Thursday 25 June 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Vanished Bride, Bella Ellis (2019)

It’s now a little over a month until my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, meets the world, and, between articles, podcasts and planned events, I’m currently living and breathing the Bronte sisters. Still, this did nothing to dissuade me from reading the latest book in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, which introduces us to the Bronte siblings as we’ve never seen them before.

The Vanished Bride, by Rowan Coleman (writing under the suitably Bronte-esque pseudonym Bella Ellis), came out in Fall 2019. It’s an historical mystery starring everyone’s favourite literary family as unlikely sleuths (or, as they call themselves, ‘detectors’).

The chapters alternate between Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s perspectives, as the trio (occasionally with an inebriated Branwell in tow) tries to discover what happened to a young bride whose bedroom has been found empty, but awash with blood.

The mystery is well-paced if straightforward, but the real fun of the novel comes in the sisters’ different personalities (Emily is perhaps best-drawn), and in how Ellis includes references to the sisters’ novels, suggesting that the events of the book might have inspired the siblings’ literary creations. There are governesses and ghosts, a devastating fire, and even a first wife confined to the attic.

The novel is set in 1845, just after Branwell’s dismissal and Anne’s resignation from Thorp Green Hall (major events in Bronte’ Mistress), so it was particularly enjoyable for me to see how Ellis incorporates known events in the Brontes’ lives to make their detecting feel possible in this period. The novel is also clearly marketed as the first in a series, so I appreciated the brief references to Arthur Nicholls, the man who would become Charlotte’s husband, and look forward to seeing how this relationship develops over the course of later books.

All in, this one’s definitely for fans of historical mysteries (if you don’t enjoy detective stories even the Brontes might not be enough of an inducement). Of the Bronte-related books I’ve reviewed recently, Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte offers realism, and Michael Stewart’s Ill Will grit, but Ellis’s novel is certainly the most playful.

Know of more Bronte-inspired novels? Let me know and I may include them in my Neo-Victorian Voices series. Leave a comment below, contact me via Instagram or Facebook, or tweet @SVictorianist.


If you’re a lover of all things Bronte, be sure to check out my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is available for pre-order now. The book tells the story of the scandalous affair that overshadowed Branwell and Anne’s employment at Thorp Green Hall, through the voice of the “profligate woman” accused of tempting the Bronte brother into sin.

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Tuesday 16 June 2020

TV Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)

I’m a huge lover of all things related to the Brontes. In fact, my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which comes out in under two months (!), prominently features several members of literature’s most famous family. However, somehow it still took a pandemic in the year of Anne Bronte’s bicentenary to make me wonder if either of her novels had been adapted for film.

Turning to IMBD, I discovered that Anne, the youngest of the three novel-writing sisters, had been overlooked on the big screen, as much as elsewhere. There are a slew of adaptations of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s other novels have yet to been given the Hollywood treatment. There is just one lone TV adaptation of Anne’s second, more controversial, novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This was made by the BBC in 1996. Thankfully for those of us in quarantine, it’s currently available via Amazon Prime Video.

The miniseries, which is three episodes long, was directed by Mike Barker and stars Tara Fitzgerald as runaway wife Helen Graham, Rupert Graves as her abusive husband, and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, the farmer who falls for the mysterious “widow” renting nearby mansion Wildfell Hall.

I was initially sceptical about how the book would translate to film, comprised as the novel is of letters and a diary but, reader, I loved it.

There are minor plot alterations, especially related to the more streamlined cast of secondary characters, but the TV adaptation remains true to the spirit of Anne’s novel. We are closer to Gilbert’s perspective in the first and third episodes, but, when he is handed Helen’s diary, it is her voice that details her unhappy marriage.

The adaptation also does a great job of editing down some of Anne’s most didactic passages, leaving us with the best of Helen as she begs her husband to prepare for heaven, or argues that boys should be protected from vice as much as girls, directly calling out gendered double standards in Victorian childrearing.

I especially enjoyed the shots of the Yorkshire landscape and the original soundtrack (composed by Richard G. Mitchell). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall certainly has its dramatic moments but, as in Agnes Grey, Anne favours a quieter romance, and the music and setting enhanced this. Charlotte found her youngest sister’s second novel shocking because of its depictions of alcoholism and debauchery, but today we might look at the book as a heart-warming second chance romance.

If you’re a lover of costume dramas, consider checking out this lesser known adaptation. I hope that eventually Anne’s Agnes Grey makes it onto our screens (and Bronte’s Mistress, of course!).

Bronte’s Mistress is available for pre-order now. Order today and you’ll have it in your hands on release day in August. And join my mailing list for updates on events and more.

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Sunday 7 June 2020

(More!) Novels of the French Revolution

Back in October, to celebrate the release of Ribbons of Scarlet (2019)—a multi-authored historical novel about the women of the French Revolution—I strayed out of the nineteenth century and into the late eighteenth, with a round up of the best novels I’d read set during that tumultuous period.

I reviewed Andrew Miller’s Pure (2011), Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992), Daphne du Maurier’s The Glassblowers (1963), and the most iconic of all novels of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Eight months later, I’m back, with thoughts on three more novels, which take this bloody conflict as their backdrop.

Three more "revolutionary" reads

Mistress of the Revolution, Catherine Delors (2008)

Delors’s novel centres on noblewoman Gabrielle—first, on the trials and tribulations of her childhood, doomed adolescent love and horrific forced marriage, and, later, on how she becomes embroiled in the events of the revolution. Gabrielle’s lot is a believable, if dramatic, one, but her character is underdeveloped and she seems to offer little beyond her attractiveness (her main bargaining chip throughout the book). There’s plenty of sexual content to titillate and horrify by turns, and Delors covers a lot of ground historically, incorporating some great details. Yet, on occasion, passages of political exposition become a little skim-worthy.

Becoming Josephine, Heather Webb (2013)

Webb’s protagonist’s biography would strain our credulity were it not true! This novel takes the future Empress Josephine as its subject, from her childhood in Martinique, to her terrible first marriage (there’s a theme here), to her love with Napoleon, to the pressures mounted on her to produce an heir, and beyond. Josephine was placed to be a great observer of the revolution, so these sections in particular are well wrought, and the nuances of her relationship with Napoleon come through. However the later parts of her life are a little rushed. I wish Webb had ended sooner, so the book had a clear novelistic arc vs. bordering on dramatized biography.

Little, Edward Carey (2018)

Carey’s Little (my most recent revolutionary read) is a very different beast. Like Webb, he takes a real person, who had a front row seat at the revolution, as his main character. In this case, it’s Marie Grosholtz, still famous the world over as Madame Tussaud. However, Carey isn’t constrained by history. His novel reads as an imaginative response to the art of waxworks, against the backdrop of a violent period when real bodies were frequently dismembered. His Marie (referred to by other characters as “Little” due to her diminutive size) is obsessed with bodies—their innards and their outer flaws and features. Illustrated by the author, this isn’t a read for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached, but it captures the madness and horror of the French Revolution, as well as the obsession with objects (clothes, wigs, locks, wax figures), which gave so many eighteenth-century Parisians their livelihood.

Do you know of any more great books set during the French Revolution? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

My first novel, Bronte’s Mistress, about the older woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, is available for pre-order now. Subscribe to my newsletter for monthly updates below.


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