Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town: a vivid graphic novel following the Brontë family

Greenberg merges the biographical Brontë story with
the landscape of their juvenalia: the “half-abandoned stories” of Glass Town.

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As we enter an eerily bright spring that most of us will be spending indoors, many newspapers and charitable friends on social media are recommending TV shows and films that can be streamed and watched from the sofa. But after hours and hours spent scrolling through the news, I’ve found myself desperate for some time entirely away from screens. I was drawn towards a book that has been sat on my shelf for a month or so: Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town.

Glass Town is a vivid historical fiction following the lives of the Brontë family, in the form of a graphic novel. It begins and ends with funerals: Greenberg opens her version after “a sticky, sickly summer” of “closed doors and anxious faces”. Two of the six Brontë children, Maria and Elizabeth, have died after contracting tuberculosis at Cowan Bridge School in Lancashire. To cope, the remaining four siblings – Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne – immerse themselves in an imagined world they call Glass Town. Greenberg merges the biographical Brontë story with the landscape of their juvenalia: the “half-abandoned stories” of Glass Town are pictured in deep, almost-black blues, rusty reds and bursts of warm orange-yellow; the real world of sickness and uncertainty quite literally pales by comparison. 

Greenberg’s illustrations are scratchy and childlike, but detailed and evocative too. Her drawing style is well suited to the fluid story structure, as she gracefully moves in and out of the Brontë dreamworld while the siblings struggle to choose between life and fantasy. Easily read in a single sitting, Glass Town might provide a kind of meta-escapism for a moment in time when many of us feel that fiction is brighter than reality. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning

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