Jane Austen has turned detective, so have Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde (courtesy to Stephanie Barron, William J. Palmer and Gyles Brandreth, respectively). Why not Charlotte Brontë? The author of The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë, Laura Joh Rowland, is best known for the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th century Japan, so this novel marks a departure for her.
In the summer of 1848, Charlotte and her sister Anne travel to London on business on the overnight train. They share a compartment with the beautiful and enigmatic Isabel White. It becomes apparent Miss White is frightened of something, and when she and Charlotte talk, she shows great interest in Charlotte’s background.
In London they meet with Charlotte’s young and handsome publisher, George Smith, who is eager to present the author of Jane Eyre to the public, but Charlotte refuses. Still, she permits George to take her and Anne to the opera and invite them to dinner at his family’s home. When they return to the inn, they come upon a woman attacked by a man in an alley. Charlotte runs to assist her, but the woman – Isabel White, who tried to call at the inn earlier - is dead already.
During the next days, Charlotte repeatedly feels that she is being followed, and their room at the inn is broken into. During a visit to the National Gallery, a man introduces himself as Gilbert White, Isabel’s brother. He wants to find out who killed Isabel, but unfortunately she revealed very little about herself to Charlotte. When Charlotte and Anne travel home on the train soon after, two men attempt to kidnap Charlotte. Gilbert White, who is on the same train, rescues her. Back in Haworth, to her great surprise Charlotte receives a parcel from Isabel and a letter entreating her to deliver a package to Isabel’s mother in Bradford. With her friend Ellen Nussey, Charlotte travels there.
I am no Charlotte Brontë specialist, so I cannot tell you how “accurate” her voice and character are, but I liked this Charlotte a lot. Her voice sounds convincing to me – emotional and intellectual at the same time, with a dry wit. This voice is shown to great advantage as most of the events are described in the first person from Charlotte’s point-of-view, interspersed with letters, diary entries, and short scenes narrated in the third person, which Charlotte assures the reader cover events she was told later.
Her great weakness is men: Starved of attention and sex as she is, she falls for every handsome man who crosses her path, while clear-sightedly observing her own fallacy. Her secret identity as a writer gives her great inner strength and pride and makes her less vulnerable to those who try to manipulate her, seeing only the middle-aged spinster from the parsonage. Her relationship with her father and siblings is both full of tension and full of love, and each of the Brontës is presented as a rounded character, playing a small but vital part in the proceedings.
Charlotte’s decision to play the detective stems partly from her thirst for adventure, but also from a duty she feels towards Isabel and from recognition that her family will be endangered as long as the villain is free. She does blackmail the investigator into the case to permit her to assist him, but once she has achieved that she does not act stupidly or carelessly.
The novel is not a romance but a straight mystery with some gothic elements. There are a number of possible love interests for Charlotte, but many readers will know what her real life had in store for her, tinting the narrative with an aura of melancholy right from the beginning. This is further heightened by the fact that Charlotte tells her story in retrospect, at a period when she has had to cope with great unhappiness.
My one quibble with the novel lay with the villain. His motive for acting as he does is original and compelling (stemming from incidents in British history not often alluded to in popular literature). But in my eyes, he is too omnipotent and omniscient, and then strangely ignorant, to be believable. In addition, Charlotte’s work as a detective takes her to the highest circles in a way that, again, I found hard to swallow.
All in all The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë is a well-told mystery with an unusual and highly sympathetic, if flawed, heroine. Those who waver at the hardback price may wish to wait for the paperback or borrow the book from the library, but it is well worth reading.
-- Rike Horstmann
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