A distressing fiction of the Brontes as criminals

July 25, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

"The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte, the Secrets of a Mysterious Family: a Novel," by James Tully. Carroll & Graf. 288 pages. $24.

In Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time," an ailing Scotland Yard inspector lies in his sickbed and reconsiders the murders of the two princes in the tower. Drawing on the historical record and his own instincts, he comes up with a new scenario about the crime that most know through Shakespeare's "Richard III."

True crime writer James Tully has employed a similar model for his latest book. He has taken on the beloved literary myth of the Brontes -- the tragedy of Charlotte's life, as she watched three siblings die in a year's time, then died herself shortly after her late-in-life marriage -- and found a more sinister scenario to explain what happened on the moors.

It is a worthwhile mission: Literary myths should be challenged. But Tully has stacked the deck for his fictional sleuth, solicitor Charles Coutts. He has two documents -- discovered, naturally, in a secret drawer. One is the sworn statement of the maid who worked at Haworth Parsonage, Martha Brown; the other is a fragment of Anne Bronte's diary.

What are the undisputed facts? In 1845, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls arrives at Haworth Parsonage. Within two years, the three Bronte sisters will have published "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey." Within four years, brother Branwell Bronte has died, followed by Emily, then Anne. Charlotte marries Reverend Nicholls and dies in 1855.

Tully's supposition is that Nicholls poisoned Branwell and then killed Emily, who was pregnant with his child. Charlotte knew he was poisoning Emily but said nothing. She became a co-conspirator when he decided to kill Anne. Once married, Nicholls killed Charlotte.

It's a story fit for a Bronte and a highly readable tale. And I guess it's libel-proof, even under Great Britain's stringent laws. The question is whether it's moral. Tully has drawn on quite a bit of factual information and uses first-hand information as much as possible. His reasoning, however, is often circular or just bizarre. Given two conflicting statements made by the same person, for example, Tully always assumes one must be true. What if both are lies?

But Tully also made me realize I am invested in the Bronte myth. Dodie Smith, in "I Have Always Captured the Castle," noted there are two kinds of women in the world -- one is either a "Jane Eyre" partisan or a "Wuthering Heights" fan. As someone in the first camp, I could not reconcile myself to Tully's portrait of Charlotte as a mean-spirited, murderous harpy.

When Jane discovers the madwoman in Mr. Rochester's attic, she does not enter into a conspiracy to kill her. She runs away and is reunited with her true love only after his first wife's death in a fire. I suppose Tully would argue Charlotte subverted her true nature and found the deus ex machina she longed for in life. Such a literary "what-if" discussion would make for a lively bar chat, but I remain uneasy with it in novel form.

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Sun and the award-winning author of the Tess Monaghan mystery series. Her next book, "In Big Trouble," will be published in September by Avon.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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