Book Review: Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontes by Isabel Greenberg

In her latest graphic novel, “Glass Town,” Isabel Greenberg offers a beautiful meditation on the Bronte family, comingling their upbringing with a fictional universe of their creation.

The last surviving sibling, Charlotte Bronte is our guide, introducing us to boarding schools and the windswept moors of Haworth, the family parish. Charlotte also introduces us to the imaginary worlds of Glass Town and Gondal, fictional settings populated by the siblings, filled with intrigue, rebellion and scandalous romance.

The story begins soon after the two oldest Bronte siblings have died after being exposed to the miseries of a Georgian boarding school. Traumatized, the four remaining siblings–Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and brother Bramwell–returned home and began creating their own fictional African kingdom. Originally populated by heroes and villains of the era, it is gradually overtaken by fresh characters: the caddish aristocrat, Zamorna, the black revolutionary, Quashia, and Quashia’s lover ( and Zamora’s wife), Mary Percy.

In Greenberg’s telling, Glass Town becomes a compulsion for the Bronte siblings, its tropical intrigues proving more alluring than the cold and poverty of Yorkshire. Even as the Brontes grow, and as Charlotte transitions to teaching at a newer, kinder, boarding school, they find themselves susceptible to bouts of “scribbelmania” centered on their fictional kingdom. Charlotte is the most grounded of the Bronte siblings, but even she has to grapple with whether Glass Town is more real–and more satisfying–than real life, especially for a woman in a time when a woman’s prospects were so constrained.

As “Glass Town” kicks off, Charlotte is visited by Charles Wellesley, a character of her own creation. He draws her back into the fictional world she’s left behind, and ultimately offers a choice: venture back or forsake it forever. Their conversations take us through the shared histories of Glass Town and the Bronte siblings, sharing their creativity and challenges.

Greenberg does a beautiful job capturing both words. Her characters are brilliant and prickly, often squabbling but deeply loyal to one another. Her art is evocative too, with thick, roughly sketched scenes and faces. There is something crude in her art, crayon-like and unpolished. Sometimes the effect can be rough, but in repetition the impact is deeply evocative, conveying emotion and a range of otherworldly settings.

In creating “Glass Town,” the author evokes the frayed boundaries between chilly boarding-school rooms and tropical villas, the surprising overlap between a set of poor, clever siblings and some of the greatest literature in the English language. It’s a meditation on creativity and compulsion, and in that regard it’s a beautiful success.