Customer Reviews: The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte
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on March 27, 2008
Here's a marvelous surprise from one of our best mystery writers. I don't usually read "real detective" stories, the ones where some famous actual person, usually a writer (Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, etc.), makes like Sherlock Holmes. The "mystery" is usually pretty dumb, and it's always buried under a long, badly-written avalanche of extraneous information about the writer culled from graduate English courses. Even worse, the writing style is usually a strained imitation of the celebrity in question. But I bought THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTË for two reasons--my lifelong love of the Brontës and my great respect for Laura Joh Rowland.

This novel is exceptional in every way. The Brontë family is depicted in a straightforward, realistic manner, and Charlotte's first-person "voice" is sensible and authentic. But the real pleasure here is the story itself. It's fast-paced, fascinating, and constantly surprising, with all the right elements of coincidence, melodrama, and romantic passion we'd expect from the author of JANE EYRE. We're not assaulted with a laundry list of tedious facts and figures about Brontë--she seems like a living, breathing woman. And the plot is solid--the events in the novel incorporate actual happenings in the world in 1848. I've long admired Rowland's wonderful mysteries set in feudal Japan, and this stand-alone is another real treat for Rowland fans (and Brontë fans). Highly recommended.
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on March 23, 2008
Laura Joh Rowland takes a break from her Sano Ichiro series to pen this delightfully intriguing Victorian-era mystery novel featuring the Bronte sisters, and Charlotte Bronte in particular. "The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte" reads like a stand alone novel, but truth to tell, I rather hope that there will be future installments featuring Charlotte in the not too distant future.

When Charlotte Bronte receives a letter from her publishers accusing her of breaking her contract with them, she quickly realises that she must go to London to clear things up. Nervous but excited, she sets off for London with her sister Anne reluctantly in tow. While on their way, the sisters make acquaintance of a beautiful but enigmatic governess, Isabel White. Isabel seems to be in distress and moved by her plight, Charlotte impulsively invites her to seek the Bronte sisters out at the inn they'll be staying at. The last thing Charlotte expected was that she and Anne would witness Isabel's brutal murder, or that the apparent non-interest of the police would inspire in her a need to discover why Isabel was murdered and bring her murderer to justice. Aided by sisters Anne and Emily, and by Isabel's disturbingly attractive brother, Gilbert White, Charlotte begins her investigation, and finds herself totally unprepared for the web of revenge and intrigue she finds herself in the middle of, or the threat that this investigations poses to her family...

The first thing that impressed me about "The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte" was the narrative voice -- to me it seemed authentic and I felt as if the author really had captured Charlotte Bronte's "voice." Obviously, Rowland spent a great many happy hours rereading all of Charlotte's novels and letters. Because this novel really hinged on Charlotte -- her experiences, feelings, setbacks, etc -- getting the narrative voice right was really vital. Rowland, brought Charlotte Bronte, to life, for me, and this allowed me to fully enter into everything our stalwart heroine was experiencing and made the intrigues Charlotte found herself in quite probable and believeable. The pacing was swift and even, and the plot a compelling and intriguing one, that was full of interesting plot twists and turns. All in all, this is one Victorian-era mystery novel not to be missed.
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VINE VOICEon October 30, 2008
This is a masterfully crafted historical fiction set in Victorian England in 1848. Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) and her sisters Anne (1919-1848), Emily (1820-1849) and brother Branwell (1818-1848) are featured in this story. Readers who are not familiar with the works of the illustrious Bronte family (sort of the English counterpart to the Alcotts of New England) are provided with a short list of their works.

As much as I enjoyed the Sano Ichiro series, I was really reeled in by this masterpiece. Charlotte Bronte's adventures start the summer of 1848 when she receives a letter from an attorney demanding to know if the pen names Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell are the works of the same person and if so, do the Bells even exist? The attorney accuses the authors of breaking a literary contract. Charlotte and Anne take a trip to London, whereupon they meet a young woman named Isabel White on the train. She spins out a harrowing, yet disjointed account of having to escape "her master." Charlotte later encounters her in London and witnesses her murder by stabbing.

Enter John Slade, a detective. He and Charlotte meet; their sleuthing takes them to the small mining mill town of Skipton where the young woman was from; their travels take them to Belgium and Scotland when Charlotte secures a post as governess to Queen Victoria's three older children.

More mysteries ensue and are interlocked with the deft grace of a brilliant author. Just who IS John Slade? And who is Isabel's master? Who were Isabel's master's contacts in Scotland? And did Isabel's master have anything to do with the death of Joseph Lock, a local gun merchant in England? And does the Charity School, an institutional wasteland of poverty and extreme classist abuse have any part in the spate of mysteries? (A note: The Charity School sounds like it was loosely based upon the school the two older Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth attended. They died of TB and endured malnutrition and starvation. Their school experiences appear to be reflected in Charlotte's book, "Jane Eyre.")

This story is not a cliche romance, but it combines the elements of several literary genres with brilliance and apolomb. There is a romantic angle, but it never becomes trite, tawdry or cliched. Charlotte, who is the protagonist of the story is caught up into a maelestrom of intrigue and danger.

Laura Joh Rowland has not only captured the feel and flavor of Victorian speech and values of the time frame, she has also portrayed England during that period. Her characters are rich and developed; the history intense and vivid. The story opens with the Opium Wars between China and England and it is this knowledge of history that keeps the story moving along. The Sino-English Opium Wars are part of the story and every historical reference segues into a full story. It was common knowledge among people of the Brontes' immediate community that Branwell, their only brother was an alcoholic and opium addict. He was also a gifted author and artist.
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on March 29, 2009
There has been a trend lately in fiction to try and cast real-life authors of the past into the parts of crime solving sleuths. And to be honest, most of the time it doesn't quite work right. This time, the fictionalized author is Charlotte Bronte, one of three sisters who wrote Gothic novels in the nineteenth century. Of the three, it would be Charlotte's novel, Jane Eyre that was the most successful.

The story opens with Charlotte and her sisters, Anne and Emily, receiving a letter from their publisher, accusing them of selling a novel to a rival publisher in a breach of contract. The year is 1848, and while the discontent that is sweeping Europe and England is threatening to topple governments, for the Brontes in the faraway village of Haworth, life is quiet for the most part. While their brother Branwell is addicted to laudanum (a tincture of opium) and puts the family through dreadful scenes, the three sisters and their father, the local clergyman, manage to survive.

But now, Charlotte has to uproot herself to go to London to confront her publisher, to prove that indeed, she is who she says she is. With her will go her younger sister Anne, and the pair are going to take the opportunity to see some of the great city. On the train, they meet a beautiful young woman, Isabel White, who is nervous and distressed over something -- and trouble quickly begins when Charlotte sees her stabbed on the street.

After that, things quickly escalate. Menacing strangers appear, Mr. Slade, and Reverend White, both of whom Charlotte is very much attracted to. In her hunt to find out why Isabel was murdered, Charlotte finds herself going from a wretched boarding school to Cornwall and eventually to the highest reaches of power to solve the riddles. Along the way, there are passionate scenes on the moors, full of storms and longing kisses, drug addiction, the force of unhappy memories and all sorts of elements of Gothic mystery...

And this is where the story starts to fall apart. I wasn't certain if the author, Rowland, was trying to make fun of the Bronte novels, or if she was paying homage to them, or what. Charlotte, as with most portrayals by modern authors of historical figures, is the main character here, speaking in first person voice, with various interjections of third person omniscient voice for the scenes that she can't be there, and even second person in the form of journals and letters, all tend to have rather modern attitudes. To me, that'll break the spell of a novel, as honestly, Victorian women didn't travel alone if they could help it -- only the most poor and unfortunate did so, Emily Bronte is shown as an angry agoraphobic, and Anne is there mostly as window-dressing to show just how clever Charlotte really is.

Summing up, this was an awful novel. While it started off with a great deal of promise and I was actually interested for the first two-thirds -- a feat that I don't find often -- the final third of the story was so ludicrous and over-the-top that I just could not keep suspending belief in view of the fantastical events. While the events of the Opium war in China are certainly real, the route that the villain took to avenge his loss is just too cartoonish

If the author had actually bothered to read about the various real-life participants in the story, and used them as they were, it would have made for a far more interesting novel. Instead, she just takes them and shoves her own words into the cardboard characters, and has them doing things that aren't just incorrect, but also laughable. It doesn't work.

And having the Duke of Kent alive at the time? Umm, the only person by the title was Queen Victoria's father, and he died in 1820. Such is the inaccuracy in parts of this story. Sorry but it doesn't work for me. While in an author's afterword, Ms. Rowland tries to explain her reasoning, I found it to be awkward at best. A reader's guide for discussion groups is included as well.

Sadly, there's a sequel to this one as well: Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. It's one that I am not going to bother with at all.

Only two stars. Definitely not recommended.
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on October 3, 2010
If you are a fan of Charlotte Bronte and admire her writing, don't bother to read this book. It is pedestrian. It starts out okay--you are willing enough to suspend your disbelief (and there is good local color and historical detail)--but then the plot becomes truly ludicrous, and the climax and denouement of the novel are so impossible to swallow that you feel you have wasted your time.
If you like improbable mystery action adventure stories, and don't care a fig about the Brontes' real/possible lives, then go ahead and read it, and good luck to you!
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on June 1, 2009
The beautiful cover on the hardback is what drew my attention to the book; why the publisher changed it for the paperback, I don't know, as it is not as attractive and I would not have picked it out of the shelf of books if I hadn't been specifically searching for it.

What I did find, once purchasing and reading it, was an author who has been enthralled with Charlotte Bronte and her famous novel, "Jane Eyre", for most of her life. I liked the way she attempted to capture the history of the author while staying true to Ms. Bronte's personality and time. Seems like some historicals impose their own modern morality onto the character rather than staying true to the era. This is not just a mystery novel, but is also a romance. But how does an author capture the imagination of the modern reader, who tends to favor ever racier sexuality in their romances, versus remaining true to the morality of an earlier age? Ms. Rowland does this effectively, in my opinion, by portraying Charlotte's private romantic and adventurous desires versus her public personnae and desire to maintain her identity as a lady of her time. She is also both spunky and demure.

I gave this a "four star" review because it was good enough to encourage me to purchase the second novel in the series, rather than picking up a copy at the library or passing. However, I took a star off for the following reasons: 1. Plot becomes a bit fantastic about 3/4 of the way through, but Ms. Rowland builds the momentum to this point so, although she stretched my credulity, it was still acceptable. 2. The novel is well-paced until Charlotte spends "quality time" listening to the villain's history. This really slows the momentum and it does not pick up again till Charlotte (trying not to give away plot points) leaves his mansion. It is one of my big complaints about many mystery novels: instead of allowing the clues to explain the backstory, the villain "confesses" and ties up all of the plot points.

Charlotte's family members are vividly and distinctly characterized. I like how the author lets each of the Brontes have their moment of heroism. Charlotte's personality is further delineated by being contrasted with the impetuous Emily, who shies from strangers like a wild dog with a history of abuse, and the more staid Anne, her two sisters, and her wounded and self-destructive brother, Branwell. I enjoyed the villain's son, T'ing-nan, and wish he'd been given more story time.

I won't describe the plot, as another review has done so. I learned a lot about the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, which was quite interesting.

Since the story is told from Charlotte's viewpoint, Ms. Rowland uses diary excerpts, that Charlotte later reads, to fill in story gaps, which I found a rather clever story device.

The romance (I won't say with who) is believeable and satisfying.

I look foward to seeing where Ms. Rowland takes her characters, but am hoping for a little less fantastic plot.
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on June 26, 2008
I was very disappointed in this book. I thought, based on the "A-" that EW magazine gave it, I would have fun with it. I'm amazed that I read the whole thing! I'd stop because it was silly, then continue, then stop, on and on. It seemed as if many liberties were taken w/ the Bronte family. I don't think that the woman who wrote Jane Eyre would have talked this way or acted this way. Basically, it was silly...and I feel silly for actually finishing it.
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VINE VOICEon May 13, 2008
Rowland, author of a series of detective novels that take place in Japan (which I haven't read), now conquers new territory in turning Charlotte Bronte into a detective. What could have turned into a disaster is actually a delightful mystery. The story begins when Charlotte and her sisters receive a letter from Charlotte's publisher, in which the publisher believes that the same man wrote Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Charlotte and Anne go to London to clear things up. On their way there, they run into a woman name Isabel White, whose strange behavior leads to Charlotte witnessing her murder in a London alley later. When the police decide that the former governess's murder was a chance happening, Charlotte realizes that it wasn't, and she sets off in pursuit of the real murderer, prompted by an account written by Isabel in the margins of a book. We are introduced to John Slade, who Charlotte finds herself attracted to. But is he one of the good guys, or the bad?

Charlotte's adventures lead her across Europe, from London to the English countryside, to Scotland and beyond, eventually engulfing her in the opium wars of the 1840s. Charlotte comes across as an adventurous and brave woman, resourceful and intelligent. She's also very passionate, and devoted to her cause. I was enthralled by the mystery, which unfolded perfectly, and did not want this book to end. It's a must read for anyone who enjoys the works of the Bronte sisters, and the book made me want to re-read Jane Eyre.
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on April 27, 2012

Soooo, Emily, where should we go today?

(sips from top of coffee, listens to Charlotte, appears to be mulling it over)

How about the rue de [something-or-other] or
the museé at [somesuch] or the
bookstores at [wherever-it-is]?

(drags out coffee sip, arches eyebrow
at Charlotte, going for faux-dramatic pause)

(getting exasperated)
Well . . . do you at least want to
go to [someplace Emily herself
had mentioned, previously]?

(languidly, after finally putting the coffee cup down)
MMMmmm ... `peut-être.'

(cracking up, hysterical, with an `Oh, THAT's
why you were doing that!' awareness dawning on her)
Oh . . . `peut-être,' is it?

(feigning a pseudo-French deliberateness
In the cadences & pauses of her speech)
`Mais oui' . . . `peut-etre.'

The two sisters, friends, & collaborative authors ad-lib throwing French phrases back and forth ('Zut alors!' 'Sacré blue!'), and successfully cracking each other & their selves up until, ultimately, they get tired of it, and leave.

[1.] The Bronte Myth (Lucasta Miller, 2004)
[2.] Charlotte Bronte: A Writer's Life (Rebecca Fraser, 1988)
[3.] The Brontes: A Life in Letters (Juliet Barker, 1998)
[4.] Road to Haworth: Story of the Brontes' Irish Ancestry (John Cannon, 1980)
[5.] The Brontës at Haworth (Ann Dinsdale & Simor Warner, 2006)
[6.] The Life of Charlotte Bronte (Penguin Classics) (Elizabeth Gaskell, 1857)
[7.] The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte (Virago Modern Classics) (Daphne du Maurier, 1960)

[8.] Villette - Charlotte Bronte [Annotated] (Bentley Loft Classics) (Charlotte Brontë, 1853)
[9.] Shirley (Penguin Classics) (Charlotte Brontë, 1849)
[10.] Against the Day (Thomas Pynchon, 2006)
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on August 25, 2012
I read this book in about 3-4 hours, and was entralled the entire time! Joh's voice sounds like Charlotte Bronte and yes the plot twists and turns and is fantastical, its JUST what makes this book such a wonderful diversion! For all the Bronte sister fans I suggest reading Joh Rowland's other novels and perhaps they book will make sense to you, otherwise stop whining, pick up the original and be content. But I knew from reading (and owning) all the Sano Ichiro novels, that this one would not disappoint and it did not. The language is very Victorian, the voice of Charlotte authentic and the characters well developed and intriguing. I can't wait to read the sequel!!!
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