An interview with the lady who knows the “ real Jane Eyre”

If you fell in love with the novel Jane Eyre as so many us of did, you won’t want to miss a word of this interview with Syrie James, the author of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. I adored Jane Eyre when I first read it as young girl and I could not put down Syrie James’ compelling portrait of its author. I reveled in the details of Charlotte’s life and those of her creative sisters Emily and Anne. This intelligent and sensitive book is a must-read for all fans of Brontë sisters.

 
DD: What inspired you to write this book?
SJ: I have always adored the novel Jane Eyre. I felt compelled to know and understand the woman who wrote it. As I delved into my research, I was captivated not only by the engrossing saga of Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with her family and her emergence as a novelist, but by what I saw as the missing link: the untold story of her relationship with Arthur Bell Nicholls. To think that this tall, dark, and handsome man carried a silent torch for Charlotte for seven and a half years, and that her feelings for him went from intense dislike to deep and abiding love, I knew that would make a fabulous story!
 
DD: How did you research the book?
SJ: I pored over countless Brontë biographies. I read all their poetry, their published novels, the juvenilia, and Charlotte‘s voluminous personal correspondence. I studied the art of the Brontës (quite remarkable!). I read everything I could find about the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls. Then I went to Haworth, England. The stone buildings in the village’s narrow main street still look very much as they did in Charlotte‘s day. I made an extended visit to the BrontëParsonageMuseum, which has been preserved to reflect the way it looked when the Brontës lived there, and is furnished with many of their possessions.
 
What a thrill it was to "haunt" the rooms and lanes where Charlotte and Emily and Anne actually lived and walked, and to stroll through that gloomy graveyard in the pouring rain! At the Brontë library, I was allowed to read a selection of original letters and manuscripts penned by Charlotte and other members of the Brontë family. While in Yorkshire, I was also granted a private tour of the former RoeHeadSchool, which still actively functions as a private school — and where the legend of that mysterious attic dweller, the Ghost of Roe Head, still abides!
 
DD: Is the book mostly true or did you have to imagine most of it?
SJ: The novel is based almost entirely on fact. All the details of Charlotte’s family life, her experiences at school, her friendship with Ellen, her feelings for Monsieur Heger, the evolution of her writing career, and her relationship with her publisher, George Smith, are all true and based on information from her letters and biographies. All the critical notices the sisters read about their poetry and novels are real. The details about Mr. Nicholls’s childhood and Charlotte‘s experiences with the Bell family in Ireland are factual.
 
Most of the characters in the book — even the girls at RoeHeadSchool — are based on real people. The details of Mr. Nicholls’s passionate and agonized proposal of marriage, as well as its stormy aftermath and Patrick Bronte’s vehement opposition, are all based on fact, and were meticulously recorded in Charlotte’s correspondence. Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls’s strolls from Haworth to Oxenhope during those bitingly cold days in January, 1854 are so well known, that the path came to be called "Charlotte‘s Lane."
 
I invented some of the characters in Haworth village to add local color or dramatic conflict. I was obliged to conjecture some of the events during the earlier years of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls’s acquaintance, to flesh out their love story — but based on what we do know, I feel that this telling is very close to the truth. And the "conjecturing" was a great part of the fun of writing the novel!
 
DD: How do you feel the Brontes influenced each other?
SJ: The four Brontë siblings were isolated from other children in the neighborhood, and became a unit of creativity unto themselves. They invented stories, newspapers, and entire worlds together. This childhood rivalry and wealth of imagination continued into adulthood. Once the three sisters admitted to the writing they were still doing in secret, they began working together to review and comment on each other’s novels — an association that was beneficial to all, as they challenged each other to be the best writers they could be. Branwell’s descent into alcoholism also had a profound influence on their lives, and on the characters in Emily and Anne’s novels.
 
Syrie JamesDD: Do you think Charlotte was happy and fulfilled as a woman and as a writer? Did she manage to have it all?
SJ:Charlotte was both stunned and thrilled by the success of Jane Eyre. After that, frustration followed. She felt she did not have enough experience in the world to write on a great variety of subjects, and although she labored long and devotedly on her next books, they were not as enthusiastically received. Critical reaction was confusing as well. While some adored “Jane Eyre,” others deemed it coarse and melodramatic. When she tried to tone down those elements in her next books, some people were disappointed. What they really wanted was another book as thrilling as “Jane Eyre”! As for her fulfillment as a woman — you will have to read the book to find out!
 
DD: You wrote a similar book about Jane Austen. Did you find any similarities between the two women?
SJ:Both were daughters of clergymen, had very close relationships with a sister, and felt frustrated in their search for true love. Both were extremely well-read, and were educated for a majority of their lives at home by their fathers. And of course both were incredibly imaginative and brilliant writers!
 
DD: Why do you think the appeal of Jane Eyre is so timeless?
SJ: The immense popularity of Jane Eyre stems from a variety of reasons. It contains many popular elements of the Gothic novel, such as mystery, horror, and the classic medieval castle setting. Jane Eyre’s story is also very appealing: the rise of a poor orphan girl against seemingly insurmountable odds, whose love and determination ultimately redeem a tormented hero. The novel also has serious things to say about issues that are still very relevant today: women’s struggle for equality, the realization of self, relations between men and women, and the nature of true love. The novel appeals not only to the audience’s heart, but also to their heads.
 
DD: You mentioned seeing the Bronte’s art work during your research; can you describe it?
SJ:Their works are incredibly detailed portraits of women and animals, landscapes, and depictions of nature. Some are pencil sketches; others are beautiful watercolors. Although they did draw from life, many of Charlotte’s works of art were copies of other pictures and engravings, which she painstakingly executed dot by dot. To see all of their art in one terrific volume, check out “The Art of the Brontes” by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars.
 
DD: There seems to have been a great deal of creativity and pent-up passion in the women from these isolated families in England and New England.  Jane Austen, the Brontes, the Alcotts come to mind, and I am sure there are more. What do you think sparked it?
SJ: I think all women felt a similar pent-up passion and frustration during that time, which was so restrictive for women. These ladies were just educated and talented enough – and filled with enough creative drive and imaginative to write about it!
 
 

 

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