The Case of the Missing Brontë appealed to me on the basis of the title alone. Even when I read the blurb and discovered that it was not about uncovering the secrets of the family and instead focused on the quest for Emily Brontë’s mythical second novel, I was still intrigued. Fans have speculated for years about whether the mysterious letter from Emily and Anne Brontë’s nefarious publisher referring to Ellis Bell’s second novel represented Mr Newby’s incompetence or something more underhand. Could it be possible that Emily Brontë did write something after Wuthering Heights? If so, what became of it? Which of her sisters could have been responsible for its disappearance? I settled down expectantly to Robert Barnard’s theory of the case.Taking the lead is Barnard’s detective Perry Trethowan, a hero who had already featured in several of Barnard’s other novels. While travelling back from a visit to his family in Northumberland, Perry’s car breaks down and he and his wife Jan and child Daniel are stranded in a small village for the night. Stopping for a drink in the local pub, Perry and Jan have a strange encounter with one Miss Edith Wing, an elderly lady who has recently inherited a large amount of old papers from a relative, including a manuscript that just might be by Emily Brontë.
The recently updated cover design is clearly intended to draw the eye of the vintage crime enthusiast, but the book is set in the 1980s rather than the 40s. This came as a surprise to me since Perry Trethowan is a very traditional detective of the old school, while his wife Jan’s enthusiastic attempts to be useful recall the Girl Friday efforts of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence. It was interesting too that at one point Perry complains that the whole situation reminds him of Albert Campion, since I had already drawn the connection between the two similarly blank men even if Perry apparently did not think the comparison a compliment.
Still, there were other more practical reasons why a 1940s setting might have improved The Case of the Missing Brontë. Miss Wing is a classic Miss Marple-esque wise-old-lady who introduces herself as being five times great-granddaughter of Mrs Robinson, the temptress who seduced Branwell – this being the apparent path by which the manuscript ended up in her family’s possession. Switching the action back forty years might have allowed her to instead have been a great-granddaughter. Emily Brontë would have been within far closer reach. It would have been a slightly more credible time period for a long lost manuscript to surface.
In essence though, despite the intriguing premise, Emily Brontë represents no more than a McGuffin. When Miss Wing is found beaten within an inch of her life and left for dead, Perry wades in to try to catch the culprit. Clearly, whether or not the manuscript is truly genuine, somebody out there thinks that it might be and they are prepared to go to extreme lengths to lay their hands on it. The novel then becomes a fairly standard race to catch the bad guy with standard-issue villains popping up to thwart Trethowan with varying degrees of creativity.
While most of the literature-seeking lowlifes were fairly cardboardish, I did enjoy the appearance of Amos and Judith Macklehose, who aside from their differing surname were an obvious – and puzzling – reference to Cold Comfort Farm. The description of Judith outlines her as ‘a hard-featured, doom-ridden sort of woman, predestination breathing from her nostrils’ which prompted a further feeling of recognition even beyond the names – that’s definitely Judith Starkadder all right. Why were the two included? A literary doff of the hat? A reference to the loathsome Mybug in Stella Gibbons’ original novel, who believed Branwell wrote all the Brontë fiction? I puzzled over this and finished unsure.
The Case of the Missing Brontë holds on to a lot of old-fashioned Brontë mythology, particularly the fictions peddled by Mrs Gaskell. I wonder if the book was written today, are these still the ideas that people cling on to? Despite all the revisionist work of Juliet Barker, I have a suspicion that people still hold on to the myths. There were references too to Daphne du Maurier’s Infernal World, another book which relied heavily on the imaginative power of its author. It is a peculiar thing how the Brontës are continually reinvented.
Perry and Jan agree in airy tones that they just don’t ‘buy’ the idea that Emily had not written a second novel during the period between the publication of Heights and her death, that these ‘literary types’ are always writing something. The premise of the novel means that there is no real need to connect with who Emily Brontë was as a person but I felt rather nettled by that description. Emily Brontë was never a ‘literary type’ – she was a woman who preferred to live in her imagination. She hated living a life which lacked that liberty, so school did not work out for her and neither did working as a teacher. It seems clear that she agreed to publish with her sisters because it represented a possible avenue for them to make their own living without having to go out to work. The nefarious Mr Newby and some fairly bruising reviews mean that being a published novelist was not a particularly positive experience for her. Perhaps Emily decided that she did not want to share her writing again.
When you put your work out into the world, it takes on a new meaning and a new significance. Each reader forms their own impression. The reader can feel a sense of ownership over the writer. Reviews made multiple assumptions about the kind of person who would be capable of creating Heathcliff. As a blogger, I too have found the experience of putting my writing into the public domain to be challenging at times – it is very unsettling when strangers who do not know you try to stake a claim. How much more so for Emily, who had always been an intensely private person? The false flattery and adulation that her sister Charlotte found so invigorating would have held no appeal for her. Perhaps she preferred to retreat back towards Gondal and to writing for its own sake.
In essence, the evidence for and against Emily Brontë having written a second novel is split and in any case, hardly the point of The Case of the Missing Brontë. This was a quick, light read without a great deal of depth. The idea of a bunch of hired heavies dashing about the countryside trying to get their hands on a ‘Brontë’ was an amusing idea but more than anything this is pure ‘comfort crime’. No need for an English degree to enjoy this one.
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Published by Pan Macmillan on May 19th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, Traditional, General
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