Reviewer Kathryn Atwood: Kathryn is the author of Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue: Click Here To View More Of Kathryn's Reviews.
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brönte is a well-crafted book and an absolute delight for those Charlotte Bronte fans who can never get enough biographical facts of Jane Eyre’s alter ego
I find it unfortunate that certain fictional memoirs choose to call themselves diaries. Just as one can’t quite visualize Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy scribbling his growing attraction to Elizabeth Bennet into the pages of a diary like a twelve year-old girl (“Mr. Darcy’s Diary”), neither can one imagine Charlotte Bronte doing the same for her entire life’s story – including a few PG-13 rated details of her wedding night.
But faulty title issues aside, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brönte is a well-crafted book and an absolute delight for those Charlotte Bronte fans who can never get enough biographical facts of Jane Eyre’s alter ego. James’ novel centers on Bronte’s relationship with Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate and the man who she eventually married. At the novel’s outset, Nichols appears on the scene and makes a derogatory comment about Charlotte which she overhears. James’ Charlotte uses this as an excuse to harbor intensely negative feelings for Nichols until his good character – and love for her -- finally wins her over. Their relationship is presented in an almost standard romantic comedy formula; only in this case, it is based on fact and generally works.
The earlier years of Charlotte’s life are presented via well-placed flashbacks: her time at the Clergy Daughters School where her sisters Maria and Elizabeth became fatally ill, the years she spent at Roe Head where she met Ellen Nussey, her life-long friend, and the time she spent in Brussels where she fell in love with Constantin Heger who later formed the basis of several of her romantic protagonists.
It is a well-known fact that Bronte used biographical material for her novels. Knowing that, however, does not prepare one to encounter scenes and conversations taken directly from the novels and placed verbatim into James’ fictional memoir, such as this conversation she portrays between Bronte and Heger:
“Here, I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, and with what I delight in – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have come to know you, Monsieur; and it fills me with sadness to contemplate that one day I must leave you . . . “
It is very possible that a scene such as this occurred between Bronte and Heger and that these exact words were spoken and later placed in “Jane Eyre.” But James could have been a little more indirect in implying the connection between fact and fiction with better and more believable results.
However, James is a Bronte enthusiast and as such, she can be forgiven for becoming too susceptible to these fascinating connections; the good far outweighs the questionable in this fictional memoir. The central love story is an appealing one and James has done a splendid job in capturing Bronte’s voice exactly and precisely (one might say, she’s hit the nail straight on the head) and has, in the process, managed to bring Charlotte Bronte’s biographical facts to life in a very engaging manner.