Early 19th century
The Mourning Ring, by Sarah Parke, is a work of historical fantasy. Authentic details from the lives of the Brontë sisters, and their brother Branwell, are blended with a magical alternate setting. But this other place is not purely imaginary: rather it is the creation of the Brontës themselves. As children, the four of them had collaborated in the creation of an imaginary world. Rather than being kept secret, we know about this one through diaries and other records. Sarah has mined this store of information to reconstruct a credible and persuasive reality.
At its heart, The Mourning Ring is exploring the peculiar relationship between author and book. Probably most of us know the powerful urge to think of stories as real. One of the mysterious appeals of reading fiction is that situations which once existed only in the mind of the author assume tangible form for other people. So, how would it be to enter into such a created world? To be subject to its vagaries and limitations, but also to know it so well that you can manipulate events in ways that seem magical or serendipitous?
In the case of the Brontës, two complicating factors are stirred in. First, the world was created when they were children. Several years have passed since its beginnings, and in many ways it reflects an immature view of life. At first, as I read this book, I wondered why the characters seemed rather simplistic - almost stereotypes. Then abruptly it came to me: how else could they be, given who had created them? The teenage Brontës are meeting the products of their own childish minds.
The second factor is that of sibling rivalry. While the original creation of this world might have been harmonious and collaborative, each of the children has changed since then. They no longer necessarily see eye to eye, and the conflicts are worked out in this imaginary setting. But the emotional traffic goes both ways, and the fictitious world exposes something of the real difficulties these young people would experience as adults.
I did feel that some very early scenes, supplying one description of the links between this world and the other, didn’t integrate smoothly with later explanations in terms of imagination and creativity. However, this is a minor issue and readers should not let this detract from the whole.
I very much enjoyed The Mourning Ring, and recommend it to anyone who wants something a little different from their historical fiction. Sarah has done a great job of blending history and magic into a single compelling reality.
© Richard Abbott
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