Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.
In a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.
A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:
Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!
Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.
As a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.
Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.
If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.
Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.
In Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.
If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.
The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:
The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.
James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.
Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.
But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,
that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.
Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.