Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë: A Novel

1999, Carroll & Graf edition from later that year
James Tully
The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë: A Novel
Original and purchase price unknown
Hardcover in good condition

While Tully starts with an interesting premise-- that Arthur Bell Nicholls murdered the entire Brontë family plus at least one of their dogs-- the way he presents it results in one of the worst pieces of historical/biographical fiction ever written.  I found myself scoffing at nearly every page, when I wasn't trying to tune out the tedious style.  The story is told by two narrators, servant Martha Brown (real person) and modern lawyer Charles Coutts (fictional).  Coutts/Tully has the nerve to criticise Emily's use of two narrators in Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's reduction of the Yorkshire dialect in her reediting of that novel, when the two narratives here are never successfully blended, and Coutts cuts down on Brown's Yorkshire (although he leaves the "him and I" thing, to remind us she's just a servant).  

You may wonder about the title if the crimes were actually Nicholls's.  Well, Charlotte was supposed to be so besotted with Nicholls, and so jealous of her siblings, that she condoned and sometimes even assisted him in his murders.  Martha herself, even though she claims to like all the Brontës except Charlotte, has no qualms about having a decade-plus affair with a murderer.  And Emily herself has an affair with Nicholls, so she doesn't mind about him doing in Branwell.  There is nothing consistent here with the actual history of the Brontës, their characterisations within the book, or even human nature.

Brown, Coutts, and probably Tully himself are incredibly spiteful towards Charlotte, including her looks, while invariably describing Nicholls as handsome.  I know fashions changed, but Google pictures of Arthur and you'll find he was as plain as Abraham Lincoln.  He was not some Svengali stud who could get women to do his bidding.  Somehow his charisma didn't extend to the village, which is always muttering about his doings up at the Parsonage, without actually, you know, calling in anyone to investigate the mysterious illnesses and deaths.  I'll admit that there are some strange things in his behaviour in real life (like his hostility towards Charlotte's friend Ellen), but that doesn't make him a murderer, and Tully never convincingly gets the story to work even on a what-if level.  There are times when it's almost so bad it's good, but it's alternately too hostile and too boring to be much fun.

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