In the 19th Century there was a movement, slow but significant, that infiltrated thought and decision-making. Some of the first steps in the progress towards improvements in Women’s Rights were taken. It might have been quiet, but it went hand in hand with other movements towards reform, across a century known for both the abuse of power and also violent revolutionary change.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)
With her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) Wollstonecraft contributed to the bases of the Romantic Movement of the early 19th Century. Her work drew attention to the importance of agency and the rights of the individual as applied to women as well as men.
If men can be self-willed entities in the context of the eternal, the universe, or God, then so too, argued Wollstonecraft, can women. Ensnared in a world that limited their identity and choices this argument was a refreshing one. Writers and thinkers helped to progress it.
Endeavours by some writers to do this involved their decisions about naming. What do you call yourself if you enter into a life of writing, journalism, or criticism? The Brontë Sisters renamed were the Bell Brothers: Currer, Ellis, and Acton. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. Amandine Lucie Aurore Dupin was George Sand.
Sometimes it was useful to reassign a masculine identity. Could you become a man in your writing? Or, at least not get labeled as a subordinate thanks to the bias directed at you as a female.
Neutral names also helped to reinvent and disguise a writer. The daughter of a wine merchant from Bury St. Edmunds, Marie Louise Ramé, re-styled her name as Marie Louise de la Ramée. She later wrote as ‘Ouida’, her own childish contraction of her name ‘Louise’. She resided at Langham’s Hotel, seated in bed and writing by candlelight with the drapes closed, surrounded by purple flowers.
At other times, the choice of genre can determine your identity. As a writer of romance a female name might serve your career. As an author of thrillers, satire, or intrigue the masculine association might encourage readers to believe in you.
In America in 1866 the novella Behind The Mask by A. M. Barnard was published. The story follows a devious governess, Jean Muir, and her rise to dominance in the Coventry family. She follows the tradition of 19th Century characters that pursued social elevation: Currer Bell’s Jane Eyre, Ellis Bell’s Heathcliff, William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, and Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley. Social climbing in the 19th Century involved many different approaches both fair means and foul.
A. M. Barnard was Louisa May Alcott, known for her stories of ‘The Little Women’ of the March Family. Under her own name she also wrote charming stories of childhood and reimagined fairy tales: ‘Poppy’s Pranks’, ‘Aunt Jo’s Scrap-bag’, and The Rose Family. So, a change in subject matter to a satirical tale of ruthless social climbing indicated the need to adopt a different, neutral, title on Alcott’s part.
This is a very useful development and precedent for creating new fiction about the writers of the ‘Glasstown’ stories and their fellow authors of the 19th Century: the Brontë-Bells, their contemporaries, and influences. It helps with the construction of new narratives that blend fact and fiction.
Charles Lamb was ‘Elia’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, Washington Irvine called himself Jonathan Oldstyle, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was Lewis Carroll.
Polymath Benjamin Franklin made a good living from his writing in the 18th Century, as well as helping to found the Independent colonies in America. In that time he penned the enduringly popular Poor Richard’s Almanack. Writing as ‘Poor’ Richard Saunders he composed many popular, wise sayings:
“Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed.” (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1739)
Franklin’s emphasis on the use of pen-names began very early in his writing life. At 16 he was a printer’s apprentice in Boston, Mass. In order to say his piece, and convince his older brother he could write, he adopted the name of Silence Dogood, a 40-year-old preacher’s widow. At different times he was also Celia Single and Anthony Afterwit.
The use of pseudonyms creates tension. With a variety of persona there comes a variety of opinion. It gives the writer the chance to enter into a discourse and an investigation with the society around them. Re-naming highlights uncertainty, ambivalence, and flexibility with identity.
As part of the Glasstown narratives researcher Humble Parry is on the trail of new information about where and when Branwell Brontë passed away. Her suspicions have been aroused about the authenticity of some of the facts surrounding the family’s history. She tracks down the mysterious Professor Mina Laury in her remote house on the Moors.
Humble considers herself something of an expert on obscure 18th & 19th Century literary history, but even she is surprised by the contents of Professor Laury’s home.
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THE GLASSTOWN CHRONICLES: Humble Parry Takes A Trip.
The Yorkshire Moors — the present day
Humble Parry opened up the throttle on her vintage Norton motorcycle. The moorland roads with their long, sweeping stretches were perfect for seeing what the machine could do. She was pleased with how it sounded. She kept it well tuned.
The bright spring day on the Moors dried the roads after the overnight rain. Patches of darker tarmac were quickly shrinking. The Norton throbbed to a standstill alongside a typical dry-stone wall that bounded the road in a hollow between two hills. A stone bridge spanned a brook that trickled down from the high moors. Twisted, mossy oaks hugged the banks, their roots clasped the dark boulders that were caught in a petrified cascade in the crook of the hills.
Humble cut the engine and dismounted. She removed her helmet. Her tousled auburn curls sprang obediently from their confinement. She gently unlatched the rickety, lichen covered wooden gate of Brook House. She checked the handwritten card that she took from her pocket: ‘Professor Mina Laury, Brook House, Midhaven Hollow, Stoneyworth Moor Road.’
The narrow path that led to the charming rustic porch was flanked with choppy wild grass and twisted, scrubby bushes. Flowerpots and ornaments of different styles and periods sat in groups and huddled against the walls. Feeders hung from tree boughs with an occasional bird flitting in to peck at them.
The crowded eclectic theme of the garden continued into the unruly, busy interior. Humble could spot a cluttered hallway through the porch window. Brook House was more than a hundred years old. Grey rendered walls, streaked dark with the rain rose above her and the eyes of the building were sash windows with dusty green frames.
Humble could hear a radio playing faintly somewhere – a way off in the back of the house. She lifted the doorknocker. It was iron and cast into the shape of a large cog. She thudded it three times, and waited. The distinctive lilt of ‘The Archers’ theme tune travelled towards her through the house.
After a couple of minutes and more knocking, Humble walked around the side of the ample property. She came alongside a blind grey wall, pebble-dashed and cracked, with a worn wooden door, blistered green, standing partly open.
‘Okay, Goldilocks,’ Humble said to herself, ‘let’s check it out.’
She walked in.
She found herself in a narrow corridor with parquet flooring. On the pale blue walls were faded prints of garden flowers. Humble made her way along the corridor, careful not to knock her crash helmet against anything. A couple of delicate walnut stands flanked a doorway at the far end. Each one supported a fine majolica pot.
Humble walked through into a wider hallway, lined with shelves full of books and miscellaneous objects. Her eyes were drawn immediately to a desk in the corner with a stained-glass lamp. On it stood four wooden soldiers. ‘More of the Twelve,’ Humble murmured and went over to take a closer look. Old, worn, distinctive. She was just about to pick one up when a movement in the corner of her eye grabbed her attention.
On a shelf to the side something was moving. She drew closer and at a few feet away she could not quite yet discern what it was. Closer still and her eyes widened in surprise. Humble saw that it was a caterpillar, about four inches long, exquisitely tooled from what looked like brass, or gold. It edged its way along the shelf, small jewels glistened along its flanks and puffs of something – was it steam? Every so often a tiny hiss and the release of steam from minute holes. Humble watched transfixed at this miniature marvel. A bejeweled, golden, steam-powered caterpillar. It mesmerized her, this mechanical organic moving creature. So engrossed was she that she started violently and whipped around when a voice behind her said: ‘Welcome to my home. Can I help you?’
Before Humble there stood a diminutive, elegant lady. Her grey hair was in a neat chignon and she wore smart, well-matched clothes.
‘And you are?’
Humble, embarrassed, transferred her crash helmet to her left hand so she could greet her accidental host. ‘I’m so sorry – I’m Humble …’ she stammered out.
‘Why are you sorry to be humble?’ the woman had a twinkle in her eye, then she laughed kindly, ‘It’s alright, I know who you are, Miss Parry. Humble – that’s an unusual name – Quaker stock?’ she asked, perceptively.
‘Yes,’ Humble was pleasantly surprised she did not have to explain, ‘no one ever really recognizes that – my father and grandfather.’
‘My name is Mina – Professor Mina Laury.’
‘Yes, er … – Professor Townshend sent me.’
‘I know,’ she smiled again, ‘follow me. You look like you could do with a cup of tea.’
Humble followed Professor Laury into a rear parlour that occupied almost the entire back portion of the building. It was arranged as a larger library and study. There were skylights and long windows that looked out onto the pretty garden that was full of fruit trees. Dandelion wisps and other fluffy seeds floated past the windows. The garden had an age to it and was unlike the surrounding moorland. It was an interesting springtime oasis.
Mina struck a match and lit a small gas ring that had a cast iron kettle on it. ‘I was expecting you. Do you like Mrs. Beeton’s lemon biscuits?’
‘I’ve never tried them before – I’m going to say ‘yes’ though!’
‘And why is that?’
Humble took one from the proffered plate, ‘I feel a little like Alice and I should try a taste of everything, once, and see what happens.’
‘Well then, ‘Alice’,’ and Mina smiled, ‘have a look around whilst I make the tea.’
Humble immediately went to the bookshelves and scanned their contents. It was her habitual way of understanding her surroundings, new places and new people, to always check out the bookcases wherever she went. If Professor Townshend’s shelves had contained interesting and unusual new titles, then Mina Laury’s shelves were a positive treasure trove.
Acton Bell sat next to Anthony Afterwit, Artemis Ward and Benevolus. Boz, like Acton, was familiar but then who was Diedrich Knickerbocker? ‘Elia’, she knew, was Charles Lamb and there was George Sand, one of her favourites. Geoffrey Crayon surprised her and a plain cover surrounded the erotic memoirs of Pisanus Fraxi. Poor Richard Saunders and Silence Dogood – I remember, she thought, two of Ben Franklin’s many pen-names – ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac’.
Humble was intrigued by this collection, to see familiar and unfamiliar names and titles on show, and such an array of 18th and 19th century pseudonyms. Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain, Marie-Henri Beyle better known as Stendhal. Prominent authors rubbed shoulders with more obscure, edgy aliases, political and satirical, erotic and autobiographical. The remarkable thing was how many new, strange titles there were. It was a bibliophile’s paradise of lesser know, or unknown, works. Professor Laury’s shelves, it seemed, displayed an alternative literary canon.
Mina laid out the tea things on a small table in the centre of the room. A flurry of petals cascaded past one of the wide windows from a blossom tree in the garden. ‘Come and sit down,’ she invited Humble over.
Positioned on comfortable chairs in the middle of the room, Humble took the cup and saucer and munched on her lemon biscuit. It was delicious and crumbly and melted in her mouth. Washed down with fragrant tea it helped her feel calm, comfortable. From somewhere, perhaps the radio again, she heard a voice speaking some words she thought she knew: ‘T’was grief enough to think mankind all hollow, servile, insincere’. The voice sounded so sad. It had such a sadness the ache she heard in its tone made her own heart suddenly want to break.
Humble noticed, above the desk, a painting – a group portrait. It was familiar, but like the books here and in Charles Townsend’s office, something was off. Humble felt a soft wave of tiredness passing over her. She looked up at the portrait and blinked.
Mina’s face swam before her.
‘Are you alright, Humble?’
‘I think so,’ she blinked and tried to focus.
The painting above her came into place. That was it! She knew it. It was the family portrait of the Brontë sisters. But there was something different. A fourth face – male – dark and handsome looked out from between two of the pale faces of the sisters. That was the last thing she saw, and the voice with that same sadness again murmuring the final lines: ‘But worse to trust to my own mind and find the same corruption there’. That was the last thing she heard before she slipped into unconsciousness.