Source: Review copy
Publication: 7th November 2019 from Hodder & Stoughton
A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.
Desperate to find out more, the sisters visit Chester Grange, where they notice several unsettling details about the crime scene: not least the absence of an investigation. Together, the young women realise that their resourcefulness, energy and boundless imaginations could help solve the mystery – and that if they don’t attempt to find out what happened to Elizabeth Chester, no one else will.
The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…
It is a brave writer who would take the Brontë sisters (and Bramwell) and base a detective, or as they would have it, detectorist, series around them. Fortunately for the reader, Bella Ellis has used her love for and knowledge of the Brontës to craft a mystery that while not as gothic as Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Jane Eyre, still has distinct echoes of the themes they contain and is peppered throughout with the author’s knowledge of the Brontë family.
In what is hopefully the first in a series, Ellis spends little time introducing us to her characters. What we learn of them we find out from the sisters conversations. This is the Brontës at the start of their writing journeys. Charlotte, heartbroken after a love affair abroad is the sisters natural leader; Emily is impulsive and carefree and Anne, quieter and more contemplative. All are concerned about their brother Bramwell, who believes himself to be in love with the wife of another and has taken to frequent drinking bouts to assuage his troubled soul.
The Brontë sisters had such short lives and yet penned so many treasures that have stood the test of time. The Vanished Bride begins with a prologue in which Charlotte, in 1851, is the sole surviving Brontë sister and is looking back on her life and her adventures with her sisters, contemplating their adventures and stories that she will never tell.
Ellis has cleverly woven small details of the Brontë’s lives and works into this novel so that many details ring bells in our minds as we are reading.
The mystery itself is satisfyingly Victorian – a mixture of the gothic and the penny dreadful with a good backbone of feminism. Elizabeth Chester, second wife to Robert Chester and mother to Archie as well as step mother to Francis, has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, except a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. She is the second wife to have gone in violent circumstances. Francis’ mother, Imogen leapt to her death from the ramparts of Chester Grange and her husband’s violent outbursts were widely rumoured to be the cause. Everyone fears the worst has happened to Elizabeth.
The sisters are acquainted with the Chester’s governess, Mattie and decide to take it upon themselves to investigate. They set about examining evidence, interviewing witnesses and trying to read in between the lines to deduce what could have happened.
Ellis lays a nice trail of clues, false leads and unreliable evidence to create a satisfying mystery that is resolved only in the final chapters.
What makes this a really enjoyable read is the way that Ellis has penned the sisters’ characters, giving each her own slant on the case and following the path that their writing suggests their character might have followed. Thus Anne is the careful one, taking her time to sift through the facts and laying everything out neatly before her. Emily is blunt, impulsive and prone to jump to conclusions where Charlotte is the natural leader; the one who can empathise with those she is talking to, win their confidence and thus gain more information.
Bramwell is, in the main, more hindrance than help and their father’s short-sightedness extends beyond his vision as he fails to see what his daughters are truly capable of.
I loved the way that Ellis extends what we already know about the Brontë sisters – that they would challenge the conventional image of how Victorian women should behave – and takes it to the next level. For these three sisters, who grew up motherless, have already begun to realise they are capable of far more than the Victorian notion of womanhood allows, and their adventures see them pushing hard at the glass ceiling they were born under.
Verdict: I really enjoyed Bella Ellis’s Brontë sisters’ first mystery outing. A delicious concoction of the lightly gothic blended with a mysterious tale and a host of glorious literary references to keep the brain working as these intrepid women brook no obstacle in getting to the truth. Ellis has captured the essence of the Brontës here and that’s to be applauded.
Bella Ellis is the Brontë-esque pseudonym of Rowan Coleman, an acclaimed author of numerous novels for adults and children. She first visited the former home of the Brontë sisters when she was ten years old. From the moment she stepped over the threshold she was hooked, and embarked on a lifelong love affair with Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; their life; their literature; and their remarkable legacy.