Part of the preparation for my recent trip to Greece included sorting out my holiday reading list. For once I’d resolved to leave the Brontës firmly behind. A holiday meant a break from everyday life, including everything Brontë related as my readers will know by now that I eat, sleep, and breathe everything to do with this remarkable family. I spent months creating holiday reading lists (yes, I take it that seriously), and then changing my mind just when I thought I had settled on the final version. Should I take something classic or something modern? An old friend or a new read? Over the past few months I have toyed with taking everything from Dickens to Ian McEwan, and even Sweet Valley High (I’d blame nostalgia for both the books and childhood holidays during which I used to devour them, but I’ll just admit it; I still love the adventures of those Wakefield twins and was thrilled to recently discover a podcast devoted to all things Sweet Valley).
Two days before my departure I had settled on some new reads including one by one of the few American authors whose work I connect with on a similar level to British writers, Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House went onto my kindle (I was trying to travel light) along with Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan due to my interest in juvenilia and the work of young authors. I also had a couple of freebies from my Amazon Prime membership as back up. As for print texts, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban made it due to the fact I re-read the first two on holiday last year and I felt bad that I hadn’t re-read the rest of the boy wizard’s adventures. I also planned to take Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay as I’ve been enjoying the recent TV adaptation on the BBC. Unfortunately I was informed that it wouldn’t arrive on time and in time for my trip and despite endless attempts to cancel the order, Amazon wouldn’t let me for some reason even though it hadn’t been dispatched.
Well, that threw my plans out of the window, and with my trip looming ever closer and I spent the next few days desperately trying to decide what book could possibly replace it. The trouble was I was really geared up for Picnic at Hanging Rock. I needed something with a mystery at heart, but I didn’t know what. I briefly toyed with the Queen of Crime and Mystery, Agatha Christie, but I’ve already read everything I own by her. For some reason, and although I love Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, crime fiction is not really my cup of tea. However, when I stumbled upon something entitled The Case of the Missing Brontë by Robert Barnard, I was curious, and very tempted to buy it. I resisted the urge, reminding myself that I had promised myself a holiday from everyday life, including the Brontës. Instead I found myself drawn towards Madensky Square by one of my favourite authors, the criminally underrated Eva Ibbotson. It had been on my to-read list for a while and it promised stories of secrets and layers if not a flat out mystery. Unfortunately, this also missed its estimated delivery slot from another website. Note to self: give yourself enough time to go to an actual bookshop before your next holiday.
Annoyed, I was resolved to the fact I would have one book missing from my list. To be honest, even with Picnic or Madensky Square, my list still didn’t feel complete. It was missing the Brontës but I was trying my hardest to expand my reading even just for one trip. Two days before my departure for Greece, I arrived at Liverpool Hope University’s Sheppard-Worlock Library to complete a bit of voluntary work relating to the project I worked on during my internship there before I start my new job. And it just so happened that the Special Collections librarian told me about a really good audiobook she was currently listening to and thought I needed to try it. What was the book you ask? The Case of the Missing Brontë. I called it fate, and as I did so, I ordered it to complete my holiday reading list. It arrived the next day, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into it once I had played a round of sunbed wars and secured a decent spot by the hotel’s pool. Below are my spoiler free thoughts on Robert Barnard’s novel.
The Case of the Missing Brontë was originally published as The Missing Brontë in 1983. It is part of a series featuring the detective and protagonist, Perry Trethowan. There are five books in the series, although they feature different cases, and for some reason, Sheer Torture (1981) which is the first novel tends not to be included as part of the series in newer published editions. The Case of the Missing Brontë sees Perry and his wife, Jan, meeting an old woman named Edith Wing in a Yorkshire pub when their car breaks down on their return to their London home after a visit to Perry’s Northumberland family estate. Edith Wing claims she has a possible lost Brontë manuscript in her possession which was inherited from her cousin after her recent death. She believes it is a Brontë manuscript based on the tiny writing it contains and although there are many references to the famous tiny books and juvenilia, Wing believes it may be Emily’s lost second novel.
Following Perry’s recommendation that Wing consult an expert (but rather bizarrely not someone from the Brontë Parsonage Museum where Wing intends to donate the manuscript should it be genuine) the manuscript is stolen and she is attacked. This leads Perry into an international crime ring involving all kinds of eccentric characters including a couple of Norwegian heavies, an American dealer/collector of priceless British objects, a bizarre English librarian, a strange transatlantic preacher, and a rather stuffy Professor of English at a rundown Yorkshire university. It’s Perry’s intention to locate the manuscript which he has come to believe is genuine despite there being no evidence to indicate this other than the tiny writing and a possible provenance trail originating with Anne Brontë and the Robinson family for whom she worked as a governess at Thorp Green. Perry is further motivated after seeing the injuries suffered by Wing when the manuscript was stolen along with the injuries inflicted upon another character.
Initially, the novel is chock full of Brontë references (as you would expect), however, these filter out rather quickly as the supporting characters in the novel are introduced and the plot tries to build itself up into something for the reader to care about. The lack of Brontë references later on is really a shame as there are some really interesting and beautiful statements made by Perry regarding the family. There’s a particular passage when Perry muses that the manuscript could in fact be by Branwell but Jan cuts him down insisting that, “Branwell could never have written a novel…He wasn’t a stayer.” This falls in with the traditional view of Branwell as the good-for-nothing brother of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, a view that is thankfully beginning to be challenged, but Perry and Barnard were ahead of their time in 1983 with Perry insisting that, “You only say that because the biographers say it,” and pointing out the dangers of believing the Brontë mythology and failing to actually read Branwell’s literature. Perry also points out that “if Charlotte had died in 1845, exactly the same would have been said about her. She’d never stuck to anything,” and therefore would not be remembered for her literary achievements as Jane Eyre was only published in 1847 and just two copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were sold in 1846. Unfortunately, Barnard does get his facts wrong here though which takes a little of the shine from his excellent point. He states that Branwell worked for the Robinsons at Blake Hall. Although Branwell did work for the Robinsons, this was at Thorp Green. His sister Anne was the one who worked at Blake Hall where she was governess to the Ingham family. Anne also worked at Thorp Green alongside Branwell so this may be where the confusion stems from. And the view that Branwell and Charlotte didn’t stick to anything also would imply a lack of knowledge of their Glass Town and Angrian stories.
The overall result is a mixed bag. There are some good points and nice touches in there such as the initial references to the Brontës, Perry’s wry humour, his comments about people breaking up or postponing unemployment with a degree (which is sadly more relevant than ever in 2018), Barnard’s presentation of the university’s English department and the figure of Timothy Scott-Windlesham, a professor of English who amusingly dodges questions on his specialist subject of George Meredith. The initial mystery of the manuscript is also intriguing to Brontëites such as myself. Unfortunately, as the Brontë references were left behind, so was my interest in the novel. The plot plods on although both Perry and the reader know who is responsible for which parts of the attack and theft. The question of the authenticity of the manuscript is never really addressed although the final scene certainly has Perry believing it is genuine. There are no twists and turns, and no real excitement. Even the motives of those involved seem half-hearted. The one character I would like to have seen more of was the feisty Edith Wing however, she doesn’t get a lot of time despite her discovery kick starting the narrative. One plot line left technically resolved but which remains unsatisfying is the relationship between Wing and a teenager named Jason. I thought Barnard could have done a lot more with this, and with Jason in particular.
It was a pleasant enough way to pass the time in between dips in the pool and endless All Inclusive food, but unless you’re particularly into crime fiction, I’d say you’re not missing anything if you decided to give this one a miss. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it; I just got a little bored with the slow and predictable plot and the lack of Brontë material despite its title. I have high expectations of anything that cashes in on the Brontës, and for me, this didn’t quite work because it didn’t have enough of the Brontës to keep me interested as I had picked the text up expecting it to focus on the family’s history in some way in order to solve the mystery at the heart of the novel. It doesn’t and it’s a little disappointing because of that. I quickly moved onto the adventures of the boy wizard who never fails to entertain me, and the copy of Jane Eyre I’d snuck onto my kindle. I can never have a holiday from the Brontës, and quite frankly, I don’t want one. I did make time to put the books down and enjoy the beautiful Greek sunshine though.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights, or on my Brontë Babe Blog Facebook page. Look me up on Goodreads too. I also have a side project where I blog about my love of Classic Crime Fiction over at The Classic Crime Chonicle. I’d love it if you joined me there.
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All quotes are taken from The Case of the Missing Brontë (London: Pan Books, 2016).