27th Jun 2012
The Bodice Ripper: The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë
There are some books that make you wonder how they got published in the first place. Some make you wonder how the author even managed to get an agent, never mind a book deal.
And then there are some where clearly the author should not be allowed access to anything as sharp as a pen in whatever institution that they have to be in because no sane person would write a book this bad.
I came back from a week in France with the intention of writing about one of the dozen books I got through whilst waiting for the rain to stop (it didn’t).
There were some really good ones – Suzanne Crawley‘s The Stolen One is a heartbreaking story about sisterhood and isolation, Tasha Alexander‘s Emily Ashton series has finally hit its stride, and there’s deliciously filthy scene in Carol K. Carr‘s India Black: Madame of Espionage that I’m building an entire column (and possibly a dirty weekend) around.
But sometimes a book falls into your lap that is so staggeringly, incredibly atrocious that it throws your colour-coded Google Doc out of the window and demands that you devote several hundred words to trashing it on the internet.
James Tully is, according to the blurb on the back, a “noted criminologist”, and after what one can only imagine was a truly traumatic experience reading Jane Eyre, explored the sad history of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their brother Branwell, and decided that rather than TB contracted from the water they pumped into the house from the graveyard (a whole new level of commitment to the Gothic), their deaths had a far more sinister cause.
The story of three imaginative, artistic single women living in a remote part of Yorkshire at the foot of windswept moors who wrote novels full of passion, betrayal and Byronic heroes has been the source of constant speculation from biographers, many of whom are perplexed that these women could have written about desire without ever having experienced it themselves, as if love stories were some kind of Victorian STD.
It’s a bandwagon that Tully is all too eager to jump on, thanks to the presence of one Reverend Arthur Bell Nichols in the sisters’ lives. Nicholls would go on to marry Charlotte, but if Tully is to be believed, it is Emily who first caught his eye.
It’s like a game of Misogynist Brontë Bingo. If Tully is to be believed, Charlotte is a desperate spinster who’s barely finished playing Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction to her Belgian tutor’s Michael Douglas when she sets her sights on the poor Reverend.
She is ugly, ambitious, and only cares about her career as a novelist and the financial independence it will bring her, the heartless bitch.
Emily is a dreamy savant who spends her time roaming the moors (this will later come to be used as a euphemism) until she is distracted by her brother’s unfinished novel, which she completes (with the help of Nicholls) and claims as her own. And Anne is…well, no one cares about Anne anyway, right?
I’d quote it at length, but I threw the book across the room and if I pick it up again I’m not sure it can withstand the next assault. It is narrated by their servant Martha, yet another woman ready to throw in the God-fearing Victorian towel of her chastity in favour of a little hot Pastor-on-servant action, and by the lawyer she later tells her story to, whose descendant just so happens to stumble across the whole sordid story. Trust me when I say that’s the most believable aspect of the entire novel.
As well as being a tale of Arthur Bell Nicholls And His Magical Novel-Writing Penis, it is also a chilling horror story about the terrible things women do to each other when they’re stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire with nothing to do but write works of classic literature.
Charlotte is indisputably the villainess whose sexual and literary jealousy, it is hinted throughout the first part of the novel, lead her to murder her siblings because Haworth Parsonage just wasn’t big enough for the four of them.
Actually, she might have had a point – as an adult, Emily basically got relegated to a cupboard because there was nowhere else for her to sleep.
So far, so soap opera. Except that, as Martha’s narrative goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that it is Nicholls who is responsible first for Branwell’s death and then Emily’s (who by this point is his pregnant lover).
Charlotte probably finished off Anne in some twisted ploy to make Nicholls love her, and yet she is the only one that Martha judges. You see, despite knowing that her lover murdered two people and was at least complicit in a third death, Nicholls is still painted as the brooding hero. Sure, he’s handy with a bottle of poison but at least he doesn’t have a mad wife hidden in the attic, right?
Her love remains steadfast when he marries Charlotte, who is by then both rich and, according to Martha and the lawyer, a bit of a gold-digging tramp who’s past her prime.
Their brief marriage is a flurry of attempted poisoning, emotional and physical abuse with a spot of gaslighting thrown in, and yet it is somehow all presented as Charlotte’s fault and when she meets her inevitable end, we’re not really expected to be that bothered.
Certainly the author has more sympathy with Branwell, who here is portrayed as a paedophile as well as an alcoholic opium addict whose creative ambitions were thwarted by his mean, novel-stealing sisters.
The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë is a masterpiece of sexism, conspiracy theory and truly bad writing. I’m not entirely sure what Charlotte did to upset James Tully so much other than daring to be, in Jane Eyre’s words “a free human being with an independent will” whilst in possession of a uterus.
I can understand the desire to ferret out the murky truth behind the official biographies of famous people, but whilst Tully was aiming to write a myth-busting bodice ripper – interestingly, he wanted to write it as a biography, but no one would publish it – what we’ve got is a rather grubby tabloid version of the Brontë story, with a lot of sex and speculation, but very few facts.