The Brontes 934 by 303 copy

How the Bronte kids went ‘meta’

The Museums’s Illustrator is into all things ‘meta’, by which she means (with apologies to those of you who have known this all along) breaking the fictional illusion and wittily revealing the mechanics inside a story.  According to the Illustrator, ‘meta’ is how everyone tells a story these days.  In fact she claims that the concept of ‘meta’ is so fashionable that it crops up six times a night in South London pubs.

Anyway I have been thinking about ‘meta’ ever since I was leaning up against the bookshelf in the front room (waiting for my old man) and picking up a book to pass the time – it was a collection of childhood writings by the Bronte children – discovered that the Bronte kids were using ‘meta’ about 200 years ago.

The Bronte children – Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne – passed their childhoods inventing imaginary worlds, filled with kings, queens, battles, rebellions, pirates and love affairs. They wrote their stories down in tiny notebooks – no more than a couple of inches tall – so small that the grown ups couldn’t read them.  They wrote in capital letters and with no punctuation, embellishing their stories with maps, illustrations and plans of imaginary buildings.  Sometimes they acted out their stories, with the children taking the roles of gods, jinns and geni, who interfered constantly in the lives of men.

Their first invention was an imaginary African kingdom called Glass Town.  After that they invented the Empire of Angria, which in turn was followed by Emily and Anne’s invention – Gondal, an island ruled by women – which the younger two invented because they complained that Charlotte and Branwell took the best roles. Glass Town was in West Africa but was bizarrely reminiscent of a northern mill town with its ‘lofty mills and warehouses piled up storey above storey to the very clouds, surmounted by high tower-like chimneys vomiting forth the huge columns of thick black smoke, while from their walls the clanking, mighty din of machinery sounded and resounded til all that quarter of the city rang again with the tumult’.

Branwell like stories of violent murder.  Charlotte liked stories of magic, mysterious events and romance – much to Branwell’s disapproval.  The children also ran a magazine of which first Branwell, then Charlotte was the Editor, and which was allegedly sold – because the children adored stories inside stories – by booksellers in the varous Glass Town capitals of the Glass Town confederation.  All the children were competitive and wrote exuberant and slanderous reviews of each other’s work.  So for instance in one edition Lord Charles Wellesley (Charlotte’s voice) criticises Emily’s Parry Land for its Yorkshire puddings and dull landscapes.  Verbal battles were carried over into footnotes, prefaces and afterwords.  They played with the narrative, making themselves both creators of the stories and characters inside them, and allowing their characters to tell more stories with yet more characters in them.  If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be comprehensively trounced for imagination and creativity by a gang of small children, then this is it.

Charlotte particularly enjoyed playing games with her own characters.  At one point she puts the following words into the mouth of the cynical and discontented Lord Charles (her creation) as he is musing in the Glass Town Public Library:  ‘Whilst I was listlessly turning over the huge leaves of that most ponderous volume I fell into the strangest train of thought that ever visited my mind . . .  it seemed as if I was a non-existent shadow, that I neither spoke, ate, imagined or lived of myself, but that I was the mere idea of some other creature’s brain.  And Glass Town seemed so likewise . . . ‘

In other words, a perfect and rather witty example of ‘meta’.

And how does all this relate to museums?  Well, only that most museums are the very opposite of ‘meta’.  Their voice on the graphic panels is always plain and direct. It is never personal, rarely witty, never ironic. It doesn’t draw back the curtains to reveal the doubt and conflict, nor the workings out in how they got to what they think.  In short museums are never ‘meta’. Which is interesting because in a world where everything is increasingly personalised they look to be the last of the plain and impersonal voices. So the question naturally arises, Is this the way it should be?  And, if it is, is it sustainable?

Or should museums go ‘meta’?  What do you think?