I still have my copy of Jane Eyre from when I was nine so I am easily the target audience for this fictionalized take on Charlotte Bronte's inner life. Yes, I fell in love with Jane and Rochester when I brought home a rather large mass market sized book fresh from the always enticing Scholastic Book Club flier. When I was a little older and had a bit of disposable income (ie an allowance plus birthday money), I promptly bought myself all of Bronte's books as well as Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And just as promptly, I read them all. So happily spending hours with imagined diaries that shed some light into the lives of these clergyman's daughters who lived such isolated and fairly constrained lives out beside the moors made perfect sense to me.
Opening as Charlotte is debating whether or not to accept the marriage proposal of her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, the diaries then proceed back in time to the day that Mr. Nicholls arrived at Haworth parsonage. Not much substantive is known about the years between Mr. Nicholls taking the curate's position and when he and Charlotte Bronte wed so James has a fairly blank canvas on which to weave her tale. The diaries span the writing and the publications of most of the major works by the sisters Bronte but this doesn't shut out the imagined intricate daily life of the family. Charlotte's feelings towards the shy Mr. Nicholls grow and change realistically throughout the eight years of the narrative. In addition to Charlotte's life, the reader is treated to both Anne and Emily's characters and to the sad waste of Branwell's life.
All of the characters, as seen through Charlotte's eyes, come alive although occasionally Anne and Emily seem a bit interchangeable. The story is impeccably researched, the language authentic feeling, and James has imagined a story that most Bronte fans will enjoy thoroughly. In some ways, her tale of Charlotte's life almost seems like an undiscovered plot from one of Bronte's own works. And while she cannot possibly reproduce inner thoughts and feelings as they definitely were, she has done a wonderful job imagining the possibility. Although this is called a diary, it is not written in traditional diary format (not that I would have been put off by such a convention although I know other readers would). It is, of course, written as a first person narrative and has a confidential tone to it in many places but it is still a respectful and almost staid rendering of these momentous eight years. I enjoyed the book as a fictional peek into an author for whom I will always have a very special feeling and I suspect that even folks not familiar with the Bronte's work can appreciate this as an historical fiction.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me the book to review.