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

A: I have always adored the novel Jane Eyre. I felt compelled to know and understand the woman who wrote it. I wondered: who was Charlotte Brontë? How did she come to write this remarkable book, which is still so popular all over the world more than 160 years after she wrote it?

As I started researching 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. 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 Arthur Bell Nicholls, lived right 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 greatly 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!

Q: How much do we actually know about Charlotte Brontë's life?

A: We are privileged to know a great deal, thanks in large part to the wealth of correspondence preserved by her publisher's literary adviser, William Smith Williams, and to the unguarded letters—nearly five hundred in all—which Charlotte wrote to her dear friend Ellen Nussey over a twenty-four year period. Charlotte's letters are a wealth of information regarding her intimate thoughts, beliefs, daily struggles and personal relationships.

Many of the settings and incidents in her novels, by her own admission, were inspired by situations in her own life. She gave us valuable insight into her feelings about her sisters, and the evolution of their writing, in her introduction to the second edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey.

We are also indebted to Ellen Nussey for the variety of insightful biographical notes and reminiscences she wrote about the Brontës, and to Mrs. Gaskell, for the in-depth biography she wrote shortly after Charlotte's death. Mrs. Gaskell visited every school Charlotte had attended, and interviewed or corresponded with all the important people who had touched her life; she even sailed to Belgium to meet Monsieur Heger.

Although Mrs. Gaskell white-washed Charlotte's "affair" with Monsieur Heger to preserve her reputation, her well-researched work provided the basis for every subsequent Bronte biography ever written.

Q: Which parts of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë are true?

A: The novel is based almost entirely on fact. All the details of Charlotte's family life, her experiences at school, her friendship with Ellen, her feelings for Monsieur Heger, the evolution of her writing career, and her relationship with her publisher, George Smith, are all true and based on information from her letters and biographies.

All the critical notices the sisters read about their poetry and novels are real. The details about Mr. Nicholls's childhood and Charlotte's experiences with the Bell family in Ireland are factual. Most of the characters in the book—even the girls at Roe Head School—are based on real people.

The details of Mr. Nicholls's passionate and agonized proposal of marriage, as well as its stormy aftermath and Patrick Bronte's vehement opposition, are all based on fact, and were meticulously recorded in Charlotte's correspondence. Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls's strolls from Haworth to Oxenhope during those bitingly cold days in January 1854 are so well known, that the path came to be called "Charlotte's Lane."

Q: Which parts of the novel did you "conjecture"?

A: I invented some of the characters in Haworth village to add local color or dramatic conflict. I was obliged to conjecture some of the events during the earlier years of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls's acquaintance, to flesh out their love story—but based on what we do know, I feel that this telling is very close to the truth. And the "conjecturing" was a great part of the fun of writing the novel!

Q: How did you do your research? Did you visit the Brontë's home in England?

A: Yes. 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, 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 that mysterious attic dweller, the Ghost of Roe Head, still lives!

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

A: 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.

Q: What's one scene from this book that you loved writing, and why did it excite you?

A: It was such a thrill to recreate the historic moment when Charlotte was inspired to start writing her novel Jane Eyre, that I got chills down my spine when I was writing it. Another favorite scene is when Mr. Nicholls--after carrying a silent torch for Charlotte for seven and a half years--finally gathers the courage to ask her to marry him.

Charlotte was so stunned by the deeply impassioned, emotional proposal she received from this man who had, up until then, been so proper and reserved, that she hardly knew how to respond. She wrote a detailed letter about it to her friend Ellen immediately afterwards. Taking the gist of that moment from Charlotte's correspondence, putting the words into Mr. Nicholls's mouth, and bringing it to life--that was incredibly exciting.

Q: Why do you think the appeal of Jane Eyre is so timeless?

A: The immense popularity of Jane Eyre stems from a variety of reasons. It contains many popular elements of the Gothic novel, such as mystery, horror, and the classic medieval castle setting. Jane Eyre's story is also very appealing: the rise of a poor orphan girl against seemingly insurmountable odds, whose love and determination ultimately redeem a tormented hero.

Jane Eyre also has serious things to say about issues that are still very relevant today: women's struggle for equality, the realization of self, the relations between men and women, and the nature of true love. The novel appeals not only to the audience's heart, but also to their heads.

Q: Which books by and about the Brontës do you recommend?

A: You'll find a list of my favorite books on my Recommended Reading page.

Q: You have also written books about Jane Austen. Did you find any similarities between the two women?

A: Both Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were daughters of clergymen, had very close relationships with a sister, and felt frustrated in their search for true love. Both were extremely well-read, and were educated for a majority of their lives at home by their fathers.

The timeless issues which Charlotte wrote about in Jane Eyre (see previous question) were all dear to Jane Austen's heart, and central themes in Austen's novels. Both women enjoyed gothic novels, and wrote torrid and passionate stories in their youth.

Both published their books anonymously or under a pseudonym during their lifetime. And of course both were incredibly imaginative and brilliant writers!