The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept , in silence sealed; –
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
‘Evening Solace’ by Charlotte Brontë
Bella Ellis’s charming historical mystery is set in Haworth Parsonage and its neighbouring villages, Yorkshire, summer of 1845. All four surviving children of Reverend Patrick Brontë are back home. Charlotte‘s heart is full of unrequited love for Monsier Héger. She and Emily were employed in his boarding school in Brussels, although Emily returned to look after their dying aunt Branwell. Branwell left his empoyment in Thorp Green Hall under a cloud, following his passionate and forbidden affair with his employer’s wife. Unfortunately, this also meant that his younger sister Anne, a kind and meek soul, had to resign her position. Now that all four Brontë siblings are under their father’s roof, they spend their time walking in the beautiful Yorkshire moors, re-visiting their childhood creation of the fantasy land of Gondal, reading books and perusing newspapers to keep themselves abreast with society news or in case of Branwell- drinking and gambling in local pubs.
Meanwhile, not far from their parsonage, a young woman Elizabeth Chester, by all accounts a devoted mother and stepmother of two young children and a wife of a local land owner, disappears from her room in Chester Grange. There is so much blood left behind that there is little doubt she came to a grave harm. When the Brontë sisters hear of this strange occurence in their neighbourhood, they decide to try to solve the mystery by putting their education, curiosity, deductive powers, social skills and sense of justice in use and become ‘detectors’, no doubt following the example of the first officers in the newly established Police force in London.
This novel is a real treat for all admirers of Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë. It is written with so much admiration and appreciation for these wonderful authors. In a series like this, you are walking a fine line between providing too much background information and not enough. The book is obviously well-researched, and will be much enjoyed by people who already love the Brontë sisters and are familiar with their tragic life story. Bella Ellis brings alive three very different characters: sensible and serious Charlotte, curious and intrepid animal lover Emily, mild, meek and religious angelic looking Anne who despite being the youngest often acts as the most grown up and socially adjusted among the siblings. The secondary characters are also interesting and add to the colour of the story: Mattie French, the governess in Chester Grange, Mrs Crawley, the housekeeper, Tabby (Tabitha), Brontës’ faithful servant and source of fairy-tales and legends, Celia, who in our modern society would have been a surgeon, but is instead limited to being her husband’s keeper of virtue and occasional assistant.
With these three independent, creative sisters in charge of the investigation, the plight of women in that historic period becomes much more than a mere backdrop of the story:
Well, in this world where men might beat their wives, might force themselves upon them, and, yes, might even kill them and go unpunished, where society and the law see women as little more than property, it seems as though someone should be trying to do something about it…
You will, no doubt, see numerous allusions to Emily, Charlotte, and Anne’s works. After all, the novel is set before Jane Eyre, Wurthering Heights and The Tenant were written, and we get a glimpse into what might have inspired or influenced the sisters. It is also a story in its own, a story of a woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, who does not want to reconcile herself to being her husband’s property or her father’s means for elevating his social status. There are twists and turns, as in any good mystery, and whenever I thought I had it figured out, a new element was discovered by our amateur sleuths that completely changed my understanding of what happened to Elizabeth Chester.
As this is the first part of a new series, I will definitely be looking forward to the next instament. In fact, I already have my favourite ‘detector’ among the three, and I can’t wait to see what she is going to get up to in the second book.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Berkley for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest opinion.