The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James – A Review

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James (2009)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

“…She ruffles her readers by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her… what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through… this Miss Austen ignores… if this is heresy – I cannot help it.” Charlotte Bronte in a letter dated 12 April 1850 to William S.Williams on reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

As a staunch fan and defender of anything Jane Austen, this bit of dissidence from one of Charlotte Bronte’s letters left me most peevish and not at all curious to know anything more about said author. And, although I enjoyed Miss Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, very much in fact, I have always found myself a bit prejudiced against Miss Bronte for her slight committed against my dear Jane. In fact, when I met author Syrie James at the Jane Austen Society of America’s Annual General Meeting (JASNA-AGM: code for national Janeite convention) in October 2010 with a stack of her books for her to autograph, she observed that her book, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte was absent. My bibliophile Pride prohibited me from explaining why I could not possibly be interested in reading anything about Miss Bronte, and probably mumbled something incoherent. Nevertheless, recently I was offered a copy The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, and after reminding myself of how I had shamelessly fallen in love with every other work by Syrie James (The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Dracula, My Love and Nocturne,), I convinced myself to get over this unforgiving, taciturn disposition and just read it!

This supposed lost diary opens shortly after Charlotte Bronte receives an unexpected proposal of marriage from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. As a maiden spinster and an already accomplished authoress, albeit concealed by the nom de plume Currer Bell, she is conflicted in her answer. Through these memoir pages, Bronte ruminates on her budding friendship with Nicholls, her obsession with her married educator in Brussels, her writing, and her beloved relationships with her now deceased siblings.

Unlike Austen, where fans and historians alike must conjecture about Jane Austen’s life and loves by piecing together what few letters were preserved, there is a wealth of meticulous correspondence and writings accessible for research. James herself admits that this novel is based almost entirely on fact. Charlotte Bronte’s life reads like a novel… from the sickness and deaths of her older sisters while they were away at the depressing Clergy Daughter’s School to her romantic attraction to her un-handsome superior in Brussels, (“it fills me with sadness to contemplate that one day I must leave you” p.204), which surely she drew from and dramatized accounts while writing Jane Eyre. I was charmed by her relationship with the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, who apparently unbeknownst to Bronte, had been in-love with her for over seven years. Almost from the first moments of meeting this seemingly disdainful, dogmatic, stoic yet handsome curate, she disliked him – because, interestingly enough, she overheard, or rather misheard a comment he had made – granted at her expense – and for years her wounded pride festered, tainting all her opinions of him. (Shades of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice seem to color Charlotte Bronte’s real life indeed!)

Like Charlotte Bronte’s work, this memoir is a melding of both tragedy and joy. Blurred lines between fact & fiction are so masterfully written I had to remind myself that The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte is just the fruit of Syrie James’ genius. James not only made me sigh in all the right places, and weep at the tragic losses – James taught me, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, to gradually allow my former prejudices to be removed. If you haven’t read this book, originally published in 2009, you need to add it to the top of your list!

Added bonus are the helpful Author Insights at the back of the book which include a succinct Q & A, Excerpts from Selected Correspondence of Charlotte Bronte, Selected Poetry by the Bronte sisters, a listing of their Works, and Discussion Points for reading groups.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James
HarperCollins, NY (2009)
Trade paperback (512) pages
ISBN: 978-0061648373

Cover image courtesy HarperCollins © 2009; text Christina Boyd © 2011, Austenprose.com

19 thoughts on “The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James – A Review

  1. I just read this book recently and fell in love with Charlotte Bronte and her family. That it is almost entirely based on fact, from such a wealth of personal material, was an added bonus. So much sadness and strength and literary genius in one family. I learned so much about the author of Jane Eyre and her sisters.

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  2. I have always imagined the Bronte sisters as rather like real life Mariannes from Sense and Sensibility. I imagine they would not have found anything to like in Elinor, and I wonder what they would have made of S&S?

    Both Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were geniuses in their own ways but I have to say that Jane Austen has always appealed to my sense as well as my sensibilities. This book sounds wonderful in any case and I shall check it out!

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    • Hi Jenny! I found your comment fascinating. I can see why you’d compare Charlotte and Emily Bronte to Marianne Dashwood, because they both wrote their novels with such fire and passion, and gave passionate feelings to their main characters. However, in her real life, Charlotte was a very practical person; she reminds me a lot of Elinor (who felt very deeply, but believed it important to control those feelings), and I think Charlotte would have admired Elinor very much.

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  3. Yes, I couldn’t help being rather prejudiced against Ms. Bronte after than scathing comment about Pride and Prejudice. But after reading this book late last year, it gave me a compelling reason that Charlotte Bronte was more than she seemed. Very good book, I highly recommend it!

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  4. I loved Syrie James Nocturne and have meant to pick up another book by her. This is one I have been meaning to read. Thanks for your wonderful review.

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  5. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a book about an author before – maybe I’ll start with this one as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bronte sisters since visiting their home in Haworth when I was at school.

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  6. Thank you for the incisive review. Even though I consider Jane Eyre about the finest work of English Literature I have ever read, I doubt if this offering will be on my list. I made a start at Villette but alas, I had to put it down. Too many more compelling works are solidly on my must-read list.

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  7. So is this a novel or a biography? If Syrie James is using Emily Brontes letters and diaries and recounting exactly the anecdotes within them this must be a biography?

    I’m slightly confused here.
    I suppose you could say all biographies are fiction as they are merely an interpretation of the evidence.

    All the best,
    Tony

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    • The book is a BIO FIC novel. Like my review stated that author Syrie James even states that it is BASED on almost all fact. But she does add in the author notes at the end, that she wanted to delve deeper into the relationship between her & her husband — and as we all know, unless you are actually there, authors write how they see it. Charlotte Bronte’s life is truly interesting — – and unlike Jane Austen’s life where we often fill in the gaps with imagination and speculation– the Bronte letters and other writings available give modern authors a great starting point to write about her life. James wrote a great historical fiction– resulting in a page turning, satisfying read. In my opinion, of course.

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    • Tony, many authors use original source material as research for their novels. In fact the best authors do. It is much better than guessing or getting it wrong. Writing about an actual person does not make it a biography. This is a novel based on the life of a real person. That is why they are called bio-fic. It is popular book genre. I hope that clarifies your question.

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  8. Thank you, Christina, for the wonderful review of my novel. I am thrilled that you loved it and honored to be reviewed on austenprose. I’m excited to add that the audiobook of Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte just won the 2011 audie award in the romance category–a huge honor! You can find more info about the novel and the audiobook on my website, http://www.syriejames.com– where I hope you’ll stop by for a visit.

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  9. Jane Eyre has been my favorite book since childhood, but Persuasion is a close second. I wonder if Charlotte Bronte ever read Persuasion? I believe Captain Wentworth’s letter might have changed her opinion about Austen just a little.

    I have enjoyed reading biographies about the entire Bronte family, but have never read any of Syrie James’ books. I will definitely look for this book and others.

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