The Brontё Sisters: Detectors Extraordinaire – The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis
Alternate or alternative history is a popular sub-genre of speculative fiction, and imagines “what if” something in history had or had not happened and as a consequence, what would the outcome have been and how would peoples’ lives have been different. In Fatherland (1992), for example, Robert Harris explores what if the Germans had won World War II. Bella Ellis’s debut novel, The Vanished Bride (Berkley, 2019), certainly falls into the pigeon-hole of alternative history, but its “what if” premise is a lot gentler than Harris’s and the consequences are contained rather than extensive.
Today, the three sisters are well known for their literary abilities, but Ellis considers that “armed with their curiosity, creativity and intelligence,” it is not too much of a stretch of imagination that “these extraordinary women would have wanted to get to the bottom of a local mystery,” for them to be so-called “detectors.”
Ellis is undoubtedly a Brontё enthusiast, some might say obsessive, and has researched their lives by thorough reading of their letters and writings. In so doing, she has built up a picture of each sister and put flesh on their bones so that the reader of The Vanished Bride has no trouble in believimg that the three girls would have behaved in exactly the way Ellis has described. From Charlotte’s letters that her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls had wanted destroyed but luckily never were so, Ellis determines that the elder sister was “a passionate and driven woman, who fell in love hard and struggled with rejection,” whether from a lover or from a publisher. Charlotte’s letters describing the agonies felt on receiving unfavourable reviews or awaiting publisher’s feedback, feed into Ellis’s characterisation in her novel.
There is not so much known about the middle sister, Emily, who has “so much mythology surrounding her.” Ellis finds Emily’s letters rather formal and stilted, as if she had been told to write them, “sort of sulky and teen like,” and she believes that they do not reflect her true personality. Ellis instead turns to Emily’s poetry and only novel, Wuthering Heights, which are so full of “eloquence, extraordinary power and passion,” in order to paint a picture of a woman who has emotions as wide as the moors and as magnificent as a storm but who is rather secretive and eccentric. The Emily in The Vanished Bride is immensely appealing and I have no doubt that she will be many readers’ favourite because of her idiosyncrasies and fierce determination and that they will rally to her many causes. Without giving any of the plot away, the real Emily apparently did buy some rather unconventional dress material patterned with thunder and lightning, which Ellis uses in her novel to characterise a woman who is “uninterested in convention, bold and brave.” There are echoes of all the sisters’ novels in The Vanished Bride but the influence of Wuthering Heights is evident in the exploration of extreme and dangerous passions, ghosts, gothic horror, madness and cruelty.
Anne, the youngest sister, is traditionally considered to be the least talented and rather meek and mild. Ellis suggests that although Anne was “less showy than her sisters,” she was “just as fierce in her own way,” and was, in fact, a “quiet revolutionary.” Ellis’s research shows that Anne was devoutly religious and had “a strong sense of injustice, of right and wrong,” regardless of the ideologies of the time. Tenant of Wildfell Hall was not well received when it was first published because Anne advocated that the abused wife should leave her family, an action certainly frowned upon by society at the time. Ellis includes an abusive husband into her novel and the sisters’ reactions are certainly not those that would have been endorsed by contemporary readers. Ellis also found that, like her sisters, Anne “believed passionately in reform, particularly for the rights of women,” and the attitudes shown regarding the woman’s place in the home and in society is a thick thread that is woven throughout the novel.
The themes of marriage for the sake of it; the fate of the unmarried woman; the woman who has to support herself; the need for independence and self-reliance; the demand to be taken seriously as writers – these are all evident in the real lives of the sisters and are similarly key themes in the novel. Ellis’s research convinces her that their education, self-reliance and self-belief gave them a “strong sense that a female life could have more value and meaning than traditionally ascribed to women.” This belief is ascribed to Emily when she summarises their lot in life but suggests that it is they, the three sisters, who can be the voice of everywoman. “This is a world where women from every walk of life are used and thrown away once men are done with them; a world where we are required to be ever silent and obedient. Perhaps it is our duty to speak for those who cannot; to voice the silent with our words and make them heard.” (82-83).
Ellis’s research also shows that the sisters were no averse to getting married and having children, but “not at any cost.” This view is reflected in the novel when after a meeting with a successful unmarried female artist, Anne realises that “her life might be a better one, a richer and more free one, without a husband in it.” (259)
The novel is set before any of the sisters have had a novel published but they have all been experimenting and take it very seriously. At one point, when Emily complains to their father that he has never asked any of his daughters to sit with him in his study and write, as he does his son, Branwell, he retorts, “You are young women! … Your writing is not work in the same way that it is for your brother. In Branwell we might yet find the path that will deliver his true talent to the world!” (204). It is indeed astonishing and an immense credit to them that any of the sisters managed to persevere and become published writers, if even their beloved, liberal father felt such antipathy towards his daughters’ efforts.
Another theme that runs through the novel is that of relationships: paternal, maternal, sibling and Sapphic. In some cases Emily’s literary influence is clear in the relationships that are possessive and destructive, all-forgiving (even of murder) and controlling, whereas Anne’s influence is apparent in those that are tolerant, understanding and all-encompassing.
Ellis puts solid flesh on the Brontё sisters’ bones, breathes air into their lungs, dreams into their imaginations, resolve into their hearts and words into their mouths. The story itself is a thumping good murder mystery and is well told, but having the Brontё sisters’ as very convincing heroines adds an extra special dimension and make it doubly enjoyable.
About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in The Jewel Garden. She is seeking representation for Song of the Nightingale, which tells the fate of two young castrati.