We are once again in the midst of a minor spurt of Brontë-inspired fiction. Syrie James' The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (2009) purports to be Charlotte's "lost" retrospective journal, mostly penned while she thinks over Arthur Bell Nicholls' marriage proposal. While there are some flashbacks, the narrative deals primarily with the period after 1845, when Nicholls arrive, and ends (after, of course, the necessary setbacks) with Charlotte and Arthur enjoying a blissful marriage and lots of passionate sex.
James first biofiction was about Jane Austen, and the structure of Charlotte's narrative seems suspiciously indebted to Pride and Prejudice--only with Charlotte adopting some of Mr. Darcy's traits. (One wonders how the real CB, whose reaction to Austen was rather equivocal, would respond.) Arthur arrives, makes a bad impression on account of his sexism and religious views, and makes an even worse impression when Charlotte hears that he has Led On an Innocent Maid Because of Her Money. "He is the worst kind of degenerate, to my way of thinking," Bridget Malone tells Charlotte, "for he was clearly only after me for my money" (136). Charlotte, already laboring under the belief that Arthur called her an "ugly old maid" (45)--he didn't--immediately takes Bridget's bait, even though she barely knows the woman. (After all, if Charlotte weren't quite so thick-skulled, the book couldn't be marketed as a romance.) On his part, Arthur believes that women are inferior; to make matters worse, he appears to have some vaguely-defined but Very Nasty religious views, denominated "Puseyite," which lead him to do all sorts of heartless things--like refuse to preach at the funeral of an unbaptized infant. (For some reason, the novel never really gets around to explaining what Arthur believes.) By the end of the novel, however, Arthur assures Charlotte that he'll leave her own faith alone, will "honour and respect" (383) the faith of her friends, and, needless to say, will always let her "give free vent to [her] own opinions" (383). Putting to one side an unfortunate moment of Inadvertent Eavesdropping, leading to Temporary Bad Feelings, Charlotte ends the novel rewarded with an egalitarian marriage. And, of course, hot sex (albeit chastely-rendered hot sex--this is a Victorian novelist, after all).
Pamela Regis observes that in contemporary genre narratives, "[t]he novel chronicles the heroine's taming of the dangerous hero or her healing of the injured hero, or both," and sometimes vice-versa.1 Arthur is hardly "dangerous," but James sticks close to genre expectations: while Charlotte needs to be disabused of her residual anti-Irish sentiments and her misconceptions about Arthur's behavior, Arthur needs to acquire twenty-first century egalitarian beliefs about gender, not to mention a healthy dose of ecumenicism. Pride and Prejudice meets feminism meets polite notions about religious tolerance, in other words. To make this work, the narrative needs to skate over inconvenient obstacles in Charlotte's character, like her posthumous mythmaking about Emily and Anne, the contemporary objections to her account of William Carus Wilson, or the reason that a here-unnamed Harriet Martineau walloped Villette. James' Charlotte writes off the criticism as a personal betrayal by people who "seemed to be reviewing my life as they saw it reflected in the novel, rather than the novel itself" (354); there's no mention of Martineau's objection to the novel's pervasive anti-Catholicism. While the novel certainly chronicles some of Charlotte's own issues, like her longstanding obsession with Constantin Heger, it simultaneously makes her a complete person before Arthur (in the sense that her prejudices are, by and large, more personal than ideological, and easily removed when ideological) and in need of Arthur to achieve closure ("every Jane, I believe, deserves her Rochester--does she not?" ). The result is very much a "you can have it all" type of arrangement, complete with Arthur encouraging Charlotte to return to writing (not while having hot sex, needless to say, but presumably between bouts of it).
Writing first-person novels about novelists is not necessarily a good idea, and like Clare Boylan's Emma Brown, The Secret Diaries... suffers badly in comparison to CB's own prose. All of the characters speak in oddly pedantic and cliched sentences, sometimes at the worst possible moments. When Branwell humiliates Charlotte by implying that she has had a relationship with Heger, Emily decides to engage in some serious literary criticism: " [...] You have been writing about your time in Brussels, but it is only a surface image, with none of its depths. You invested more emotion in your description of the scenery upon William's arrival in Belgium, than you did in a single scene between him and Frances. We feel nothing for your professor and his dull little lady, because you are afraid to let us feel" (159). The juxtaposition of Branwell's insult and Emily's rather unpenetrating disquisition is unintentionally hilarious. So too is Patrick Brontë's tin-eared reaction to Branwell waving around a pistol: "Son, have you got my gun?" (229) James is not yet able to create distinctive voices for her characters, and she chooses not to emulate CB's complex manipulations of parallelism, polysyndeton, and so on. The result is a certain flatness of tone, entirely out of keeping with CB's fiction.
But what's odd about this novel, aside from the superimposed romance format, is the totally inaccurate title: there's nothing "secret" about anything Charlotte tells us. James explains in the "Q&A" at the end that "[t]he novel is based
almost entirely on fact" (n.p.), which is, in a sense, what's wrong
with it. Either Charlotte deals out carefully-measured infodumps, or she turns out to have experiences lifted straight from her fiction (in the novel's terms, that she transcribed for her fiction). Although an outraged Emily demands "'What is experience to imagination?'" (268), all of CB's fiction turns out to be lifted directly from life--not just incidentally, but exactly. Readers will spend much of their time playing spot-the-novel. James is hardly alone in susbcribing to the transcription theory of authorship, in which authors appear to cut-and-paste their novels together out of their own adventures, but the result undermines the power of CB's originality.
1 Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 206.