Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

England - 1848

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com

The Secret Adventures of
Charlotte Bronte

by Laura Joh Rowland

Rowland challenges the reclusive image of Charlotte Bronte by giving her fictional character an action filled life. This view might be based on Charlotte’s letters, one of which states: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

In Rowland’s story, Charlotte unintentionally witnesses the murder of a woman she has befriended on the train to London. Obsessed with a desire to obtain justice “for this stranger who had engaged my interest and my sympathy,” her own life is threatened as she tangles with a secretive Chinese man who had turned to crime after his family was killed during the opium wars in China.

England’s political and social conditions are portrayed critically and realistically. Turmoils surrounding the Chartist insurrection, violence in Ireland, and the threat to England of Continental revolutions are referenced. An important plot point is the widespread use of opium in China, and into brother Branwell’s weakening system. Descriptions of the filth, smells, and generally appalling living conditions in industrial Haworth, and other larger industrial cities, speak to the country’s worsening poverty. London’s pandemonium is detailed as well as the city’s lack of sanitation; Charlotte says it “tasted of cholera,” with the Thames creating the “stench of decay.”

The Bronte sisters’ need to publish under male names and seek work as governesses or teachers, the only other occupations available to educated women, is revealed. Charlotte’s visit to a boarding school run for poor girls evokes memories of her own grim schooling, which in the real author’s life resulted in the death of two of her sisters.

The use of historical personalities as characters is problematic here. It is difficult to believe the sudden transformation of the Brontes into adventure seeking “spies,” since initially they are presented as fearful women who preferred the solitude of their father's parsonage. And, one can only guess that Rowland used Bronte’s novels and letters as a basis for the fictional Charlotte’s sexual yearnings, directed at any man who came close to exciting her fantasies.

Short Author’s Note at end.

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