This month sees the bicentenary of the birth of one of the world’s greatest novelists, Charlotte Brontë, April 21st 1816-March 31st 1855. Her remains lie in the family vault in the church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Haworth.
The Brontës have been much on my mind in recent months. Not just because of the bicentenary but because I was born in Halifax, in Yorkshire’s West Riding, where the Brontë legend is part of the air breathed in by every newborn. Also, Haworth is the setting for my new novella ‘The Passage of Desire’.
I grew up in a small industrial town not far from the moors. There were still some dark satanic mills about in which my forefathers (and mothers) had toiled, but there was the open countryside nearby, the heather and the skylarks. An ideal place to mooch with your best friend and share the delicious angst of being a fourteen-year-old misunderstood aesthete in a world of philistines.
Obscurely we felt there must be something, some mystical bond, linking us to those three great sisters who revolutionised English literature. Maybe a long-lost relative who—if we could only find the birth certificates in a musty old box in Grandma’s back bedroom—would turn out to be an actual member of the Brontë family, hitherto undiscovered, plunging us instantly into literary fame-by-association?
My family had lots of stories to tell about our ancestors. The legends were usually dusted off for Christmas and brought out with the turkey and the sherry. They caused the usual eye-rolling among the younger generation, hunched in their chairs, waiting for the dreaded moment they’d be called upon to start off the charades or strum ‘Little Donkey’ on the guitar. Most stories involved scandal, at least one bend sinister, and acquired extra bells and whistles over the years. They were long, involved and accompanied by raised voices and dramatic action which sometimes resulted in chairs getting knocked over. A song might be thrown in, a capella, or with piano accompaniment.
But in the 1840s (here, breath would be held) there was one brush with literary fame. Great Great Aunt Mary (or Martha or Phoebe) got a job as a housekeeper in Haworth. Yes, Haworth! Did she ever bump into those famous sisters as she hurried down the cobbled streets, shawl tight against the wind? Maybe even dropped by the Parsonage to give Emily a hint on plot development? Again, history was disappointingly vague on this subject. However, it seems her path did cross that of their brother, as, somehow or another, our family acquired a silver-mounted walking stick belonging to Branwell Brontë himself. (One version of the story had Branwell leaving it behind after too many drinks at The Black Bull Inn. But that was later expurgated.)
The missing link remained missing, alas. But the Brontë influence remained. And so, in this third book in the French Summer Novels series, I wanted to try something different. My thoughts kept returning to the brooding moors and wild storms of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that mythic story of doomed love and violent passion that has seized the imagination of readers since it was published in 1847. When Cathy says: ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’ she is uttering, according to Simone De Beauvoir, ‘the cry of every woman in love.’
The problem was, how to relate a Yorkshire family to the characters of the two preceding romantic novels?
The answer came in the form of Alexandra, the mother of Caroline and Annabel, killed in a car crash when her daughters were little. What was her story? In ‘The Passage of Desire’, we take a step into the past and meet Alexandra in her mid-thirties, on her way north to spend a holiday with her best friend Juliet. What happens during that summer will have dramatic repercussions on the lives of both the women and their families.
Now that it’s almost time to say goodbye to the characters, the anxieties have come rushing in. The usual suspects—is the book a load of rubbish? Will anybody like it? Is it too much of a departure from the first two? ‘Maybe I should just scrap it’—along with other minor wobbles. Context for example. Have I got the details right? We’re back in the early nineties, people didn’t have mobile phones or Skype, the Internet was in its infancy. What did people wear in those days? What did they drive? This is always a tricky one for me. ‘What sort of car do your neighbours have?’ Answer: ‘A grey one’. In ‘Hot Basque’ I had my hero behind the wheel of a Renault Picasso. It was only thanks to eagle-eyed best friend and beta reader Elizabeth that I changed ‘Renault’ to ‘Citroen’, thus escaping scorn and ridicule from autophile Amazon reviewers. Then there was the time I decided to change a character’s name after the entire manuscript was finished and ready to upload. No panic, easy peasy, click the command on Word and tell it what to do. Find ‘Mark’ and replace with ‘Liam’. Go! It went. Fortunately I did yet another read-through before clicking the Publish button:
‘What beautiful weather,’ Margaret reliamed.’
‘They decided to take a trip to the liamet town of Liamet Harborough.’
Oh no! Oh yes. Hundreds of them.
Why did I decide to change Mark to Liam? Names have always been a problem for me. Faced with a myriad of possibilities, my imagination freezes. The heroine. Her name is pretty damn important. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Catherine, Jane, Emma, Elizabeth, Scarlett. Been there done that cross them all off. Peaches, Brooklyn, Hilton, one day they’ll be stuck in a time warp, like padded shoulders and big hair. Sigh. How about…Eleanor? That sounds promising. I like Eleanor. Wait, there was that woman at work, years ago, the one who used to chew with her mouth open, you can’t give your heroine the same name as someone whose back molars you were once intimately acquainted with. Gwendoline? Hang on, didn’t you just see a Gwendoline in a book you read a few weeks ago on the Kindle? Or was that Gwenllian ? Anyway too risky, plagiarism, quelle horreur. Films! Not the big Hollywood stars at the beginning, fast-forward to that endless list of names that rolls up when the DVD is finished and you’re just putting your slippers back on and brushing the biscuit crumbs off the sofa. The Clapper Loader, the Gaffer, the Best Boy, all those five zillion special effects people…That’s handy, the Maître de Maison has left a disc inside the machine…just a minute, why are all these names Hungarian? What’s he been watching now? Oh. ‘The Martian’.
Inspiration strikes. The bookcase! Elementary cher Watson, millions of names on those shelves…no, not ‘Beowulf’, move along, how about ‘Moll Flanders’, hello, this must be my student copy, did I really write those cringe-worthy notes in the margin? ‘Moral sense, ‘uncertainty,’ ‘resigned acceptance of hard truth’? That can go back for a start.
Dickens! There’s my man! A thousand and one unforgettable characters! Names galore! Mr Snawley, Master Wackford, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Verisopht, Miss LaCreevy, Miss Knagg, Miss Snevellici (was he on something, our Charles?) Smike…oh poor tragic Smike! It’s the bit where he’s just leaving Miss LaCreevy’s house and heading off to Bow….oh no, he’s been caught again by the loathsome sadist Mr Squeers who’s going to haul him back to Dotheboys Hall! He’s boxing his ears and slapping his face!
‘Poor Smike ‘warded off the blows as well as he could’…‘stunned and stupefied’ with ‘no friend to speak to or advise with.’
Don’t you just love Dickens? In fact maybe I’ll take a wee break and read what happens next. In fact maybe I’ll just leave the name-search till later. Tomorrow is another day.
And that’s another story.
For the importance of stories in our personal and professional lives check out ‘Story for Leaders,’ written by writer, actor, singer and business innovator extraordinaire , David Pearl. All proceeds go to the non-profit making social business ‘Street Wisdom’:
PS I have a beautiful new cover for ‘Hot Basque’ (on the left). Thank you GX and Caroline at: