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!
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.