Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis, a Gothic mystery-adventure with the Brontë sisters on the case

The Brontë sisters have joined the stable of historical characters appearing as sleuths. Even though – as with other famous folks cast into detective mode – I didn’t believe for a second that this could’ve happened in real life, it was entertaining to imagine “what if.”

Bella Ellis, the Brontë-esque pseudonym adopted by author Rowan Coleman, sets her series debut during the brief period that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne lived together at Haworth Parsonage, after their studies and periods of employment ended, and before they embarked upon their masterpieces.

In 1845 Yorkshire, the trio learn, via rumors heard by their troubled brother, Branwell, that a young wife and mother, Elizabeth Chester, has vanished from home – leaving behind a baby and stepchild and a blood-soaked mess in her bedchamber. The lurid details make it unlikely Mrs Chester could still be alive. Mattie French, a former classmate of Charlotte’s from their dreadful days at the Cowan School, is the Chesters’ governess, which gives the sisters the opportunity to stride across the moors (a mere two hours’ walk) to pay her a visit. They understand that, in this day and age, a woman’s life can count for very little, so they find purpose in seeking the truth.

The sisters’ fictional counterparts have the personalities one would expect: Emily the imaginative loner who adores the world’s natural wildness, Anne the careful observer with hidden depths, and Charlotte, in whose petite frame resides both intelligence and passion; she still hasn’t gotten over her unrequited attachment to her married tutor from Brussels. Their interactions with one another, and with others, are hard to look away from, so much so that poor victim Elizabeth Chester sometimes fades into the background.

In keeping with the Brontës’ themes, the plot of The Vanished Bride mixes high Gothic drama (including a creepy Elizabethan-era house, its craggily handsome, imposing master, and a forbidding housekeeper), reflective moments, and astute observations on women’s social roles in this corner of remote Yorkshire. Ellis aims her most pointed comments, though, at brother Branwell, the only Brontë son. Distraught after a broken-off affair, he drowns his sorrows at the local tavern and continues to squander his potential:

“Branwell had intelligence and wit – he had a deal of talent – and yet none of it was enough to bring him any happiness or contentment within himself. It was as if all of his life he’d been waiting for his genius to be discovered, for his talents to be lauded, without him actually having to do anything. Branwell thought of himself as destined for great things but did no great things to earn that distinction.”

Harsh, but fair – especially given how his sisters, as readers will know, will grasp every opportunity to use their own talents during the remainder of their all-too-brief lives.

The Vanished Bride was published by Berkley in September.

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