on it. As someone who loves the Brontës (and who loves good short stories), this book is a real treasure.

The collection as a whole, and on a story-by-story basis, manages to capture that tense and vivid atmosphere the Brontë sisters did so well. The collection begins with Moore’s ‘Stonecrop’, in which we get that ominous ambiguity, that eerily calm sense of appreoaching violence that I so love in the Brontës’ novels. And later there is the atmosphere ‘Behind all the Closed Doors’, by Sarah Dobbs. This, although probably one of the stories more loosely connected to the Brontës, is a great story. It keeps that same sense of danger, of mortality, that you get in Wuthering Heights.

This atmosphere continues in Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’, which I mentioned last week. I love this story, not least because it was the one through which I discovered this lovely collection. It’s a story that explores the differing worlds of adults and children, and was an interesting new take on Cathy and Heathcliff, a slightly modernised version in which Ashton (Heathcliff) is put into a children’s home until adopted by a family. I particularly loved the portrayal of Ashton’s relationship with words, his ability to write and his unwillingness to speak. I’ve got to say that the central characters in this short story are a little more likable than Cathy and Heathcliff, but there’s still a beautifully bleak and almost ominous tone hanging over the story. It’s a real joy to read.

I like Davies’ ‘Bonnet’, even if I for some reason prefer writers to take liberties with author’s texts that with their lives (don’t ask me why). I suppose I feel that whereas fictional characters are (obviously) already fictional, it sees at times a little misleading to fictional the lives of actual human beings. Not that it isn’t done all the time, but nonetheless. To speculate whether Charlotte Brontë may or may not have been in love with her editor seems a little rude, almost, although it does make for a good story. I feel the same about Skelton’s ‘The Curate’s Wife – A Fantasy’, only with a little more fierce. If Davies’ story does not have a great deal of grounding in fact, Skelton’s is simply bizarre. I genuinely have no idea what was going through her mind when she decided that it would be an amusing idea to impregnate a fictionalised version of Charlotte Brontë with the child of a French Officer who I can only assume is Napoleon III. I mean, just, why? But anyway, it’s a well written story, if an entirely and utterly bizarre idea.

There were other stories too that bemused me. I didn’t get much out of Rose’s Brontësaurus, and as for Hershman’s ‘A Shower of Curates’… Hershman takes the first line of several Brontë novels and endeavours to use these to weave together a story. I appreciate the idea but I’m not entirely sure it actually works in practicality, for what we’re left with is a confusing story that doesn’t quite fit together. It feels… bitty, and not in a good way.

Bill Broady’s ‘Heathcliff versus Sherlock Holmes’ amused me, even if I wasn’t terribly convinced that this pair of characters would have ever ended up on a date, let alone one that seems to ultimately go alright. Still, I liked the examination of the way in which certain nineteenth century literary figures have seeped into popular culture. It’s a weird phenomenon. So a good story overall, if one with a bizarre close. I’m really quite bewildered by what on earth was going on with the weird sheep at the end.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that any collection inspired by the Brontës contains a little strangeness. And beyond the stories that bemuse me, there are others I completely and utterly love. Gebbie’s ‘Chapter XXXVIII – Conclusion (and a little bit of added cookery)’ is delightful and daring. I have a feeling Charlotte Brontë would be rolling in her grave, but perhaps with laughter. It’s a hilarious alternative ending to Jane Eyre, the ‘Reader I did not marry him’ that so many feminist critics sort of wish the original had.

I simply love King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’. It’s silly, ridiculous, and entirely beautiful. As a great reader and enthusiast for both Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Brontë’s novels, the idea of Jane Eyre writing to Emma Woodhouse for advice, in a kind of agony aunt set up, fills me with such glee that I can’t even describe it. There’s something so utterly pleasant about this bizarre fictional situation that makes me incredibly happy. It’s just such a thoroughly fun story.

One of my favourite stories was ‘That Turbultant Stillness’. I’ve already come across Elizabeth Baines in The Best British Short Stories 2014, and it was a real pleasure to read another of her short stories. ‘That Turbulant Stillness’ is movingly written, with strong characterisation. It has a lovely narrative voice in which the narrator intrudes, at first in a very Victorian manner (‘I know very well what happened’, etc), and later in a more self-conscious, almost post-modern way that I enjoy. I plan to buy and read Elizabeth Baines’s novel promptly and expect good things from it.

My other favourite story was Macdonald’s ‘A Child of Pleasure’. This is in part simply because it’s based on Villette, my favourite Brontë novel after Wuthering Heights. As it’s a novel so often overlooked I’m really glad to see it included. Besides, the relationship between Ginevra and Lucy works very well updated, and it’s interesting to see Macdonald’s new spin on Ginevra as a character. I too always feel in reading Villette that both Lucy and Charlotte Brontë are a little harsh on Ginevra.

Overall this is simply a lovely collection for anyone who likes the Brontë sisters. Certainly, Anne Brontë was, as usual, neglected a little in favour of her two sisters, but as her novels are less well known and less critically acclaimed I suppose that’s to be expected, even if it is a shame. And much as I do love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, my opinion of Agnes Grey has always been that it is a perfectly nice book, but perhaps (if I dare insult one of the Brontës) not much more. I particularly like that the editor of Red Room chose to have a section at the end where the authors describe their thought process behind their stories. It’s nice to be able to get a sense of the inspiration of the stories, even if I do wish Broady had attempted to explain the demon sheep. But anyway, if you like the Brontë’s books this collection is well worth a read; it simply just great fun.

Favourite Story: Either Rowena Macdonald’s ‘A Child of Pleasure’ or Elizabeth Baines’s ‘That Turbulant Stillness’.

Least Favourite Story: Probably Tania Hershman’s ‘A Shower of Curates’.

Let’s finish on a quote: The trouble was – I can tell you – she was prone to taking her cues from Brontë heroines.

Next week: All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman

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