What’s the fate of a man who stumbles, unsure of himself, into one of history’s most influential literary families? Of a man who must work as a dependent for the father and yet falls in love with two of the sisters? What happens to a man whose oath is to God and duty, and therefore allows himself to be self-effacing, but who nevertheless has a heart that insists over many years of growth that he must claim his selfhood? The answer to all three questions is that he must find his soul. That is the story of Arthur Bell Nicholls as represented by Stephen Whitehead. And of course, as Arthur seeks his soul, the great Charlotte Bronte responds.
All the reader reviews I have seen of this book have been breathy and tearful. People have been up all night. I let the bath water run cold. This rendition of the story of Arthur Bell Nicholls and the Brontes is captivating. It tells first of his puppy love for Anne Bronte and his heartbreak at her death, and then his growing, more mature love for Charlotte, who had initially paid him little interest. One of the highlights of the novel is the sparkling exchange of letters Charlotte and Arthur share as they grow in confidence in each other. Another is the insight we are given into the novels of the three Bronte sisters and the debates that took place in the Parsonage about the morality represented in each of the novels. It’s a gift to meet Anne Bronte in Whitehead’s book, and to witness her debate with Arthur about the merits of her sister’s work Wuthering Heights. It’s a gift to be with a novelist who has given Anne such careful and caring attention. It brought pleasure to this reader – intellectual, emotional, spiritual pleasure – to follow some of Whitehead’s concerns in his particular version of the Bronte narrative, and to give thought to the conflicting viewpoints of the three sisters on major questions such as divinity, marriage, and the fate of the soul. It is rare a modern novel offers so much room for this sort of reflection.
I think it is a given that any Bronte fan must read this book. Why should a fan not so much of the Brontes but of romance or historical stories read it too? Well, for me it was such a breath-giving joy to spend hours with a love story of a realistic pace, where the ultimate prize of true love and understanding comes from years of companionship and self-reflection and not just two dates. I enjoyed a love story told from the male voice, and here is a romance hero who is the perfect foil for the romance heroes of modern novels, and for the novels of the Bronte sisters themselves. Nichols is not Heathcliff or Rochester. He is not a Byronesque and brooding man. He is not a man of dark sexiness or arrogance or strong masculine authority. He isn’t a Christian Grey, or any other hero of great power, great money and instant gratification. We are given here a man with a strong intelligence and a deep heart; a man who thinks deeply about God and fate and literature, who suffers loneliness and rejection – who is real. His heroism, which is also why he deserves the central place in a novel on the Brontes and in a novel on love – comes from the fact he is in touch with himself and remains so, and as a man of the church he is in touch with Himself and remains so. This is a hero concerned with rightness rather than power, and one who understands his place as a humble curate, as a friend, and ultimately as the chosen husband of one of the most powerful women in literary and Yorkshire history.
Whitehead is a great writer. I hope we’ll see more novels from him.