The 5th of June 1826 was a seminal day in the Bronte household. It was the day Patrick Bronte brought his children — Charlotte (10), Branwell (9), Emily (7) and Anne (6) — a set of toy soldiers, which were to become a major part of their literary development.
More accurately, Patrick bought the soldiers for Branwell, the boy, but Charlotte describes how all four children immediately claimed a soldier. Charlotte named hers after the Duke of Wellington, a hero of hers, so of course Branwell chose to favour Bonaparte. Emily’s doll was dubbed ‘Gravey’ for his grave expression and the baby of the family, Anne, found her soldier demoted with the title ‘Waiting Boy’.
The children’s playacting with the soldiers soon turned to written outputs. They crafted tiny books and magazines (such as the one the Secret Victorianist saw at the Morgan Library’s exhibition), designed to be small enough for their dolls to read. And they created worlds — first the Glass Town Confederacy, then Angria, and then, when Emily and Anne became frustrated with their lesser creative roles in the latter’s development, the younger siblings’ world, Gondal.
Glass Town, Angria and Gondal were an incredible blend of the real and imagined, combining the Brontes’ riotous creativity with what they knew of the outside world (its politics, geography and emotional dramas). And the sagas they sparked extended well beyond their childhoods, with creative production of prose and poetry continuing into the group’s twenties. In fact it’s occasionally proved difficult for scholars to identify which of Emily’s poems are Gondal poems and which were inspired by personal feelings, unsurprising given the importance of these worlds to the siblings and the unfortunate loss of all the Gondal prose.
It’s tempting to see the Brontes’ choices of soldiers as indicative of their personalities and later creative outputs. Charlotte, who picked the hero, remains foremost in our thoughts today, Branwell plays the villain, Emily has become a gloomy symbol of the Gothic moors and Anne can’t quite shake her reputation as the quiet one.
It’s easy to read Bronte juvenilia and look for traces of the famous novels the sisters in the family would go on to produce, but, perhaps, we should look for traces of these wild, passionate, collaborative worlds in the stories we’ve grown so familiar with — not be awed by what’s often been judged ‘genius’ but instead see children, playing with their dolls.