The Colours of the Brontës’ Worlds: A Review of Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town
We drift between series, movies, video games, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and 24/7 news. Colourful content fills our lives to the point that boredom is almost impossible. But, this was not the case on the moors of 19th century Haworth. InEngland, where the four Brontë siblings grew up, they were surrounded by boredom and death. This may be why they became invested as children and teenagers in building the fantasy world of Angria and Glass Town where villains and heroes fight, courtships are spurned, affairs are aplenty, and people are regularly resurrected.
Charlotte, Anne, Emily, and Branwell had no Middle Earth, Westeros, or Earthsea. Many consider their work some of the earliest examples of epic fantasy world building. None of this was meant for publication, and the source material is full of unfinished plots and meandering storylines. For Greenberg’s graphic novel adaptation, she chooses to ignore much of these rough edges of Angria and instead focuses on specific characters, using an older Charlotte Brontë to frame the imaginary world and its creators.
Greenberg interweaves Glass Town with the Brontë’s lives. The imaginary seeping into the real in a beautiful dramatization which Greenberg points out in an opening letter is fictitious, using broad strokes of biographical information. When we meet a middle-aged Charlotte, she is wandering alone along the dull blue coloured moors of Haworth only to be greeted by Glass Town inhabitant Charles Wellesley in his otherworldly mustard yellow coat and dark glasses. The two reminisce. They begin at a funeral with the four Brontë siblings as children, the second funeral they’ve been at in one year, the funeral of their sister Elizabeth who died six weeks after their other sister, Maria. Death hangs over their lives, and so they escape to Glass Town where it has no power.
Glass Town is born out of the four children’s imaginations which are launched by a collection of toy soldiers their father brings home from Leeds. These soldiers expand into the kings and queens, conquests of far-flung lands, and grand exotic kingdoms we’d expect from the minds of imperialist Britain’s children. Greenberg tells us all the places she could have stopped, the broken plots and half-drawn characters. Ultimately, she decides to set down around six Glass Town characters, each of them connected through love triangles and familial relationships, all of it largely centred around Zamorna.
Zamorna is a proto Mr Rochester (from Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre). He is a selfish manipulative womanizer who lacks any redeeming characteristics other than being devilishly handsome and apparently a poet. His brother Charles, stepbrother Quashia, and father-in-law Northangerland all despise him to different extents. Zenobia, Mary Percy, and possibly Charlotte all love him to varying degrees. Affairs and canoodling take place behind closed doors. Forbidden love is harboured. A war erupts. Alliances are formed and allies are betrayed. Mary Percy is killed off by Branwell. Mary Percy is resurrected by Charlotte.
Greenberg paints each world uniquely. Glass Town is alluring royal red capes, golden towers, lofty spiked mountains, and mysterious pink rainforests. The present is a sea of blue, capturing Charlotte’s depressed mood. She is the last of her siblings. Branwell, Emily, and Anne having all died within the space of eight months. And the past is a nostalgic dull burnt red sepia, reminiscent of old photographs. The book hops between these worlds and colour schemes, and the more we understand about the past and present, the more we understand why Glass Town’s colours seep into them.
Emily and Anne secede from Glass Town to create their own world, Gondol, telling Charlotte that they don’t want a world where people can die and be resurrected, that they want something real. Charlotte and Branwell continue to work on Glass Town, though we stop seeing Branwell’s work since Greenberg’s story sticks to Charlotte. Charlotte leaves to work in Roe Head where she becomes a teacher, a job which she finds increasingly frustrating. In order to cope with the new life, she attempts to shut Glass Town out, but it keeps creeping into her mind. It wrenches at her to return. She sees Zamorna’s bright red cape around the corners of corridors and outside of her classroom window. Anne becomes sick. Branwell succumbs to alcoholism. Charlotte escapes into writing more of the wars and affairs of Glass Town, into what she refers to as ‘scribblemania.’
There is an air of Frankenstein in Greenberg’s depiction of Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with Glass Town. When Charlotte speaks with Zamorna and Charles, they both acknowledge her as their creator but also move independently, trying to lure her in and coax her out of her imaginary world. Charlotte does eventually escape Glass Town, goes back to help a sick Anne, but Glass Town doesn’t cease to move. The war continues and ends, characters die or go into exile, and society develops into something Charlotte says she could have never imagined.
However, unlike Viktor Frankenstein, who is visited by a spiteful creature, Charlotte’s creations love her as she loved them. Much of the graphic novel involves Charlotte arguing and bickering with Charles Wellesley, and there is something real to their relationship. Part of me wonders if Charles is Branwell or was at least influenced by him. Early in the book, Branwell disappears and Charlotte stops seeing his work on Glass Town, and maybe Charles is a way of her returning to him, so that the two creators can once again return to the world they created together.
Glass Town is a graphic novel that warrants patience and thought. Its deep intersecting worlds create relationships that will delight fans of the Brontës’ work and make others want to read the likes of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It is the only hint of Branwell’s work that we will ever see. It is an adaptation of the raw imaginary world of grief-stricken restless frustrated children, attempting to put Glass Town into context of their lives while creating something utterly original. Charles compares the characters of Glass Town to wind-up toys who will eventually wind down and stop moving, and it appears that Isabel Greenberg has kept them trundling forward for a while longer.