Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë - A Review

Our thanks to Overlook Press to send us a review copy of this book.

Bedlam
The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë
Laura Joh Rowland
Overlook Press
Release: May 13, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1590202715

We were pleased to hear there would be a second installment of Charlotte Brontë's secret adventures, as we had really liked the first (you can check our previous review here). Laura Joh Rowland had provided such a sturdy springboard into that fantasy world where Charlotte Brontë turns into a Victorian superheroine that we were oh so willing to take that leap again.

And a few lines into Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë confirmed that the spring board was still good enough. Laura Joh Rowland's apt re-creation of Charlotte Brontë's style is still as accomplished and mesmerising as the first time around, even with the all-American turns of phrase that graze the text from time to time.

The novel begins three years after the first installment, in 1851, and finds a lonely Charlotte who is now left with only her father for company and who pines for her dead sibling and the secret agent John Slade, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Laura Joh Rowland's imagination seems to have been ignited by a letter Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey from London in January 1853:
I still continue to get on very comfortably and quietly in London--in the way I like--seeing rather things than persons--. Being allowed to have my own choice of sights this time--I selected rather the real than the decorative side of Life--I have been over two prisons andcient & modern--Newgate and Pentonville--also the Bank, the Exchange, the Foundling Hospital--and to-day if all be well--I go with Dr. Forbes to see Bethlehem Hospital.
Rowland moves the action back to 1851 and seems to wonder, 'what if Charlotte had visited some of those places but not as sight-seer?'. As with her previous installment Laura Joh Rowland is careful about keeping her feet firmly on the ground in between the otherwise unthinkable -and yet incredibly entertaning - flights of fancy. She even includes - although moved to Bedlam instead of Newgate prison - this episode recalled by George Smith:
At Newgate she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. There was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, 'Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners'.
The sturdy springboard mentioned above is indeed the result of Laura Joh Rowland including as many real people and factual events such as the above as possible. And she moves with ease in Victorian times: conventions, events, behaviour and all sorts of other important background information are seemingly effortlessly whipped up.

Purists may or may not agree with this action-figure Charlotte but what's undeniably true is that when circumstances allow it, Charlotte is as much her real self as possible and even her imaginary projection is intriguing in being quite coherent with her real self and what we know of her.

And then there's the helpful disclaimer at the end where real events and real people are differentiated from imaginary events.

And even then there's evidence of Laura Joh Rowland having fun and joking with her readers. The "WANTED" poster with Charlotte's portrait by Richmond made us chuckle and appreciate the effort made by Rowland in order to be - usually at the same time - entertaining and accurate.

The impossible situations, the action movie scenes, particularly the last scene at the Great Exhibition, follow the same philosophy, we think. They are not to be taken extremely seriously, looked at with the magnifying glass of reality, but just taken in the reader's stride. We all know Charlotte Brontë wasn't a superheroine, that her health wouldn't have stood 10% of what happens in the book, but for less that 400 pages, may we just forget about it and believe that Charlotte Brontë really did have these secret adventures?

We personally think she would be amused at this other self of hers and - just like us - would want to know if there is going to be a third part. She would want to embark on a third installment. Knowing that Laura Joh Rowland is - paradoxically - a stickler for reality and actual chronology (with the 1851-1853 exception), we do believe there are a few loose ends that need tying.

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1 Comment
Helen Highwater said...
on  

I missed this review the first time round - I think I might have to have a read!

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