Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing Charlotte Bronte's Love Story an interview with author Syrie James

Syrie James, hailed by Los Angeles Magazine as "The queen of 19-century re-imaginings," is the bestselling author of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (Great Group Read, Women's National Book Association; Audie Romance Award, 2011); The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Best First Novel 2008, Library Journal); and the critically acclaimed Nocturne and Dracula, My Love. Translation rights for Syrie's books have been sold in sixteen languages. An admitted Anglophile, Syrie loves all things 19th century. She lives in Los Angeles and is a member of the Writer's Guild of America.

What inspired you to write The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë?

I have always adored Jane Eyre. I felt compelled to know and understand the woman who wrote that remarkable book, which is still so beloved all over the world more than 160 years after it was first published.

As I researched Charlotte's life, I was astonished to discover how many parts of the novel were inspired by her own experiences. I was also captivated by the engrossing saga of Charlotte's family.

Charlotte lived in Victorian England in a tiny village in the wilds of Yorkshire. Her brother became an alcoholic and a drug addict. Her father, a clergyman, was going blind. Her sisters Emily and Anne were also very talented writers. All three sisters, despite the difficulties of their circumstances, became published authors at the same time. Emily's novel Wuthering Heights is considered one of the greatest masterpieces ever written in the English language, and Jane Eyre is required reading in many high schools, and has been filmed 27 times. I can't think of any other family in history who've achieved a similar literary feat, and I wanted to explore that and show how it happened.

Add to that the true story of Charlotte's romance! Her father's curate, the tall, dark, and handsome Irishman Arthur Bell Nicholls, lived next door to the Brontës for more than seven years, and carried a silent torch for Charlotte all that time, before he had the nerve to propose. Charlotte disliked him for many years, but her feelings eventually changed, and she grew to love him. I knew that would make a fabulous story—and it had never been told!

How did you do your research?

First, I poured over countless Brontë biographies. I read all their poetry, their published novels, the juvenilia, and Charlotte's voluminous personal correspondence. I studied the art of the Brontës. (Quite remarkable!) I read everything I could find about the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls. Then I went to Haworth, England. The stone buildings in the village's narrow main street still look very much as they did in Charlotte's day.

I made an extended visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has been preserved to reflect the way it looked when the Brontës lived there, and is furnished with many of their possessions.
What a thrill it was to "haunt" the rooms and lanes where Charlotte and Emily and Anne actually lived and walked, and to stroll through that gloomy graveyard in the pouring rain! Even more thrilling was my visit to the Brontë library, where I was allowed to don protective gloves and read a selection of original letters and manuscripts penned by Charlotte and other members of the Brontë family.

While in Yorkshire, I was also granted a private tour of the former Roe Head School (where Charlotte was a student and later a teacher), which still actively functions as a private school. The main building, inside and out, has not changed much since Charlotte Brontë's time—and the legend of a mysterious attic dweller, the Ghost of Roe Head, still lives!

You mentioned seeing the Brontë's art work during your research. Can you describe it?

Their works are incredibly detailed portraits of women and animals, landscapes, and depictions of nature. Some are pencil sketches; others are beautiful watercolors. Although they did draw from life, many of Charlotte's works of art were copies of other pictures and engravings, which she painstakingly executed dot by dot.

All three sisters were talented artists, Emily perhaps the most accomplished of them all. Branwell was trained to paint in oils and hoped to make a living as a portrait artist, but he did not have the necessary talent or drive to make a success of it. To see all of their art in one terrific volume, check out "The Art of the Brontës" by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars.

Which books by and about the Brontës do you recommend?

You'll find a list of my favorite books on the Recommended Reading page on my website.

Tell us about the awards your Brontë novel has won.

I’m thrilled that the Women’s National Book Association named The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë a Great Group Read in 2009. They select only a few titles each year, on the basis of their appeal to book clubs and reading groups, choosing books they feel “are bound to open up lively conversations about a host of timely and provocative topics, from the intimate dynamics of family and personal relationships to major cultural and world issues.”

I’m also proud and humbled to announce that the audio book won the prestigious 2011 Audie award in the romance category—another huge honor, since it’s the equivalent of the Emmys and the Oscars, in the audio book world. Recorded Books and narrator Bianca Amato did a wonderful job dramatizing the novel, incorporating dozens of characters and a multitude of accents.

Read selected poetry of the Brontes.

Thank you for having me on your blog today! To learn more about me and all of my books, please visit me at at I hope you’ll follow me on facebook and twitter, and feel free to email me or leave a message in my guest book. In closing, I’m excited to announce that my new book, Forbidden, which I co-wrote with my son Ryan, is due out Jan. 24. It’s not Victorian—but I hope you’ll love it anyway.


  1. Fun post today, Laura! I have read and enjoyed all of the books written by Syrie James and I highly recommend them. (My favorite is The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.)

  2. How interesting to get so close to the Bronte sisters. I didn't know about their art. This sounds like a must read.

  3. I love Syrie James' writing and was fascinated to learn about her background research into the Brontes. I knew they had artistic tendencies, but I guess it never occurred to me how good they were at it.

    Thanks for the interview and post!