Hodder and Stoughton| 18 November 2021| 326 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*
The Brontë sisters’ first poetry collection has just been published, potentially marking an end to their careers as amateur detectors, when Anne receives a letter from her former pupil Lydia Robinson.
Lydia has eloped with a young actor, Harry Roxby, and following her disinheritance, the couple been living in poverty in London. Harry has become embroiled with a criminal gang and is in terrible danger after allegedly losing something very valuable that he was meant to deliver to their leader. The desperate and heavily pregnant Lydia has a week to return what her husband supposedly stole, or he will be killed. She knows there are few people who she can turn to in this time of need, but the sisters agree to help Lydia, beginning a race against time to save Harry’s life.
In doing so, our intrepid sisters come face to face with a terrifying adversary whom even the toughest of the slum-dwellers are afraid of . . . The Red Monarch.
The Red Monarch is the third Brontë Mystery book in which the main characters are the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother Branwell. I’ve read the first two and enjoyed them. But when I came across the first book I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books that use real people as fictional characters. So, I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed the books even though, of course, the stories about the Brontës being ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths, are pure imagination. The setting in the Yorkshire Moors is superb, the characters came across as ‘real’ and the books are well plotted.
And so, I was looking forward to reading The Red Monarch and it began well in Haworth in August 1852 as Charlotte is trying to write Villette. She is in despair after the deaths of her siblings – Emily and Branwell in 1848, and Anne in 1849. Instead of writing she reads a little notebook containing Emily’s poems and one particular poem brought back to her the dreadful events that had taken place and the terrors and cruelties they had seen, on their excursion to London. It had all taken place just after the Brontë sisters’ first poetry collection had been published – in 1846.
It was at this point, right at the beginning of the story about their time in London, that I thought I was reading a completely different type of mystery from the earlier books – not only is in not set in Yorkshire this book is a gothic melodrama. In a terrifying attack on Lydia and her husband Harry, a gang of thieves and murderers, led by Noose, had burst into Harry and Lydia’s bedroom. They had seized Harry and threatened to kill him unless Lydia brought them the jewel that Harry had been ordered to collect. Lydia, who was pregnant, had seven days to save their lives. But it is the Red Monarch, who was in control of the gang, and who held them all under his control – a most villainous and fearsome gangster. In desperation Lydia wrote to Anne for help.
The story is melodramatic, sensational and fast-paced. It is told through each of the sisters’ eyes, each one clearly distinctive, whilst Emily (once more) is the standout character. They are all independent women, strong-willed and determined and as Victorian women, vastly underestimated by the men. But, I had a hard time accepting the Brontë sisters in this story. Whereas in the two previous books I could believe that the Brontë family were just as Bella Ellis has described them, in this book I couldn’t.
The descriptions of mid 19th century London are vivid, clearly depicting the filthy living conditions of the poor, the sights and foul smells. The details of the Brontës’ search for Harry and the missing jewel test their strength, courage and skill in detection.
There are a few other real people who play a minor role, notably Charles Dickens, who is dismissive when Charlotte, somewhat in awe of him, asks for his advice as a writer, telling her to abandon any ideas of being a novelist and to marry, or teach. His companion, Mrs Catherine Crowe, another real author who wrote supernatural tales, was much more approachable and friendly, contacting her spirit friends to help with Charlotte’s search as well as giving her useful advice as a writer. Another character, with a larger role, is Louis Parensell, who develops a passion for Emily. He was not a real person, but Virginia Moore, a Brontë biographer, misread the handwritten title of Emily’s poem ‘Love’s Farewell’ as ‘Louis Parensell’, and developed the theory that Louis was Emily’s secret lover.
As the novel reached its dramatic climax, Emily in particular is in danger of losing her life as she dared to challenge the Red Monarch. I was most interested in the identity of The Red Monarch – was he in fact a real person, or totally fictitious? There various references to him throughout the novel, what was the origin of his name, and what was the meaning of his insignia? It seemed to be two capital Rs back to back topped with a crown and contained within a five-pointed star of pentagram. Anne had first discovered them and she felt sure they carried a secret meaning to those in know. When the identity of the Red Monarch is finally revealed I was surprised – but it is appropriate in that the real person has been described as a maniacal, controlling man.
I enjoyed this book, but I think the two previous books are much better and seem more authentic, aided by being set in the Brontës’ Yorkshire. They were out of place in London. It all seems to me to be over dramatic and unbelievable. The fictional element far outweighs the historical.
‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë-inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life. As well as writing the Brontë Mysteries she is the .author of sixteen novels including the Richard and Judy pick The Memory Book and the Zoe Ball bookclub choice, The Summer of Impossible Things.
My thanks to Hodder Stoughton for a review copy via NetGalley