Elizabeth Chester has vanished in mysterious circumstances. Without disturbing anyone in the night she appears to have been the victim of a gruesome crime. Matilda French, the Chesters’ governess, is an old friend of the Brontë sisters and has the misfortune of being the one to discover Elizabeth’s room covered in blood but with no sign of a body or forced entry. Mr. Chester is not keen on an investigation, and with the over-zealous housekeeper Mrs. Crawley thoroughly scrubbing the room clean shortly after discovery, there’s not an awful lot of leads. The Brontë sisters, looking for some adventure and anxious that the disappearance of a woman should not go unnoticed, step up to do some detecting.
The story unfolds with a few red herrings and some incredibly dark character development, but I was never really swayed from my initial conviction. I’m usually fooled by every wrong turn an author lays out so it felt as though the truth was only thinly concealed, although I admit there were some details I didn’t see coming. As a mystery I’m not sure it would satisfy a more seasoned reader of the genre.
The characters are really the main heart of the novel. The Brontës, of course, but the side characters also contain a wealth of interest with complex motives and conflicting emotions. The Brontës feel like a realistic family with bickering and teasing commonplace. They seem occasionally to be a tad one-dimensional with very clear roles to play that they don’t often diverge from.
There are a lot of nods to events and characters from their novels, as well as real-life locations associated with them. I’m unusual in not particularly enjoying easter eggs in my books and films, but I’m sure for readers who do enjoy such things this book will utterly delight. Ellis draws on many well-known events and circumstances for the Brontë enthusiast but there are also many that could easily be missed. This is obviously an author who knows the Brontë story well and does something new with it.
Branwell’s presence is a worry to the sisters as they hope to help him out of his downward spiral. They’re all too aware of the limitations of their gender and his inclusion in some of their activities serves in both giving them a veneer of authority and keeping him away from the pub. There are some sweet moments in which he is loveably hopeless, yet they remind us that it is the women who have done the hard work.
Gender roles are central both to the plot and the general feel of the novel. The sisters are consistently frustrated by the limitations placed on them as women and the need to pretend they are working for men to have people take them seriously. Anne is still smarting from having lost her role as governess due to Branwell’s antics, yet we also see what a difficult, often unenviable life it is. Elizabeth Chester was not much better off - married to a man who would increase her material wealth but not make her happy. This seems to be the two unhappy options for women, and the Brontës are outliers who are aware of the precarity of their situation. They nonetheless focus their investigations on men, missing potential clues. The darker side of this is of course the awareness of the prevalence of male violence and the often helpless situations women find themselves in.
There are some quite gothic moments in the novel, and as you might imagine, Ellis often centres them around Emily. With mysterious signs of the first Mrs. Chester in the attic, some genuinely disturbing scenes involving a human skull, and hints at the other-worldly, there are definitely some hair-raising moments. Chester Grange itself is quite the gothic construction with its hidden passageways and secrets.
This is an easy read with a fun premise. The three sisters complement each other nicely to form a successful team of detectors. For fans of cosy crime and the Brontës this is a great choice.