The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë
By Syrie James
Imprint: Avon A
On Sale: 6/30/2009
Format: Trade PB
ISBN: 9780061891786 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780061720192 (large print)
If deals and publication dates are to be believed, it looks like The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë is - after the slow recent trickle of Emily's Journal, The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë and, a few weeks ago, The Taste of Sorrow - among the first of the many fictional takes that we are to read on the Brontës and their writing. Fiction on Jane Austen seems to have led onto fiction on the Brontës, and Syrie James has first-hand experience of that, her début novel having been The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.
What first draws attention to her second novel is its beautiful, original sort of cover, which includes a little drawing by Charlotte Brontë herself. Besides, it also includes resources for what we believe to be the target audience of the book: readers with a remote and superficial interest in nineteenth-century literature in general and members of book clubs with said interests in particular. Thus, the book includes a Q & A with the author, fragments from Charlotte's letters, selected poetry by the Brontë family (including Patrick Brontë's hilarious poem for Arthur Bell Nicholls against the washerwomen of Haworth's practices), the Brontë family bibliography and a guide for book clubs. Add to that Syrie James's extensive research, which shows all throughout the book - sometimes, perhaps, a little too much if we may say so - and you have a very complete book indeed.
Syrie James, in her foreword, asks the reader to:
Dear Reader,(Incidentally, though, we are never told how the diaries got to that 'remote farmhouse' in the first place). Also, Syrie James states in the Q& A that,
Imagine, if you will, that a great discovery has been made, which has sparked enormous excitement in the literary world: a series of journals, which have lain buried and forgotten for more than a century in the cellar of a remote farmhouse in the British Isles, have been officially authenticated as the private diaries of Charlotte Brontë. [...]
The story you are about to read is true.
The novel is based almost entirely on fact. All the details of Charlotte's family life, her experiences at school, her friendship with Ellen, her feelings for Monsieur Heger, the evolution of her writing career, and her relationship with her publisher, George Smith, are all true and based on information from her letters and biographies. [...]As Syrie James must have known too, Karen Joy Fowler began her novel The Jane Austen Book Club stating that, 'each of us has a private Austen', to which we add that each of us has private Brontës as well. This results in reading facts and personalities differently. To us, for instance, Emily Brontë was a highly private person, both in her personal and public life. To Syrie James, Emily - at least at the beginning of the book - is quite the gossipy, open girl who chats with a made-up acquaintance from Haworth and laughs quite a lot(1).
I was obliged to conjecture some of the events during the earlier years of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls's acquaintance, to flesh out their love story--but based on what we do know, I feel that this telling is very close to the truth.
Fictional accounts get the two sides of the coin. On the positive side, we get the 'fleshed out' version, which paradoxically helps - through at least partially made-up events - to draw out a more real, three-dimensional person. Syrie James excels at her depiction of life at Roe Head School, for instance. She visited the place while researching this novel and she not only got - we suppose - the locations right but she also seems to have taken with her the whole atmosphere of the place. The boarding school life, the misfit that Charlotte must have been when she first got there and the actual train of events are all clearly, magically evoked. On the negative said, and connected to what we were saying before, the differing image the author and the reader might have if the reader is well-acquainted with the characters might clash sometimes. This reader found too much sugar in Branwell's death scene or in Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nicholls's married bliss.
Fiction also allows the author to be selective when it comes to the facts that his/her novel is being based on, which might be seen by the knowledgeable reader as quite a tricky, deceitful resource but might work to advantage on a more casual reader. Unreliable narrator though she must be, Charlotte states that she has never felt anything but friendship for her young editor George Smith when actually her infatuation with him is quite firmly supported by letters and accounts and is certainly more proved than Anne's love for her father's charming curate William Weightman and which Syrie James takes at face value. Charlotte's statement makes it easier for Syrie James to create Charlotte and Arthur's love story without having to deal with that. Later on, the couple's married bliss is - with one made-up exception - depicted as whole and uninterrupted. Ellen Nussey's jealousy and troubled relationship with her friend's husband is only touched upon prior to the wedding. Afterwards all three seem to live 'happily ever after'. Neither is it mentioned Arthur's position as censor of Charlotte's letters to Ellen Nussey and - fiction or not - we find the following conversation to be wholly out of character with him:
'Haven't you been writing something anyway, in the months since we've been married? A diary, I think it is?'The man who said that Charlotte's letters to Ellen Nussey were 'dangerous as lucifer matches' would have indeed objected to Charlotte keeping a diary. And we actually have a soft spot for Arthur, but - while we are at it - we find his fictional counterpart to be quite the Hollywood gentleman as opposed to the strict - loving yes, but strict - man of his time that he was(2).
[...] 'Yes, I have. I did not think you knew. Do you object?'
'Why would I object? Charlotte: you are a writer. I knew that long before I asked you to marry me. It's what you love, and a part of who you are. I'll love you whether you write or not. If you've had your fill of it, then stop. If you enjoy keeping a diary, then keep it. . .'
Charlotte begins keeping this, then, not-so-secret diary shortly after receiving Arthur's proposal of marriage. She then tells the story of her life, which is inseparable from her family's, through flashbacks inserted in-between the chain of events that led to said proposal - and beyond - ever since Arthur Bell Nicholls arrived in Haworth in 1845. This non-linear structure works surprisingly well, as Syrie James aptly places each flashback at the precise relevant moment. It's not at all confusing or chaotic and it does keep the knowledgeable reader alert and glued to the story which he/she obviously knows all too well. That, too, would be one of the great things of fictional accounts: much as we may love the story, much as accounts may overlap in certain points, each one is radically different from the rest. We wonder, though, whether Syrie James kept Jane Austen present - and the sisters discuss her works too - on purpose, as Charlotte and Arthur's love story is highly reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice.
The style in which the novel is written imitates Charlotte Brontë's style of writing, which works irregularly. Syrie James has included direct and extensive quotes and occurrences from all sorts of sources (novels, letters, prefaces, etc.). This effort to keep Charlotte Brontë and her family and friends speaking for themselves is truly praiseworthy, even though sometimes the insertion is quite obvious as it clashes somewhat with the rest (sometimes it is also subtle enough). Charlotte's addresses to the 'diary' as substitute of her famous 'reader' sound a bit forced, though. But our main problem with the style actually comes with the editing, which is contradictory. A British spelling has been adopted ('favour', 'endeavour') and typically British words such as 'daft' are used throughout. However, Americanisms also filter in which give the whole book an uncertain, undefined status in that sense: Patrick Brontë 'hires' a curate - the word 'hire' in this context is extensively used in a way a British person would not use -, people walk 'out the door' (a Britton would say 'out of the door') and, despite the British spelling, Mr and Mrs are abbreviated as 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.', which is the American way. Also, 'loan it to you' and 'loan me a copy' are considered ungrammatical in the UK and would not have been used by Charlotte Brontë or Arthur Bell Nicholls. The surname Heger is consistently spelled 'Héger' which , although used in some sources, is not correct(3). And the few sentences in French are precarious at best(4).
As a whole, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë by Syrie James is completely readable and extremely respectful to its subjects. It reads as a modern-day Devotion, where everything is sweeter and more charming than it supposedly was, but it serves to tell the Brontë story to readers who might not otherwise have thought it initially interesting or intriguing. They will be glued to its pages from start to finish and, no doubt, will want to read more by and about the Brontës. And for that, especially, we thank Syrie James.
(1) Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams, 22 November 1848:
Ellis "the man of uncommon talents but dogged, brutal and morose", sat leaning back in his easy chair drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted--it is not his wont to laugh--but he smiled half-amused and half in corn as he listened. (Our bold)(2) Another anachronistic reappraisal seems to be that of Tabby when she is said to feed 'our eager attention with tales of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and ballads--or, as I later discovered, from the pages of her favourite novels, such as Pamela'. We are grateful for the effort to have Tabby be more than just a servant, but in all probability and fairness Tabby couldn't read, didn't have a 'favourite novel' and had never even heard of Pamela. EDIT: However according to Mrs Chadwick in her book In the Footsteps of the Brontës (1914), 'Tabby seemed to have read Richardson's Pamela', but no source is given.
(3) Speaking of Heger, he is unwittingly helping The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë to be marketed.
For years, Charlotte harbored a secret love for her Belgian professor, Monsieur Hegér [sic]—a married man. Monsieur Hegér is the basis for all the heroes in Charlotte’s books, including Mr. Rochester in her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.This marketing is a bit misleading as inside the book itself, Charlotte admits that Rochester owes a lot to the Duke of Zamorna as well (we would hazard that he owes more to Zamorna than to Heger, but that is just us). We might as well say here, that one conversation taken from Jane Eyre and made to take place between Heger and Charlotte didn't work for us.
(4) M. Heger saying 'ainsi je vois' for 'so I see' is simply wrong, to quote just one example.
Categories: Books, Charlotte Brontë, Fiction, Review