Over Christmas, I agreed rather impulsively to participate in A Walk Around the Brontë Table’s #ABrontëADay Challenge for the month of May, thinking that I would have lots of time to come up with ideas. As one or two of you may have noticed, 2020 has pretty much laughed in the face of anyone who tried to plan anything and so I am still scrabbling. Also, even looking back over my Brontë backlog reading list, a lot of it looks kind of heavy and that is the last thing I’m looking for at the moment. And then I spotted The Vanished Bride and I breathed a sigh of relief. Crime fiction featuring the Brontë sisters as a trio of amateur sleuths? Yes please and thank you!
The novel opens in 1851 with Charlotte, now the sole surviving sibling, reflecting on the adventures that they all had as she sets out to destroy the evidence. Then we flash back to 1845 and the sisters’ first case. A few miles away, a young wife and mother has vanished from her home. The only trace she has left behind is a large amount of blood. Feeling a connection since the family’s governess is an old Brontë family friend from back at Cowan Bridge, the sisters decide to take a closer look at the case.
As the novel opens, Anne Brontë notes the new band of ‘detectors’ now operating in London and indeed the women set out in their investigation with a strong desire to emulate this innovative branch of law enforcement. This was plausible since Victorian Britain was genuinely gripped by the new detective, with the rise of crime fiction occurring at around this time. Yet The Vanished Bride makes for an intriguing contrast to these male-led stories. So much of the Brontë novels centred around female issues, they managed to critique the patriarchy at a time when women had very little opportunity to do so. These women lived their lives in Haworth, a town noted for its high mortality rate. For all Charlotte’s protests, they were not ignorant of the world’s cruelties. In Ellis’ novel, all three express concern that the disappearance of a female could be all too easily ignored. Is it so grand a leap to imagine that they would have wished to see justice served?
Plot is rather secondary to premise in The Vanished Bride with the focus securely fixed on the lady detectors rather than those who they are attempting to detect. This was something which put me in mind of PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, since in both cases the famous characters overshadowed those newly introduced. However, while James’ novel rendered its borrowed main players as stuffy and boring, The Vanished Bride manages to instead bring them a whole new kick of life. While there is no shortage of biographical fiction around the Brontë family, it so often gets understandably bogged down in the tragedy of their short lives. To see them walk out the Parsonage door and seek adventure made for a very welcome change of pace.
Bella Ellis (or rather, Rowan Coleman, the woman behind the pen name) has clearly done a huge amount of research. As a long-term Brontë fan, I was impressed by how many times even the more ‘obscure’ pieces of Brontë folklore could crop up. Ellis manages much more than just sitting back and reminiscing about that time Papa brought the toy soldiers home. Another thing that I really enjoyed was that Ellis doesn’t waste too much screen time on Branwell. There is something so very tedious about a world which looks at a family which produced three highly talented female writers, nods politely and then says, “But what about the boy?” While Branwell does have a walk-on part, he is never allowed to steal the show. Indeed, he is more of an emblem for the many men of the world who make things more difficult for the women to get by.
The Vanished Bride captures very astutely the common female frustrations within a male-dominated society determined to limit women’s choices at every turn. I have read Brontë biographies ad nauseam, even wondering whether any new ones were worthwhile but although The Vanished Bride is light as a feather, it actually got me thinking about the Brontës in a different way. I had a similar response to Kathleen McFlynn’s time-travel take on Jane Austen, The Jane Austen Project. It’s as if by taking a scenario that is obviously false, these writers somehow access a hidden truth.
Bringing three literary icons to the page is no easy task but I responded to Ellis’ interpretations of the three sisters. Her versions of Charlotte and Anne were slightly more one-note (Charlotte bossy and neurotic, Anne goody-goody) but she still made them seem like human women and compassionate heroines. Where The Vanished Bride really hits its stride though is with Emily. Famously and deliberately enigmatic, Miss Emily Brontë is not someone to be easily fictionalised. She left almost nothing behind her. Some biographical fiction paints her as a rebel, others as a mystic and other versions make her borderline mute. Think Kate Bush in a white dress. Ellis’ version is far more compelling. Emily just does not care about the social niceties. We see her as a woman completely out of patience with a world that assumes that she is lesser for being female or that she must be in want of a husband, someone who has no truck with people who cannot help themselves and who would prefer to just go her own way. Emily is direct, no-nonsense and every so slightly off-putting; she’s a gift for a piece of crime fiction, providing both the muscle and the best one-liners. While The Brontë Mysteries is an absurdist take on the Brontë family, I found its depiction of the family to be fairly credible.
Although it is about as likely that the Brontë sisters solved crime as it is that that photograph is a genuine likeness, somehow Bella Ellis manages to put the brakes on before it becomes obviously ludicrous. I have read a few short stories which set up Jane Austen as a private detective and neither of those were as effective. As the mystery of the vanished bride unfolds, it proves to be fantastically Gothic but what I found most thought-provoking was how Ellis directed each of the sisters’ responses to it in a different way. Charlotte is attracted by the passion, Emily fascinated and repulsed by the villain’s obsessive adulation which veers between love and hate while Anne is horrified that it is so difficult for a woman to escape this situation. There is something very clever in how Ellis manages to draw each sister’s creative inspiration back down to the same source.
Perching her story in 1845 was probably a wise move for Ellis as it allows her a solid gap of around three years for the Brontës to have had their detective career before the tragedies begin. I did wonder what might have happened had she pitched things earlier. Could Charlotte and Emily have sorted out some mischief in Brussels? The rumour does persist that at some point or other Charlotte Brontë tried opium. Or could Emily have gone rogue during her time at Law Hill? I really struggle to imagine any kind of detecting that would have involved Ellen Nussey however since that lady was clearly a one-woman gossip shop. On the other hand, I always got the feeling that Mary Taylor knew how to handle herself but given that she was in New Zealand by 1845, it is unlikely that Ellis will be able to get them to team up.
Given that I am already pondering where Ellis will take her heroines next, it is pretty clear that I heartily enjoyed The Vanished Bride. It manages to be both a high-kicking extravaganza but also hugely nostalgic for fans. We get to travel to so many of the old Brontë haunts, from Wycoller to Scarborough and beyond. It made for fantastic lockdown reading. There are moments that are cheesy, the plot is not without holes but the vibe is very much cosy crime and I just had a really nice time. If you loved The Woman in White but always felt like Marian Halcombe could have done far more without Walter, or if you thought that Lady Audley probably had her reasons, then this is the book for you. Or if you’re just a Brontë fan looking for a laugh in these troubled times, then this is also the book for you. There are all too few feminist Victorian detective novels and so I will cherish them where they can be found. I am already looking forward to the sequel. The Diabolical Bones here we come!
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Hachette UK on September 12th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General, Mystery & Detective, Women Sleuths, History, Europe, Great Britain, Victorian Era (1837-1901)
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