Like many a moody girl, I fell in love with the Brontës when I was only 11 years old. Drawn in first by Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, it was Emily’s darker, more twisted tale of tragic love gone awry that really hooked me, and I would revisit Wuthering Heights many times throughout my adolescence.
So it was with a sense of wary anticipation that I approached Lena Coakley’s new novel based on the teen years of the four Brontë children: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Set in 1834, when eldest sister Charlotte is 18, Coakley’s book delves into the inner lives of the famed siblings, and adds a fantastical element to their already interesting story.
It is well documented that the Brontës led an intensely isolated and sheltered life in the blustery parsonage of Haworth, Yorkshire. Left largely to their own devices after the death of their mother in 1821, the children immersed themselves in their father’s books, and, at an early age, began creating their own stories set in multilayered, complex worlds. It is into one of these – Verdopolis – that Coakley takes readers, accompanying Branwell and Charlotte as they magically visit their made-up realm thanks to a bargain struck with the malevolent supernatural figure Old Tom. Emily and Anne, not party to the bargain and therefore unable to accompany their siblings, are left to follow the story from the pages of writing left behind in the children’s study, but all four must face the consequences of their imagination-fuelled dalliances when back in the “real world.”
Rivalries, jealousies, and frustrations abound among the young Brontës, with Anne portrayed as the levelheaded one, even though, at 14, she is the youngest. Coakley tries to give equal time to each sibling, but, as in life, it is Charlotte who comes through strongest, followed closely by 16-year-old Emily, whose obsession with Branwell and Charlotte’s imagined world – and Branwell’s brutal, darkly tempting character Alexander Rogue – is but one trait that reflects the real-life personalities of the characters. The thoughtful treatment of Emily’s purported psychological issues is handled with particular skill.
The author knows her subjects well, and while most young readers coming to the novel will have little familiarity with the characters’ backstories, Coakley’s depictions capture what is known about their personalities to such a perfect degree that many may be tempted to seek out further biographical information. For someone who does know the history, having the Brontës brought to life, with all of their distinct traits and flaws on full display, is a delight.
But Worlds of Ink and Shadow is more than a mere fictionalization of the lives of long-dead authors. Coakley borrows liberally from the imaginations of Branwell and Charlotte for Verdopolis, but creates a narrative that is enticing in its own right. The story-within-a-story structure works well, because though the Brontës take on different personas in Verdopolis, they are, ostensibly, writing in real time, even speaking some sentences aloud to direct the behaviour of their creations. When the action starts to get away from Branwell and Charlotte’s control, and Emily and Anne are allowed to enter the previously verboten world, things get really interesting.
Coakley has written an intricate, evocative, and imaginative story that honours its subjects’ legacy while expertly building on the foundation of emotionally resonant storytelling at which they were so proficient.