Two Bronte related posts in a row! I’m in a Bronte state of mind.
About three or four years ago I read Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. I’ve mentioned before that typically I do not read those books that trade on the Austen name but this was one of those exceptions. I found that James did an excellent job of channeling Austen’s voice and I learned a lot about the woman that has had such an impact on my reading life.
A year or more ago I found James’ The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte in a pile of discounted books and took it home where it sat on my bedside table for months and months and months, always passed over for something else. I guess I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the other book. I finally decided to give it a try this week. I’m not quite finished it but I am confident saying that I love it.
I can’t get enough of it.
James’ genius lies in her ability to channel the voice of these women, making it seem believeable so that you almost forget that it’s not actually Charlotte Bronte writing the story. As per the author’s note, the story is true, with some of the shady bits filled in. I found that I’ve gotten to know Charlotte, Emily and Anne as people rather than knowing them as being responsible for having written some of my favourite books.
Charlotte Bronte writes this diary as a way to make sense of the past few years of her life in order to make a big life decision. She takes us back to the eve of her 29th birthday as a point in time where all that she is now faced with really started. She and her sister Emily are living at home, helping to care for the aged father. Their father hires on a curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, to take on a lot of the work of running the parish as his site is failing quickly. Shortly thereafter, Anne Bronte returns home, having left her post as a governess at a large estate nearby. They are quickly joined by their heartbroken and shamed brother, Branwell.
Branwell is an alcoholic who also has a problem with opiates. He is completely unmanageable, raging at his sisters and father at all hours of the day and night. Realizing that he will never be in a position to look after them in the event of their father’s death (as unmarried women, they would have been looked after by their male relatives), Charlotte, Emily and Anne decide to see if they can’t make some money by having their poems and , later, their novels, published.
All this time Charlotte reminisces about her time in Belgium where she had fallen in love with a married professor, looks back on her time at various educational institutes and finally describes her ever changing relationship with her father’s curate, Mr. Nicholls.
I don’t mind saying that I got very attached to the Bronte sisters. Emily, shy and reserved with strangers but outspoken and blunt in person, the owner of a massive dog ill-suited to the life of a woman, I especially liked. Although I don’t know how anyone reading this book wouldn’t be a fan of Anne’s either, as sweet and positive as she always is. And Charlotte, practical in all things, her family’s rock – come on. The best.
But you know the whole time what’s coming. Although I’ve never been very familiar with Charlotte Bronte’s romantic life, I did know that Branwell, Emily and Anne died within a few months of each other. They all went so quickly and Syrie James made me feel so many feelings!
I’m just waiting now to see how this whole thing with Mr. Nicholls plays out. I will also add that, like The House of Mirth, this book made me so very glad to live in a time when I’m able to earn my own living without being dependent on a man. I know that that’s still not the way the world over but at least we’ve made some progress!
This book has made me care about the Brontes on a whole other level and I guarantee that I will be reading some of their work again in the near future.