The Art of the Bad Review

I’m not really planning to see the new film about Grace Kelly, but it’s been rather amusing reading the reviews. This line, in particular, has been repeatedly quoted as a gem of criticism: “It is a film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk.” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)

Yet I have to admit, I didn’t think the line was that scathing. Perhaps it’s because recently, I’ve been looking at earlier reviews and criticism.

Take the first reviews for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (see The Telegraph for a handy reference).

“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” (Graham’s Lady Magazine, 1848)

“There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.” (Atlas, 1848)

I also discovered some absolute gems while working on my Cold Comfort Farm lecture. On Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Sussex Gorse, The North American Review had this to say: “It also no doubt deserves the dispraise which is implied in the equally uncritical terms monotonous and depressing.” (1916) Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm, wrote book reviews too. She obviously didn’t really like Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow: “The large agonised faces in Mary Webb’s book annoyed me… they were over life-size (no blame to her for that; she was writing fiction) but they were also silly, and I did not believe people were any more despairing and passionate in Herefordshire than they were in Camden Town.” (Punch, 1966)

There is an odd comfort in reading bad reviews. Sending one’s own work out into the world to be critiqued is rather terrifying. Knowing that others have suffered the withering scorn of critics and survived is reassuring.


The Brontës and their toys

The Brontë sisters and their partially erased brother

The Brontë sisters and their partially erased brother

The other week, I gave a lecture on the Brontës’ juvenilia, specifically, Charlotte Brontë’s writings on Angria. It’s wonderful material! Brontë is so excited about her storytelling and although she indulges in much bad writing, there’s an enthusiasm that’s infectious if you choose to embrace it. She describes her Byronic hero, Zamorna, thus: “He was a wild dream, a superhuman vision, a rain-bow apparition which I chased & chased over hill, & plain, & valley, ever unwearied, never successful, wholly absorbed in the vain yet delicious pursuit.”*

One of the things that struck me about the Brontës’ juvenilia is how it evolved from play with toys. The father brought home a box of wooden soldiers for Branwell. This is how Charlotte describes it: “Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed, ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!'” What caught my eye is that Charlotte ‘snatches’ one of Branwell’s toys and takes possession of it – no please or thank you, really! She takes what is ostensibly a toy for boys and proceeds to weave an entire storyworld around it. Today, there’s much discussion of gendered toys. The wooden soldiers for Branwell were certainly intended for a boy. Charlotte, however, although she had access to dolls, chose to focus her creative energy on boys’ toys. She even wrote her stories as Charles Wellesley, adopting the younger son of Wellington as her ‘elfish’ alter ego. While it wasn’t that long before the stories outgrew their diminutive inspiration, Charlotte’s literary ambitions were in part shaped by boys’ toys and her engagement with them.

Susan Meyer points out, too, that Charlotte received a set of ninepins at the same time that Branwell received his soldiers. These ninepins became the black Africans who first inhabited ‘Angria.’ Meyer notes that the ninepins weren’t human shaped – which is certainly problematic in their imperialist context – but ninepins could serve as improvised, small dolls and were popular toys for girls. There’s a good, short piece about them on Jane Austen’s World (keeping in mind that Charlotte’s childhood takes place virtually in the wake of Austen’s career). Charlotte’s own toys, however, were enlisted in the background roles in the evolution of Angria.

Childhood storytelling often evolves from play. I remember starting my first novel about a set of Edwardian paper dolls I was given. Okay, the novel only lasted a few pages, but I was just ten at the time!

Paper Dolls

Paper Dolls

It does make me wonder how the early relationship with gendered toys impacts the evolution of storytelling. Are our stories influenced by the toys we played with? Does the gendering of the toy shop eventually influence the gendering of the book store?

It’s not all bleak, however, as Charlotte’s heroic seizure of Branwell’s soldiers attests. Just because it’s a boys’ toy doesn’t mean a girl won’t play with it!


* Quotes taken from this edition.

Quick Note – Australian Fairy Tale Society

I admit it, right now I’m suffering a little case of writer’s block. I have two pieces of writing sitting up on my desktop and each time I look at them, I decide to make a cup of tea. This is even when there is a perfectly good, hot cup of tea in front of me.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to write a quick blog post (because oddly, I really only ever get writer’s block when it’s something academic) to let you know about the fundraising being conducted by the Australian Fairy Tale Society. You can see their fundraising site here and hopefully you’ll be able to support them. They have some great rewards. Here’s a quick quote from the site:

We don’t just want your money! We hope to gather a rich and diverse collection of fairy tale folklore to preserve in a public archive. Did the fairy tales you grew up with differ from Disney’s? We want to hear about them. Does Grandma tell a bawdy version of Little Red Riding Hood? Record her (with permission of course) and send it in. Has someone in the family knitted a Cinderella doll for the kids? Take a photo – we want to share it.

As well as collecting folklore, our new national website will promote current events, share fairy tale news, inspire new works, and encourage a strong network of fairy tale lovers.

Okay, I think it’s time to go and make another cup of tea now…