Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë - a review

Our thanks to Avon A for sending us a review copy of this book:

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë
By Syrie James

ISBN: 9780061648373
ISBN10: 006164837X
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,

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.
(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,
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. [...]
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.
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).

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?'
[...] '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. . .'
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).

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.

Notes:

(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.


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Comments :

6 comments to “ The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë - a review ”
Laurel Ann said...
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Thanks for the thoughtful deconstruction. It appears that as an entertainment, this is a success. I enjoyed The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. It was fiction too, but quite enjoyable. Glad to see more books in the queue about the Brontes. You will be busy! ;-)

Syrie James said...
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Thank you, Cristina, for your in-depth review of my novel. I appreciated all your thoughts and comments. Indeed, I researched the Brontes thoroughly, and made an earnest attempt to be accurate in all that I portrayed. I may have made a few errors, and I apologize for any Americanisms that slipped in! However, I have a few rebuttals to several of your complaints. 1) We ARE told how the diaries got to "that remote farmhouse in the British Isles": check out the last line on pg 454 (Mr. Nicholls brought them with him to Ireland, apparently unable to bring himself to burn them, despite his analogy of Charlotte's letters to lucifer matches.) 2) Nowhere in the novel is Emily presented as you say, as "quite the gossipy, open girl who chats with a made-up acquaintance from Haworth and laughs quite a lot"; I am baffled as to where you got that impression. (Who is the made-up acquaintance to whom you refer?) Emily is always reclusive, avoids company consistently from the very first scene, and is serious and somber far more often than not. This is Charlotte's view of her, however, and since she was Charlotte's favorite person in the world, it is understandable if she is shown as a "bit" more likable than she probably was to others; however, please note that your footnote from Charlotte's letter to W. S. Williams of Nov. 1848 was written when Emily was very sick (she died a few weeks later); that's why Emily was particularly somber and could not laugh at the time. 3) I kept the accent on M. Heger's name because that's the way Mrs. Gaskell wrote it, and the way it is depicted in C. Shorter's 1908 collection "The Brontes: Life and Letters," which includes an original circular from the Hegers' school, written in french with the accent consistently in place over the first "e". This is Charlotte's diary; therefore, I wrote Heger's name the way I thought she would have written it, not the way historians have chosen to write it in the years since. 4) Charlotte's account of Branwell's death is inspired entirely by her own correspondence. She pitied and forgave him at the end .... Again, thank you for reviewing my novel; and I do hope, as you say, that it will inspire people "to read more by and about the Brontës!" --Syrie James

Cristina said...
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Dear Syrie,

Many, many thanks for stopping by, reading the review and then commenting on it. It's very kind of you and particularly enlightening in some points.

I'll follow you 'numbers':

1) Absolutely true. I guess I never made the connection, thinking that - like the accompanying relics Arthur treasured there - the diaries would have been moved elsewhere and the remote farmhouse would be somewhere else altogether. My mistake - I guess that's the trouble about knowing the 'real' story quite well, that my suspension of disbelief can be seriously affected.

2) I did find Emily very open and quite sunny, to be honest. An example of where I got the 'gossipy' vibe, would be the conversation with Sylvia Malone on page 126. Emily speaks quite freely there on what she has overheard, etc., and then of course when she tells Branwell about Charlotte's 'secret' in Brussels. I just don't see Emily telling that kind of thing, as she was very private herself and would have understood (she, after all, took very badly that Charlotte read her poems). And I have always taken that remark about Emily not being the laughing type to be a general personality trait, not a result of her illness. I suppose that - like with your character - we infer her personality from what we perceive, and, similarly to what Karen Joy Fowler said, each of us has a private Emily.

3)Like Brontë, Heger seems to be a difficult surname to spell and therefore spelt differently in many sources. However, Margaret Smith in her edition of Charlotte's letters, which accurately transcribes every single comma or spelling mistake, has M. Heger signing himself without an accent in his letter to Patrick from 5 November 1842. More importantly, later on, in Charlotte's letters to him, when she writes his name (24 October 1844, 8 January 1845) as well as when she writes to other people and mentions the name, she does so without the accent. So we DO know how she wrote it in real life and how she would have written it in the diary.

4)I know that Charlotte forgave Branwell before he died, but I did find Branwell's final words to her to be too sweet and modern. As with Emily, though, that's just my opinion.

Again, thank you for taking the time to post a comment and discuss these points. It's been very interesting to read, as I said before. And I'm sure that some of your readers will certainly look for more by and about the Brontës, which is great.

Syrie James said...
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Hi Cristina,

I see that I should have consulted you, or the Bronte Parsonage Museum, before deciding how to spell Heger! In any case, he was a fascinating and complex individual, wasn't he? I so enjoyed bringing him, and all the other remarkable people in this story, to life on the page.

I have been thrilled by the positive response to my novel from a multitude of reviewers, and would love to hear from readers at my website, www.syriejames.com.

--Syrie James

Cristina said...
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Dear Syrie,

Oh, I hope I didn't come across all that seriously about the Heger accent - I freely admit that it's a purists' (quite pointless) discussion. At the end of the day the reader will get to 'carry home' the story unfolding in the book not the number of accents in it!

And by the way, I forgot to say this earlier: we would like to wish you every success with this book.

Allena Tapia said...
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This post and the commentary were very beneficial! I've reviewed the book (Ms. James) for the Sacramento Book Review, and even though at times I felt like I couldn't get deeply into Bronte's "voice", it was still a great, entertaining read and your research is very apparent. ~Allena, GardenWall Publications

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