Historical fiction round-up: Spin-offs open a worthy new chapter for the Brontës

Jane Jakeman
Thursday 27 November 2014 19:10
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Spin-offs are my least favourite form of literature – they usually mean that the authors can't produce original work so they just live off other writers' backs – but two offerings from the depths of Brontë gloom certainly warrant retrieval from the junk pile.

Jane Stubbs' Thornfield Hall (Corvus, £7.99) wisely makes no attempt to compete with that finest example of derivation, Jean Rhys's account of the first Mrs Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea, worthy of iconic status in its own right. Stubbs also takes Jane Eyre as her starting point but the story is told by Mrs Fairfax, second most famous housekeeper in literature (first place surely goes to Mrs Danvers in Rebecca).

Genteel but penniless, Alice Fairfax understands that social class is as vital as virginity in the marriage stakes and is grateful for the protection of her rich relative, Mr Rochester. In the attics, Alice discovers that Thornfield Hall is full of guilty secrets, with a sadly misused Bertha Rochester in urgent need of care, and plays an important role in the machinery of the plot. There is a lengthy prelude to Jane Eyre's arrival, and her presence is fleeting but dramatic, like Helen of Troy shooting across the stage in Marlowe's Faustus: nevertheless, the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Another worthy off-shoot of the Brontë industry is Robert Edric's Sanctuary (Doubleday, £17.99). Edric takes the viewpoint of that celebrated reprobate brother Branwell, and presents his short, frustrated existence in a sequence of intensely-felt glimpses of life at Haworth and the surrounding moors, where the railways are transforming traditional ways. Here is Branwell's "season of cold debauchery", where he joins an artist spying on local women bathing naked. Here also his self-definition as "one of the great bystanders of literary history", conscious of his sisters' growing successes as he himself slips into drunken failure, describing Charlotte as his "true gaoler". The book succeeds in poetically entering into the destructive world of a young man with modest talent who finds himself born into a household of genius.

Edric notes that the Reverend Brontë refused the offer of a post as chaplain to the Governor of Martinique, surely a great "what if?" of literary history which might prove tempting to yet another spin-off merchant.

Staying in the nineteenth-century, Barbara Ewing's The Petticoat Men (Head of Zeus, £18.99) is a fictionalised account of a notorious episode in the London underworld, where two gentlemen lodgers who enchant their landlady with their "dressing-up" in glamorous gowns and high heels are arrested for homosexual behaviour. The investigation involves the mysterious death of a duke's brother, stretching up into the highest reaches of society. Related by the shocked and sympathetic landlady's daughter, this is a well-told account of a scandal and the horrible treatment meted out to those sentenced, like Oscar Wilde, to punishment for their sexuality.

It's something of a relief to turn from the murk of Victorian England to the cheerful seaside atmosphere of Brighton in the 1950s. The Zig Zag Girls (Quercus, £16.99) is a new departure for Elly Griffiths, whose previous novels have featured a forensic archaeologist.

Amid the razzmatazz of the seaside town famous for looking as if it was "answering the police with their enquiries", as Keith Waterhouse said, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens investigates the murder of a girl whose body has been cut into three parts, as in the conjuring trick of "the zig zag girl" which Stephens remembers from his childhood.

He tracks down the inventor of the trick, "Max Mepisto", amid a colourful crowd of ventriloquists and sword-swallowers, a world lovingly re-created in this original, lively and gripping work.

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