Thursday, October 14, 2010

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael

This is my second read this week that blends fact and fiction to describe part of the life of a famous person, in this case Charlotte Brontë. The other one, you may remember, was Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, which I liked but wasn't crazy about. Today I get to gush a bit, which is a nice treat.

There are some new rules out about bloggers declaring when they receive products to review, and quite right too. So I'm going to make a habit of telling you where I got my books, thus:

Where I got it: chose it myself at the library. I love my library.

Romancing Miss Brontë describes a slice of the life of Charlotte Brontë, starting with the appearance of Arthur Nicholls in the Brontë family's life. Nicholls had come to work as the curate for the Brontë paterfamilias, Patrick, who was going blind with cataracts. At this point in time the Brontë family--already diminished by the deaths of the mother and two children--was composed of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, who had begun his slide into alcoholism and drug addiction.

Gael gives few or no dates in the novel so I had to grab Juliet Barker's seminal biography, which I'm currently also reading, to find out that the year was 1845 and Charlotte would have been about 29 (already an old maid by the standards of the day). Over the next ten years she would become famous, but when the novel begins the Brontë family are isolated, considered rather odd, and eking out a meager living on Patrick's stipend with no other sources of income in sight. Romancing Miss Brontë covers the next ten years and describes--or imagines--how Arthur's love for Charlotte grew despite the stiff, formal relations that existed between them for most of that time.

Well, I don't say it very often: I LOVED this book. It worked for me on the level of a fictionalized biography; I always take this kind of writing with a pinch of salt and remember that its historical accuracy is not guaranteed, but I had no idea in this case where fact ended and fiction began (until I read Gael's Author's Note at the end) and there were only two or three paragraphs where Gael dropped into a documentary tell-not-show style. Other than that, there was lively dialogue, plenty of action, and letters (some real, some, apparently, imagined, but very well done) to vary the diet and bring out some of the inner feelings of these reserved Victorian characters.

The characters were extremely well drawn; I have read a great deal about the Brontës but I've rarely felt that I've been given such a good sense of them. We also see their servants, friends and business acquaintances, all vividly depicted, and I truly felt a part of the story. If there was a jarring contemporary note in the dialogue, I didn't find it. It just worked.

Romancing Miss Brontë also, in its later chapters, worked for me as romantic fiction. Arthur Nicholls tends to be a subsidiary character in Brontë tales, but Gael managed to give him a touch of the Mr. Darcy's--outwardly stern and forbidding but with a heart of gold and a smoldering passion for Charlotte. It's pretty difficult to imagine the romantic and sexual side of a Victorian relationship with all its attendant repressions, but I found myself really hoping that things had, in fact, been as Gael imagined them to be. The creator of Jane Eyre deserved no less. By the way, that last link is to the new, Twilight-inspired cover of Jane Eyre, which is no less than sacrilege. Harrumph.

Anyway, this is a very nicely written novel that won't make Brontë purists wince and might just revive some interest in the Brontës' lives and work. I am now absolutely itching to reread Jane Eyre. Slam dunk, Ms. Gael.


JES said...

Jane, I think that's a great idea to include "where I got this book" information. Not that I really think the FTC (or whoever it is) will come after The Book Book's reviewers for not, y'know, declaring. But in an infinite universe, all things are possible...

I'll have to pass this review on to The Missus, who loves all things Brontë!

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

i agree, i like the "where i got it" notes. i'll try to remember to include them from now on.