Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Brontës Forerunners of SF Fan Fiction?

In honour of the Stanley & Audrey Burton's current Brontë exhibition, 'Visions of Angria' (7 January - 23 February 2013) and the recent conference, 'Re-Visioning the Brontës', I thought I'd attempt to explore the (admittedly tenuous) link between the Brontës and science fiction. The possibility first suggested itself to me after a visit to the British Library's 2011 exhibition, 'Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it'. The show featured Brontë juvenalia, including Emily's Gondal Poems, Charlotte's The Foundling and Branwell's map of Glass Town. Of the decision to include these items in the exhibition, curator Andy Sawyer wrote:

The Brontës are well known authors with no apparent association with science fiction but their tiny manuscript books, held at the British Library, are one of the first examples of fan fiction, using favourite characters and settings in the same way as science fiction and fantasy fans now play in the detailed imaginary 'universes' of Star Trek or Harry Potter [...] I hope the exhibition at the British Library will challenge what people think of as science fiction and show that it is not a narrow genre.
The idea that the Brontës' early writing could be viewed as a form of fan fiction is an interesting one. Many of the stories did feature their childhood heroes, including the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon (Bony), later reincarnated by Branwell as Rogue or Northangerland. The present of a box of toy soldiers to Branwell in 1826 is often cited as the initial source of inspiration for the Angrian sagas. Each sibling selected a soldier and named him after someone featured in Blackwood’s Magazine, an early literary influence on the children. The fact that these characters and environments featured so prominently in the imaginative worlds of the Brontës could be equated with a form of fandom, and perhaps also with a sort of escapism, usually more associated with fantasy than science fiction.

Autograph manuscript, 1835
by Patrick Branwell Brontë
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds) 
In the context of the exhibition, a strong connection was made between science fiction and other literary genres, indicative of a desire to make broader claims for a form that has historically fallen prey to marginalisation. Therefore, the decision to include well known literary figures such as the Brontës presents a challenge to common preconceptions about science fiction. The link to fan fiction is an acknowledgement that the genre has always had a symbiotic relationship with its readers, both shaping and being shaped by popular culture. Moreover, in the case of the Brontës, there is a cyclical aspect to the the fan fiction phenomenon, since the sisters' novels have gone on to influence many popular fan stories and re-writes, the most famous recent example being the Twilight trilogy.

However, questions remain about the potential dilution of the science fiction genre in an attempt to broaden its scope; there are unique characteristics in SF which, contrary to the escapist drive latent in some fantasy fictions, can bring societal and political issues into sharper focus. As Fredric Jameson writes: 'SF (thus) enacts and enables a structurally unique "method" for apprehending the present as history', offering us a glimpse of how our current situation arises from a particular set of cultural or historical circumstances.

The 'Visions of Angria' exhibition highlights rarely seen manuscript material written by Branwell Brontë from the Brotherton Library Special Collections. The rich and complex world of landscapes, characters and events written whilst Branwell was still a teenager, has been ‘brought to life’ by illustration students from Leeds College of Art’s Visual Communications course.

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