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

Cassandra & Jane: A Jane Austen Novel, by Jill Pitkeathley – A Review

She knew herself that sometimes she overstepped the proper boundries and could only do so safely with me. In later years, when she wrote something particularly scandalous she would urge me, ‘Take the scissors to this at once.’ She was right to surmise that others might judge her comments more harshly, but with me she knew she could be frank and that I understood her turn of mind. Cassandra Austen on her sister Jane, Chapter Two 

What is the most tragic and disappointing thing you know about author Jane Austen’s life? My immediate choice would be that she died too young and wrote too few novels, and at a close second would be that after her death in 1817, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her personal letters to protect her privacy. This act of sisterly devotion is greatly lamented by historians, biographers, scholars, and Austen enthusiasts, limiting what information that we do know to her edited letters and family recollections. The complete reason why they were destroyed will always be a mystery, but one can imagine from Austen’s surviving letters and novels that her keen sense of social observation and biting irony played a key factor in her sister’s decision to remove them forever from family and public scrutiny.   

In author Jill Pitkeathley’s recently re-issued 2004 novel Cassandra & Jane, we are offered a chance to explore that chasm left by Cassandra Austen’s bonfire of humanity as Pitkeathley imagines the back story of two beloved sisters who were the best of friends, honorable confidants and devoted to each other through all the ups and downs of their heartbreaking life in rural 18th-century England. This bio fic is told from the viewpoint of Cassandra’s experience of their life together, as only she would know, and is a creative blending of historical fact with a fictional narrative that is both believable and compelling. 

The story begins with a prologue to their story. It is 1843, and Cassandra Austen now seventy years old is still residing at Chawton cottage in Hampshire, the house where she and her sister Jane lived together until her untimely death at age forty-one in 1817. She has kept everyone of the letters that her sister ever wrote to her safely stored in her sister’s rosewood trunk after her death. Her family has known of their existence, but she has safeguarded them for twenty-six years from their perusal. She fears that when she is gone, that they will pour over them examine and discuss every detail and then publish them for posterity, and profit. She has now re-read them and sorted them into two piles. She must not forget her responsibility to her sister, and to her memory, as Jane had previously warned her “No private correspondence could bear the eye of others.” 

As we are transported into Jane Austen’s world, Cassandra shares their story together in an honest and open manner, dropping her protective older sister mantle for glimpses of the influences that shaped Jane’s personality through her family, social sphere, environment and 18th-century social stricture that bound her financially and emotionally. Their remarkable friendship is the highlight of this novel as they suffer and survive together through romantic aspirations and disappointments, frustration on their financial dependence on their relations, and rejoice in Jane Austen’s early success as a writer. 

Austen enthusiasts will recognize many historical facts known of their lives that permeate through the novel, and in turn revel in the allusions from their real lives that are transported into Austen’s novel’s. Life imitating art, or art imitating life? Without overt sentimentality, author Jill Pitkeathley has skillfully blended the tragic and joyful lives of two remarkable 18th-century women who chose different avenues to leave their footprint on posterity; – one who would become a literary legend by remarkably revealing social foibles through wit and guile in her novels, and the other renowned for what extreme measures she took not to reveal them in her own sister. This moving and enjoyable rendering of biography and fiction tops my list of favorite Austen inspired novels for this year, and I highly recommend it. 

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Regency Stars

Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthley
Harper Collins, New York (2008)
Trade paperback, 270 pages
ISBN: 978-0061446399 

Giveaway!

 
Leave a comment by October 31st. to qualify in a drawing for a new copy of Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeanthly. The winner will be announced on November 1st.

Further readings

  • Review of Cassandra & Jane by Medieval Bookworm
  • Read author Jill Pitkeathley guest blog on Reading Group Guides
  • Read an excert from Cassandra & Jane at Book Movement