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

Jane Eyre 2011: A Film Review by Syrie James

Jane Eyre (2011) movie posterInquiring Readers: We are very fortunate to welcome author, screenwriter and Janeite Syrie James for a guest film review today. She recently attended an advance screening of the new movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic romance Jane Eyre which premieres in limited release today in the US.

Welcome Syrie – and thanks for the timely review!

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been my favorite book since I was 11 years old. I’ve read it so many times I’ve lost count. The tale of a feisty governess who finds true love in a spooky mansion, while pouring her heart out on the page in lush, romantic prose, has made it to the top of every “Best Love Stories” list since it was first published in 1847, and with good reason.

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre (2011)The perfect Gothic novel, Jane Eyre melds all the requisite elements of mystery, horror, and the classic medieval castle setting with heart-stopping romance. The story is also very appealing: the rise of a poor orphan girl against seemingly insurmountable odds, whose love and determination ultimately redeem a tormented hero. And the book has serious things to say about issues that are still relevant today: women’s struggle for equality, the realization of self, and the nature of true love. The novel appeals not only to an audience’s hearts, but also to their heads.

Of all the classic 19th-century novels, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been by far the most filmed, with at least 18 film versions (including a 1910 silent movie) and 9 made-for-television movies.

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James (2009)I have seen nearly all of them—some multiple times—both out of my deep love for the tale, and as part of the research for my novel The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, the true story of Charlotte’s remarkable life, her inspiration behind “Jane Eyre,” her rise to fame as an author, and the little-known story of her turbulent, real-life romance. (My novel was named a Great Group read by the Women’s National Book Association, and the audio book version was just nominated for an Audie Award, the Oscars of the audiobook publishing world—very exciting!)

Every screen version of JANE EYRE has its merits, and it’s always a thrill to re-experience my favorite, beloved scenes from the book with each new adaptation. I especially loved Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of Mr. Rochester in the 1983 mini-series, and the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens.

I was very curious to see how the new JANE EYRE adaptation from Focus Films would measure up. I am happy to report that the film, which I saw Monday night at an advance screening, is very good indeed, with marvelous visuals, terrific performances, and enough unique elements to make it a worthy new addition.

The most notable distinction of this film that sets it apart from the rest is its structure. Rather than telling the tale in a straight-forward, linear fashion, it begins at a crisis moment that occurs later in the story, and tells the majority of the tale in flashback–similar to the structure of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë–and it works wonderfully well here, enabling screenwriter Moira Buffini to effectively compress a long novel into a two-hour time span.

Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) on the Moors in Jane Eyre (2011)The movie opens as Jane is fleeing Thornfield after having discovered Mr. Rochester’s dark and heartbreaking secret. We fear for her as she becomes lost on the stormy moor. The mystery continues as St. John Rivers (well-played by a sympathetic yet appropriately stern Jamie Bell) and his sisters take her in. Who is this lost lamb? Why does she call herself Jane Elliott? Who or what is she running from? As Jane ruminates about the past events that led to her escape, we are treated to the story in flashback.

The casting of Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND) as Jane Eyre also sets this production apart, since she is closer in age than most actresses who’ve played the role to the character in the novel, who was about 18 years old in the Thornfield section. Although I wish Mia’s Jane was a bit more “swoony” over Mr. Rochester earlier on (yes, she is supposed to be stoic, but I missed that phase where we get to see her blossom as she falls in love with him, and then is utterly crushed when she believes him to be in love with Miss Ingram), Mia truly inhabits the role, beautifully portraying Jane’s sense of self-respect, integrity, and restraint, as well as her passion and vulnerability.

Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) in Jane Eyre (2011)Michael Fassbender was also inspired casting. He embodies Mr. Rochester with the ideal blend of charisma and sinister brooding, while at the same time allowing glimpses of his underlying desperation and the wounded depths of his soul. When Jane and Rochester finally admit their love for each other, it is romantic and exciting, with sparks flying. (As this is my favorite part of the story, for me it was also far too short!)

Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed, adorned in stiff ringlets and satin gowns, effectively portrays the icy ogre who menaces the young Jane (a spirited and appealing Amelia Clarkson.)

Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska ) in Jane Eyre (2011)And how can you go wrong with Judi Dench as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax? As always, Dench gives a rock-solid performance, with subtle nuances that make the role her own.

The film’s locations do justice to the novel’s often gloomy, atmospheric tone. Haddon Hall in Bakewell, Derbyshire, built atop a limestone outcropping and one of the oldest houses in England, stands in for Thornfield Hall. According to location manager Giles Edleston, Haddon Hall has “more rooms and sets than a filmmaker could ever wish for,” and Director Cary Fukunaga makes terrific use of it, emphasizing its dark, Gothic, masculine feel, especially effective in a particular, chilling attic scene.

The exterior locations—gardens, cliffs, craggy rocks, stone walls, and seemingly endless fields—make an arresting, dramatic backdrop for the story. The press notes state, “Although we made it seem like Thornfield is in the middle of nowhere, just beyond the edge of the frame was modern civilization.” Rest assured that the illusion is complete; you truly do feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere.

Rochester (Michael Fassbender) and Jane (Mia Wasikowska) in Jane Eyre (2011)

The film also effectively makes use of the top of the gardens surrounding Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House—a location more commonly associated with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—to film Jane Eyre’s dramatic first encounter with Mr. Rochester, when he appears out of the mist and fog astride his horse.

I have only two minor gripes with the film (WARNING: minor spoiler alert. If you aren’t familiar with the classic story, you might want to stop reading now.) While the revelation of Mr. Rochester’s secret was very well-done, I felt it was a little too “prettified.” And the ending was too abrupt for me. An explanation (for the uninitiated) of Rochester’s condition in the final scene would have been nice, and I would have preferred another minute or two to relish the lovers’ emotional reunion. But that aside, the filmmakers have done a masterful job translating the novel to the screen.

Please share your thoughts and comments about Jane Eyre. When did you first read the novel? Which film adaptations are your favorites, and why? If you’ve read The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, did it enhance your appreciation of Jane Eyre?

You can learn more about the new film at the Jane Eyre facebook page, where there’s a trailer and a “Jane Eyre Challenge” with a kindle as a prize. The movie opens today, March 11. I highly recommend it! Go see it soon at a theater near you!

Bio

Syrie James, hailed as the “queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Best First Novel 2008, Library Journal), The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (Audie-nominated, Great Group Read, Women’s National Book Association), Dracula, My Love (which reveals Mina Harker’s passionate love affair with the most famous vampire of them all), and most recently Nocturne, praised by Library Journal as “lyrical, lush, and intensely romantic.” The translation rights for Syrie’s books have been sold in fifteen languages. Her short story “Jane Austen’s Nightmare” will appear in Laurel Ann Nattress’s Austen anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, due out from Ballantine Books in October.  Syrie’s next novel, Forbidden, which she co-wrote with her son Ryan, will be published by HarperTeen in early 2012.

A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, RWA, and a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Syrie is an admitted Anglophile and is obsessed with all things Austen, although she lives in Los Angeles. For more information about Syrie’s books, please visit www.syriejames.com. Syrie also invites you to friend her on facebook (and leave a comment!) and follow her on Twitter @SyrieJames.

Further reading:

© 2007 – 2011 Syrie James, Austenprose

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