Oh my goodness, this book made me just ridiculously happy. The Vanished Bride is the first of what I hope will be many in the Bronte Sisters Mysteries series. I found this book to be surprisingly true to what I know about the Bronte’s lives and personalities, and entertaining without diminishing the historical characters.
The story takes place in 1845. All of the Bronte siblings (who have survived so far) are living with their father in Yorkshire. Charlotte recently returned from Brussels nursing a broken heart. Anne and Branwell have lost their positions with a family in York because Branwell had an affair with their employer’s wife. Branwell is also nursing a broken heart, while Anne is furious with him. Emily is relatively content as long as she’s allowed to do exactly as she likes.
The sisters are shocked to learn that a local woman named Elizabeth Chester disappeared from her home, leaving behind a husband, two young children whom she apparently adored, and a pool of blood. Why would the murderer have stolen the body? It can’t have been to conceal the crime, for the blood was left behind. By the same token, it seems unlikely that anyone who bled so much would have survived a kidnapping. And she loved the children too much to abandon them, so she probably didn’t run away. And what of the strange noises and lights at the Grange? The sisters, with a very small amount of help from Branwell, decide to solve the mystery. As Anne says:
I must know the truth of what happened to Elizabeth Chester. I will never sleep another night through if I don’t know for sure what has become of that poor young woman. I cannot live in a world where one just as I can be made to vanish with barely a ripple. I simply will not allow it.
This is a compelling mystery with a hint of thriller and a hint of gothic superstition. The story is set when “detecting” was still a new profession, one which the sisters conveniently read about in the paper right before they hear about the murder. The women take to “detecting” right away and are especially good at interviewing other women – indeed, almost all of the characters in the book are women. In the process, the daily lives of women of different classes come into focus.
I thought this was a well-constructed mystery (more on that below). It’s told in third person with Charlotte as the point-of-view character. The biggest draw for me was seeing the sisters’ personalities unfold. Anne is a hidden badass. Emily’s first reaction is a certain goulish interest in the violence and excitement that becomes more empathetic as the story moves on. Charlotte is the Team Mom, frequently to the irritation of others, and she is just as by turns annoying and inspiring as reading about her has convinced me she would be. All of the sisters are outraged at the powerlessness that women experience at the hands of men.
My biggest problem with the book was how it treats the Romany characters. The victim’s husband tries to blame a “gypsy” camp. While the word “gypsy” is considered offensive today, it is the one the Brontes would have used. However, the Bronte family servant, Tabitha, is part Romany (in the book), and she uses the word “Romany.” The characters are sympathetic with regard to the Romany being scapegoated, but the narrative would have been better off avoiding the Romany misdirection altogether.
Heavens forfend that I should give away the ending but I will say that it is feminist and uplifting. The pacing is a little odd – one moment havoc is being wreaked and the next we are in The Chapter in Which All Is Explained and the book is over. However, despite the pacing issue, the ending is lovely in a way I did not initially expect but which makes perfect sense when you follow the clues, which is a sign of a well-constructed mystery.
I found this book to be interesting, suspenseful, and inspiring. I eagerly await a sequel. At the same time, knowing the eventual fate of the Bronte family casts a sad shadow over the book. At least we have this little island of time in 1845, with all the siblings bringing out the best and worst in each other.