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When the Brontës were kids, they built an imaginary world. A new novel brings it to life.

The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente Margaret K. McElderry Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

What was going on in the Brontë house in 1828?

The father, a country parson of moderate means, was doing nothing astonishing. The mother was dead, and so were the two oldest children; but this was Victorian England. Things like that happened.

It was an ordinary family, living an ordinary middle-class life in the middle of nowhere. There were no particular signs that anything astonishing would come out of that house.

But of the four remaining children — Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne — three were about to grow up into extraordinary adults.

Charlotte and Emily would write two of the most beloved and ferociously angry books in the English canon, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Anne would become an accomplished novelist in her own right. Branwell, meanwhile, would become an alcoholic and drink himself to an early grave.

And in 1828, they were just kids, years away from writing literary masterpieces and/or destroying their lives. Instead, they were playing games and writing them down, in what’s come to be known as the Brontë juvenilia.

The juvenilia is a minutely detailed history of an imaginary world of magic: first Glass Town, which was created by all four children but which Charlotte and Branwell, as the eldest, claimed as their rightful territory; then Glass Town’s extension Angria, created solely by Charlotte and Branwell; and then Gondal, created by Emily and Anne so that they had their own kingdom to work with.

The Brontës rendered their fantasy world in rich, obsessive detail, and the three girls in particular cycled through the archetypes that they would later render into their most iconic characters: the dashing rogues, the wise and underestimated heroines, the madwomen. Glass Town and its associated kingdoms make up a world in which you could get lost — and in Catherynne M. Valente’s new middle-grade novel The Glass Town Game, that’s precisely what happens. Glass Town turns into a Narnia-like world of its own, and the Brontës find themselves pulled through into their own creation.

The children of The Glass Town Game can stand on their own as children’s heroes, but they’re also recognizably the iconic Brontë siblings.

The trope of children who get lost in their own imaginary world is a classic of the portal fantasy genre, and probably most thoughtfully handled in Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy. (Dean’s children find themselves riddled with guilt at the difficulties they put their characters through, like Dickens coming face-to-face with Little Nell.) Glass Town Game is a sterling addition to the genre, with a new twist: It’s dealing with historical people who actually existed, and who would grow up to create more and more ever-suffering fictional characters.

It just never explicitly mentions that fact. It never even mentions the name Brontë.

“It’s my hope that a kid could read it and just love characters named Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell,” said Valente when I spoke with her this June. “And then when they grew up a little bit, and saw Jane Eyre on the bookshelf, and saw Wuthering Heights, they’d be like, ‘But that’s my Emily, that’s my Charlotte! I know those people!’ And that it would help them to read the Brontës in a way that was personal, where they knew something about their lives and their adventures.”

Valente’s portrait of the Brontës — all three stubborn and determined as befits a middle-grade hero, wildly literate as the historical Brontës were, but still recognizably children — can certainly stand on its own, but it also meshes nicely with our pop-cultural understanding of them as adults.

Valente’s 12-year-old Charlotte has a will of steel and a sensible outlook on life that is married to a romantic soul in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has read Jane Eyre. She is riddled with insecurities about taking over as the oldest of the siblings now that her older sisters are gone. Valente’s 8-year-old Anne has the youngest child’s terror of being left behind and the beginnings of her adult counterpart’s distaste for romantically wicked men. And her 10-year-old Emily is just wild enough to swear (she works up the nerve to say hell, and her siblings gasp), and is filled with fantastic visions: “Ice filled Emily’s mind, ice that went on and on forever and never stopped. It looked so clean to her, like a perfect lace tablecloth. Until her great wild roaring ships tore the lace to pieces, their sails clanging with icicles, their cannons full of fire.”

And poor, doomed Branwell, the Edmund of the Brontë Narnia, wants desperately to be the one in charge. He’s a leader in the Glass Town Game — he was the one who wrote down most of the juvenilia, in that obsessive detail with that crabbed, tiny script — he’s almost the oldest, and he’s the boy. He feels that means he should be in charge of the adventures he and his siblings undertake once they’re actually inside the Glass Town. But Branwell also has the misfortune of being merely reasonably bright with a self-destructive streak, while his sisters are all brilliant and have deeply committed work ethics to boot. He’ll never really be in charge of the family, and part of him knows it.

It’s in Branwell’s arc that Valente’s ability to write two different narratives at once becomes most clear: for an adult reader who knows what will happen to Branwell, his ending is profoundly tragic — but for a child reader getting to know the Brontës for the first time, there’s more than enough hope left for Branwell in the end. When you don’t know what’s to come for him, the conclusion to the book feels poignant but uplifting; when you do know, the ending of the book feels cathartic but also tragic.

For all the Brontës, The Glass Town Game functions as a kind of stealth origin story that doubles as a fantastic romp: how did these ordinary children in the middle of nowhere grow up to be so extraordinary? How did they accomplish so much?

The answer, Valente posits, is: magic. But if you’re a Brontë fan, you always suspected as much.