We Wove A Web In Childhood is a fictional work concerning the Bronte family. The opening chapters trace their formative years – their precocious interest in politics and literature, and their absorption in the vivid inner world they have created – whilst their father Patrick campaigns tirelessly to improve living standards for his parishioners. Superficial life at Haworth parsonage – with its routine of lessons, mundane household chores, and sedate vicarage tea-parties – is brought into sharp collision with the wider world outside. Actual events are mirrored in the “infernal” world of Angria, as the boisterous childhood games in which they enact imaginary battle scenes are set against a backdrop of agitation for political and social reform. The mirror starts to crack when Charlotte is sent away to school at Roe Head at 15, and their circle of acquaintance is widened to include Charlotte’s schoolfriend Ellen Nussey when she comes to stay at the parsonage. Chapter Three touches on Branwell’s early ambitions to be an artist and follows him on his first youthful foray into the capital where he frequents taverns of ill repute.
As they reach their teens, the sibling rivalry between Charlotte and Branwell becomes more pronounced as their frenzied “scribblomania” threatens to undermine their attempts to make their own way in the world. Whilst Anne and Charlotte bemoan their dependent situation as governesses, Emily is content to remain at home – sustained by her secretive writings and the private idioverse of Gondal she has created. Fantasy frequently overlaps with reality, as when Branwell strives to recreate the learned symposiums featured in Blackwood’s Magazine with his circle of artistic friends at his drinking sessions at local taverns. Some of the escapades described are pure fiction, as when Emily accompanies her brother to the Black Bull in disguise. Others incorporate biographical detail, as when Branwell pays a visit to Coleridge’s nephew in the Lake District, where he is employed as private tutor. Real topographical markers such as the megalithic portal at the base of the crags near Top Withens – which has such mystical significance for Emily – triggers an out-of-body experience. The elemental and metaphysical nature of Emily’s poetry begins to dominate her waking life, providing a sharp contrast to Charlotte and Branwell’s more overt literary ambitions and abortive attempts to get published.
Pragmatic and determined, Charlotte wishes to venture into the wider world whereas Emily, equally wilful but reserved, desires to remain in the background and this ultimately leads to tensions between the sisters. Charlotte’s ambitious proposal to set up a school at the parsonage meets with opposition from her siblings, and later chapters chart the growing estrangement between Charlotte and Branwell, as they struggle to achieve recognition as writers. The sisters’ shocked dismay at Branwell’s scandalous entanglement with his employer’s wife is tempered by the wider understanding of their father, who is more experienced in the ways of the world. A later chapter explores the sympathetic bond between Emily and Branwell as they sit in the kitchen improvising scenes for Wuthering Heights, and Emily’s poetry takes on a greater immediacy as she witnesses the decline of her brother, and his growing addiction to opium.
The final chapters focus on the claustrophobic atmosphere of the parsonage, where a bereft Charlotte – the only surviving sibling – is left alone to confront her demons. Emily re-enters the narrative at this point as a disembodied spirit but her unseen presence only serves to terrify her sister. As was the case when she was alive, Emily’s powerful and occasionally dissenting voice serves as a counterbalance to Charlotte’s subjective reminiscences. Following Branwell’s death, John Brown, sexton of Haworth church and a former drinking crony of Branwell’s, voices his suspicions concerning the sinister new curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Tensions mount between Patrick and his curate when the latter’s marriage proposal to Charlotte arouses his fury, and Patrick’s distrust of Nicholls’ motives is misconstrued by his daughter. As the atmosphere at the parsonage becomes increasingly fraught, Charlotte seeks solace with Ellen and with her newfound friend, the author Elizabeth Gaskell – both of whom are powerless to intervene and can only watch from the sidelines as the tragedy unfolds.