Glass Town works so well because while the Brontës’ own story is absolutely devastating, the Glass Town scenes are full of fun. I loved Charlotte’s melodramatic heroine Mary Percy shrieking, all mouth and eyes: “If I don’t marry him… I. WILL. LITERALLY. DIE.” And I loved her father, Northangerland, wondering if he can use his daughter to revenge himself on his enemy. “NO! I love her!” he cries, but then, practically leaping like a bunny, he is revelling in his “dastardly plan”. As for Glass Town’s undoubted racism and imperialism, Greenberg has empowered two black characters, the Ashantee prince Quashia Quamina (a prototype for Heathcliff) and the bluestocking Zenobia, and given them exciting and very credible stories.
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.
Greenberg blurs fiction and memoir: characters walk between worlds and woo their creators. Pivotal periods such as Charlotte’s schooling in Belgium, where she because obsessed with her tutor, a possible model for Mr Rochester, are omitted: instead Greenberg focuses on the delights and dangers of “an interior world that was brighter, more golden” than reality. And bright it is. Greenberg contrasts the tropical sky of Glass Town with the wind and rain of the moors, dim English interiors with pungent reds and yellows, picturing epic mountains and seas, lakes of ink and giant quills. Her protagonists look wonky but feel wonderfully real, lips tight with forbearance or smiles wide with joy, while the sharp, concise dialogue rings sad and true.
The wafer-thin line between Charlotte’s real and imagined life at this date, and her drug-like dependence on escape, finds perfect expression in these dreamy pictures. It’s a wonderful book. Greenberg is impressively well-informed about the Brontës, but handles her facts lightly, allowing full power to the beautiful and sensitive images. She knows exactly when to scale up a frame, or leave it wordless, and keeps coming back to Charlotte’s sad bespectacled face. “You made all this, Miss Brontë. This is your world,” Wellesley reminds her. It’s strange how moving these images are.