Laura Joh Rowland takes Charlotte Brontë for a big, compelling ride in her new novel The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë. Helpfully enough, the novel is described as 'a novel' on the cover to avoid confusion. And unlike some predecessors who were made to publish their actual theories on the Brontë family as fiction, Ms Rowland never tries to sell that these are facts. In fact, she clearly differentiates what is fact from what is imagination at the end of the book. We are immensely grateful for this, since there are very gullible people out there.
With that out of the way, we must say we found the novel extremely grabbing and could hardly bear to put it down. Her version of Charlotte as a spy for the Crown may or may not be in accordance to your - probably more traditional - idea of Charlotte Brontë, but the story is so well-written that the transition from one to the other is very smooth. Immediately after a preface written by this fictional Charlotte herself, we are taken to the fateful summer of 1848, when Charlotte and Anne Brontë embark on a brief journey to London to prove that the Bell writers are not the same person. Of course this and many other facts which appear along the book are true to life. We believe it's this carefully-researched platform that helps Ms Rowland take the reader to where he/she never thought to follow Charlotte Brontë.
In July 1848, Charlotte Brontë witnesses a murder whose consequences will turn her and her family into spies for the Crown. Charlotte Brontë will travel all over the United Kingdom, and also back to Belgium in search for a mysterious man who doesn't hesitate to use violence and stir revolution in an already agitated Europe for unknown reasons. Under the guidance of the experienced, and wholly fictional, John Slade, she will aim to unmask a conspiracy which could have disastrous consequences for England.
Except for a couple of hardly-noticeable and rather insignificant mistakes (such as claiming that Charlotte's mother died of consumption instead of cancer), Laura Joh Rowland shows she has done her homework and read up a lot on the Brontës, Haworth and their time. The descriptions always ring true, as if Ms Rowland was talking about Victorian London with the ease of one of its inhabitants or as if she was as knowledgeable about the moors as Emily Brontë herself would be.
Many contemporary novels purporting to be written by classic authors fail on the count of style because they either become a mere mimicry of the author's voice or go miserably wrong and sound nothing like the author. However, one of the first things we noticed about this book was that Ms Rowland was truly apt at echoing Charlotte Brontë's style in a most convincing way. Chapter-openings especially are very like Charlotte's. The only thing we found somewhat strange - and rather comically so - was reading a Charlotte Brontë who wrote with an American turn of phrase. The style of Emily and Anne Brontë, however, is not so well developed in our opinion, but since it's Charlotte's narrative - with some exceptions - that is not such a big issue.
Personalities are an altogether different matter. Laura Joh Rowland relies on well-known descriptions of the Brontës to shape her own creations. And while most of the time - given the unusual scenario - we follow her decisions, a couple of times they make us cringe. We find this Charlotte Brontë to be all too ready to fall in love with any male that crosses paths with her and all too ready to wave convention away. And although we see her reflecting on the propriety of her acts, we think that there are some things that a parson's daughter would just never do in Victorian England, and we have especially one very particular scene in mind when we say that. At some point, Emily Brontë is made to beg for forgiveness on her kness, which clashes with her legendary personality. However, except for that, and with yet another particular scene in mind, we find her to be pretty accurate. Anne is rather well-depicted, though a little smug at times. Branwell gets better and better as one reads on. We regret, though, that Patrick Brontë is quite a shadowy figure.
Other 'usual suspects' of the Brontë story also make brief appearances: Arthur Bell Nicholls, George Smith and his family and even M. Heger, who sounds pleasantly Rochester-like.
Small details gleaned from Charlotte's novels and life have been subtly introduced into the story, making it all the more entertaining for any Brontëite.
Our suggestion to the Brontëites out there is that they get the book, suspend disbelief for a few hundred pages and read about the adventures of this other, could-have-been Charlotte Brontë. They will be transported into a scenario that Charlotte Brontë never even dreamed of. It will be a highly unputdownable and unforgettable secret adventure, much worth it for many reasons, not least for reaching the final sentence, which is pure gold.