There has been a trend lately in fiction to try and cast real-life authors of the past into the parts of crime solving sleuths. And to be honest, most of the time it doesn't quite work right. This time, the fictionalized author is Charlotte Bronte, one of three sisters who wrote Gothic novels in the nineteenth century. Of the three, it would be Charlotte's novel, Jane Eyre that was the most successful.
The story opens with Charlotte and her sisters, Anne and Emily, receiving a letter from their publisher, accusing them of selling a novel to a rival publisher in a breach of contract. The year is 1848, and while the discontent that is sweeping Europe and England is threatening to topple governments, for the Brontes in the faraway village of Haworth, life is quiet for the most part. While their brother Branwell is addicted to laudanum (a tincture of opium) and puts the family through dreadful scenes, the three sisters and their father, the local clergyman, manage to survive.
But now, Charlotte has to uproot herself to go to London to confront her publisher, to prove that indeed, she is who she says she is. With her will go her younger sister Anne, and the pair are going to take the opportunity to see some of the great city. On the train, they meet a beautiful young woman, Isabel White, who is nervous and distressed over something -- and trouble quickly begins when Charlotte sees her stabbed on the street.
After that, things quickly escalate. Menacing strangers appear, Mr. Slade, and Reverend White, both of whom Charlotte is very much attracted to. In her hunt to find out why Isabel was murdered, Charlotte finds herself going from a wretched boarding school to Cornwall and eventually to the highest reaches of power to solve the riddles. Along the way, there are passionate scenes on the moors, full of storms and longing kisses, drug addiction, the force of unhappy memories and all sorts of elements of Gothic mystery...
And this is where the story starts to fall apart. I wasn't certain if the author, Rowland, was trying to make fun of the Bronte novels, or if she was paying homage to them, or what. Charlotte, as with most portrayals by modern authors of historical figures, is the main character here, speaking in first person voice, with various interjections of third person omniscient voice for the scenes that she can't be there, and even second person in the form of journals and letters, all tend to have rather modern attitudes. To me, that'll break the spell of a novel, as honestly, Victorian women didn't travel alone if they could help it -- only the most poor and unfortunate did so, Emily Bronte is shown as an angry agoraphobic, and Anne is there mostly as window-dressing to show just how clever Charlotte really is.
Summing up, this was an awful novel. While it started off with a great deal of promise and I was actually interested for the first two-thirds -- a feat that I don't find often -- the final third of the story was so ludicrous and over-the-top that I just could not keep suspending belief in view of the fantastical events. While the events of the Opium war in China are certainly real, the route that the villain took to avenge his loss is just too cartoonish
If the author had actually bothered to read about the various real-life participants in the story, and used them as they were, it would have made for a far more interesting novel. Instead, she just takes them and shoves her own words into the cardboard characters, and has them doing things that aren't just incorrect, but also laughable. It doesn't work.
And having the Duke of Kent alive at the time? Umm, the only person by the title was Queen Victoria's father, and he died in 1820. Such is the inaccuracy in parts of this story. Sorry but it doesn't work for me. While in an author's afterword, Ms. Rowland tries to explain her reasoning, I found it to be awkward at best. A reader's guide for discussion groups is included as well.
Sadly, there's a sequel to this one as well: Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. It's one that I am not going to bother with at all.
Only two stars. Definitely not recommended.