It’s Christmas 1845 and Haworth is in the grip of a freezing winter.
Hodder and Stoughton|5 November 2020| 309 pages| e-book| Review copy|4*
The Diabolical Bones is the second novel by Bella Ellis about the Brontë sisters. It’s historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life. It begins with Charlotte in 1852 looking back to that December of 1845 when her brother and sisters had still been alive and they had faced the hidden horror that lay within Top Withins Hall. This is a dark story, as the four Brontës discover – it involves not only murder, but also the occult and child exploitation. It highlights what life was like in the mid nineteenth century, the living conditions and the inequalities between the well-to-do and the poor.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell became real people before my eyes, seeing them in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth. And together they make a formidable team as they set about discovering the truth about the bones of a child hidden in a chimney in the oldest part of Top Withins Hall, an ancient house high up on the moors above Howarth.
The Hall is the home of the Bradshaw family, known by Tabby, the Brontes’ housekeeper as a ‘bad lot’. She is steeped in the local superstitions and folklore and believes the land where the Bradshaws live is where the ‘hidden folk’ live. It fills her with horror as she tells the sisters about the children of Adam and Eve who live among the rocks and woodland, moors and rivers, unseen. In the past people would leave out offerings for them to keep away ill fortune. She warns them that now that there is a heavy price to be paid – and that the discovery of the bones is just the start of it.
There are links to other Brontë books in the names of some of the characters – for example, imagine finding Mrs Grace Poole, the guardian of the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre in charge of an orphanage. And I was delighted to find Emily in particular was inspired by Top Withins Hall and the events that took place there to write a novel, because its resemblance to Wuthering Heights struck me immediately. The more I read the more I could believe that the Brontë family were just as Bella Ellis has described them.
Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life – and it shows so well in this book. The setting is superb, the characters are ‘real’ and the book is well plotted. It was only towards the end that I suspected the identity of the main culprit and the danger that the four siblings had to face. I do hope there will be a third Brontë book.
My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an e-book review copy via NetGalley