The Brontes Went to Woolworths

The Brontes Went to Woolworths
Rachel Ferguson
Bloomsbury Publishing (2010)

As growing up in pre-war London looms large in the lives of the Carne sisters, Deirdre, Katrine and young Sheil still share an insatiable appetite for the fantastic. Eldest sister Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine a fledgling actress and young Sheil is still with her governess; together they live a life unchecked by their mother in their bohemian town house. Irrepressibly imaginative, the sisters cannot resist making up stories as they have done since childhood; from their talking nursery toys, Ironface the Doll and Dion Saffyn the pierrot, to their fulsomely-imagined friendship with real high-court Judge Toddington who, since Mrs Carne did jury duty, they affectionately called Toddy.

However, when Deirdre meets Toddy's real-life wife at a charity bazaar, the sisters are forced to confront the subject of their imaginings. Will the sisters cast off the fantasies of childhood forever? Will Toddy and his wife, Lady Mildred, accept these charmingly eccentric girls? And when fancy...

The Brontës Went to

A Novel

Rachel Ferguson

Rose Geraldine Ferguson
and to our ‘Horry’
about whom we know nothing
and everything
































A Note on the Author


How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters. It is usually called
They Were Seven
, or

Not Out
, and one spends one’s entire time trying to sort them all, and muttering, ‘Was it Isobel who drank, or Gertie? And which was it who ran away with the gigolo, Amy or Pauline? And which of their separated husbands was Lionel, Isobel’s or Amy’s?’

Katrine and I often grin over that sort of book, and choose which sister we’d be, and Katrine always tries to bag the drink one.

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, ‘Do you like reading?’ which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever. And then Katrine blinked at the woman and said, ‘Yes, a little.’ And had she read the latest Ruck, and wasn’t it a pretty tale?

Katrine is great fun when she chooses, and gets no end of laughs out of the Dramatic School where she is studying. The course appears to consist of doughnuts and pickles and tongue in the basement, saying ‘Oo-er’ in the Voice Production class, and floods of tears at being given the Nurse instead of Juliet at the term-end shows. Poor Katrine is absolutely sick of elocuting indecencies, and always says that when anybody gets taken pornographic in Shakespeare’s plays, the part is allotted to her automatically. We hope it will break her in for the time when she plays in drawing-room comedies in the West End. Mother and I often get a rise out of her when we meet suddenly, and say:

Pox! how my guts do boil!


Now by my morning sickness! - I have lost
My virtue to this rude and rammish clown.

And once mother forgot, and when there were people to dinner called out to Katrine, ‘Well, my lamb, how many times did you mislay your virtue this morning?’

We often wonder what Katrine’s future will be, and I suspect it will be matrimony, or tours that land up on the West Pier at Brighton. Most of the students seem to go one way or the other.

At school, Katrine and I were much worse stage-struck than anybody. We loved certain actors and actresses so that life was a misery, and Katrine got turned right out of a history class once for kissing a post card of Ainley and murmuring, ‘My dear love!’ And glorious was her martyrdom that night, with Henry under her pillow, if I know the business.

She certainly has enterprise, for about a year ago, when she was in the thick of a passion for an actor who lives quite near us, she went up to him in the street, beaming, and said, ‘Now
say you’ve forgotten me!’ And the actor peeled off his homburg and glove and cried heartily, ‘Well, well, well, this
charming.’ And Katrine, in great detail, reminded him of the tour of
Eastern Gods
, and (plunging) said wasn’t that week at Bradford the limit? And the actor said, ‘A hole, dear, a hole.’ And they fell into a perfect orgy of shop, and when they parted, he said, ‘By the way, what was the name, again?’ And Katrine actually told him her real name, and his face lighted and he said, ‘Of
! stupid of me. Well, bye-bye, dear. Remember me to Birdie.’

Katrine could do that sort of thing, although all three of us (for I am certain that Sheil is going that way, too) learn everything there is to learn about people we love. We get their papers, and follow their careers, and pick up gossip, and memorise anecdotes, and study paragraphs, and follow their moves about the country, and, as usually happens if you really mean business, often get into personal touch with their friends or business associates, all with some fresh item or atom of knowledge to add to the heap. Katrine had never even seen
Eastern Gods
, but she knew more about it than half the chorus, and how and where it was going.

It isn’t, of course, limited to actors. It may be anybody. And while it’s ‘on’ it’s no joke. I resent it awfully, sometimes. It takes it out of one so. Katrine once said to me, helplessly, ‘
Why has one got to do it?
’ It is even apt to ruin one’s summer holidays, the going away and leaving the individual in town, or with some obsession that is probably doomed. Years ago, Katrine and I used to eye the strapped trunks, and then each other, and one of us would say, ‘Are we all clear?’ We meant, was the holiday going to be shorn of fantastic mental disturbance, and, therefore, a normal success?

Sometimes, we found conflict awaiting us, as in the Arcaly year when we both suffered a frenzy of desire to join the resident pierrot troupe, and almost projected ourselves into it by sheer concentration. And that made the return to London all wrong. But that, at least, was shared. Also, we brought Dion Saffyn, our pierrot, home with us, and established him and his wife and two daughters in Addison Road, where many and trying were their ups and downs. For gradually it appeared that ‘Saffy’ had married above his class a Mary Arbuthnot, only daughter of a Somerset squire, and when they fall out, she becomes stately and ‘county,’ and, generally speaking, makes Saffy feel his position.

But the girls are dears. Ennis designs for a famous French dressmaker, and Pauline is secretary in Saffy’s London office, and he often rings us up when Polly is being Arbuthnot, and hurries round to us to be made a fuss of. His name is Dion Saffyn, and he has two daughters, who we often saw at Arcaly, though we never traced his wife.

I wish we knew the Saffyns.

I think Katrine is working clear of it all, but I don’t believe I shall ever be free.

Three years ago I was proposed to. I couldn’t accept the man, much as I liked him, because I was in love with Sherlock Holmes. For Holmes and his personality and brain I had a force of feeling which, for the time, converted living men to shadows.

After all, isn’t most love the worship of an idea or an illusion? Isn’t flesh and blood the least part of the business?

I’m through with Holmes now, but I often think that he and I could have hit it off wonderfully well in Baker Street, as I am not at all demanding, and rather love old clothes and arm-chairs, and silence, and smoking, and dispassionate flights of pure reason.

It was Katrine who was upset over my refusing Stuart B. She sat on the edge of the bath while I washed out gloves in the basin, and said. ‘If ever I have a daughter, by God! her mind shall be a perfect blank!’


It’s lovely to have a London house with a schoolroom, and somebody in it of schoolroom age. To go upstairs and find Sheil sweating over the Wars of the Roses is like stepping into a new world. It takes one’s disillusions away like magic, and I often long for an old nurse as well, because I adore the kind of bed-sitting-room they make for themselves; it always reeks of mid-Victoria and the Boer War. I wasn’t alive in those days, but I have a very strong sense of them, and I can honestly say that I prefer them to our Georgian times. Besides, I know a family which has an old nurse who has seen the boys and girls grow up into fathers and mothers, and I cultivate the family because of having tea with Lucy. And her walls are thick with Militia photographs, and her work-box has a picture of the Great Exhibition on the lid, and there is a glass ball on the mantelpiece with a snowman in it, and you shake it and there is a storm of flakes and he waves his broom. And we have jam sandwiches which nobody else ever thinks of giving one, and the tea is tawny and heartening, and afterwards, we lose ourselves in fat albums and old German picture-books with coloured cuts of
Henny Penny
and the pancake, and I go home simply suffocated with the feel of bygone days . . .

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