Mutable Passions: Charlotte Bronte: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent

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Mutable Passions: Charlotte Bronte: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In this historical novel, Dent focuses on a short period in Charlotte Brontë's life: with all her siblings dead and Villette near completion, a surprise romance with her father's curate lends a brief taste of happiness. Better suited to readers of romance novels than to Brontë enthusiasts, this might work well as a play.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Matador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781785890932

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As the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth approaches, it is a perfect time for reading about her. Philip Dent's second novel chooses a lesser known period of her life to dramatize. All her siblings are now dead; during a hard winter when she is unable to visit her best friend, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte spends her time finishing Villette, her final novel. The family servant, Tabby, ribs Charlotte about her romantic prospects – including Patrick Brontë's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte responds with indignation: 'I could no more kiss the lips of a man with a beard as big as rooks' nests than I could yours, Tabby.'

There does seem to be some interest going the other way, however: Mr Nicholls is overprotective of Charlotte's health and jealous of her walking out with James Taylor, a publisher representative. Ellen notices Nicholls's solicitous attention when she comes to visit Haworth for several weeks and joins the teasing. Again, Charlotte replies with outrage: 'No man could be more unsuitable than Mr Nicholls, Ellen. I should die of boredom were I to strike up a relationship with as dour and dull a man as he.'

Given her repeated, vociferous denial of feelings for Mr Nicholls, I had trouble believing that, just 20 pages later, his marriage proposal would bring such happiness:

'Breathing exaltedly, her breast heaved and her eyes were wide and flitted restlessly about the room. Her lips quivered and parted; it seemed that she might break into an exhilarating smile or scream her joy to the world. … A beacon of hope had been ignited and its flame burned with searing delight, with vacillating optimism … She dreamed extravagantly … of a future that offered the possibility of at last securing some semblance of emotional fulfilment.'

To put this incident into perspective, I felt Dent should have referenced the three other marriage proposals Charlotte Brontë is known to have received (including one from Taylor). Instead, he makes it sound like romance was an almost unimaginable prospect for her.

Just as her publisher tries to talk her into writing a happy ending for Villette, Mrs Gaskell encourages Charlotte to consider this proposal as a means to her own happy ending. Nicholls moves on to a different position but Charlotte sneaks out to meet him for stolen kisses. Although she worries about how her father will cope while she is away, she and Mr Nicholls do indeed get married and honeymoon in Ireland, where she meets her husband's family.

The clichéd romance novel language in the passage quoted above ('breast heaved' and 'lips quivered', especially) recurs in a couple excruciating sex scenes. On one occasion Patrick and Tabby overhear the newlyweds from the floor below in the parsonage. Presumably Dent hoped to make Charlotte into a flesh and blood woman with natural passions, but I could not feel other than desperately uncomfortable during the love scenes. Their romantic chat is soppy, too: 'Oh, Arthur, I wish our honeymoon could last forever.' / 'It will, dear wife, it will. … I feel the happiest man in England. Nay, the entire world.'

Their happiness is short lived, however. They take a wintry walk across the moors to a waterfall and get caught in a storm. Charlotte develops a nasty cold and takes to her bed. I found this misleading, as it seems to imply that the chill she caught on the walk caused her death, when in fact research has revealed that Charlotte suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness, and vomiting up blood led to dehydration. At least Dent acknowledges that Charlotte was pregnant at the time of her death, as she divulges to Ellen in a letter.

But there are two unrealistic moments still to come: first, Arthur demands that Charlotte have Ellen burn her letters and she replies 'You are my husband, and I will obey, even though your demands are utterly detestable to me.' Can you really imagine the author of Jane Eyre backing down like that, even on her deathbed? Then, after her funeral, Patrick offers a tribute to his daughter that is too much of a sound bite to be believable: 'Charlotte Brontë will not die. She will live eternally in the hearts of her readers.'

I could actually picture this working well as a play, given that Dent is better at writing individual scenes and dialogue than at providing context – such passages are mostly unnecessary anyway when there are so many good biographies out there. Patrick Brontë is an amusingly irascible character, and Charlotte's memories of interactions with other Victorian greats like Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell are among the highlights. I also love the novel's cover image. All in all, though, I thought this overwritten and better suited to readers of romance novels than Brontë enthusiasts.

Further reading suggestion: Charlotte Bronte's Secret Love by Jolien Janzing also opens a window onto a brief period of Charlotte Brontë's life, namely her time in Belgium and her passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger. For a sideways look at Charlotte, you might try Sanctuary by Robert Edric, which focuses on her black-sheep brother, Branwell.

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