Sherry Thomas and Bella Ellis have long shared a mutual enjoyment and admiration of each other’s work, even before they met in person. But as it turns out, loving another’s writer’s voice, world-building, and characterization—loving the deep empathy she imbues into her stories—is a pretty decent foundation upon which to get to know her better.
Ellis’s first Brontë Sisters mystery, The Vanished Bride, and Thomas’s fourth Lady Sherlock mystery, The Art of Theft, are both Victorian-set detective tales featuring sleuths well-known to readers, yet are different enough in every regard to spur an energetic and wide-ranging discussion about the perils of featuring literary icons, the world that shaped these women sleuths, and the sometimes startling parallels between their era and our own.
Sherry Thomas: We are both working with literary icons: I write gender-bending Sherlock Holmes pastiche; your detectives are none other than the legendary Brontë sisters themselves. The difference, obviously, is that Sherlock Holmes is fictional and the Brontë women were very much flesh-and-blood.
The mash-up in The Vanished Bride, of a gothic mystery with the lives of the Bronte sisters, is both brilliant and organic. Please tell me something of how you achieved the overall Brontëan tenor in the book. It couldn’t have been easy juggling the construction of a mystery with three lead characters who are both so well-known yet so little known. And the setting too, the beauty and isolation of the Yorkshire moors, along with that heavy Victorian morality and restriction on women.
Bella Ellis: I think something else we share is taking literary icons and celebrate them by letting them fuel our imagination to generate more stories. The idea of writing about the Brontës in a fictional universe was rather terrifying at first. I’m sure you must have felt the same apprehension. Characters like Sherlock Holmes and authors like Charlotte, Emily and Anne mean so much to so many people, and the way readers and fans treasure them is usually very specific and important to them. It’s a little bit scary to mess with that.
So I had to stay very focused on what the Brontë sisters and their novels mean to me, to remind myself again and again that the fictional versions I have created of them are a manifestation of my love for them. At the same time making sure I honored these extraordinary women with as much research and accuracy as possible. So to find the right tempo took a number of elements, combining echoes of their novels, their own voices, as recorded in letters and diaries and a great big dollop of imagination. I’ve read and reread their novels many times, walked in their footsteps over and over again, lived their lives alongside them so often, that to have the opportunity to open a door to that imaginary universe, step into and add to it in my own small way really thrilling. I can only hope it brings readers as much joy as it has me!
One of the thing I love about Charlotte Holmes so much is her courage, and her determination to be true to herself, no matter the cost. This is a wonderfully original and engaging reinterpretation of Sherlock, who for all his idiosyncrasies and flaws, would have been much more easily accepted because of his gender. Your Charlotte has the weight of Victorian convention stacked against her, as does mine, and both are possessed of a steely determination to bend the world to their will, against the odds.
You bring Charlotte Holmes and Mrs. Watson (I love Mrs. Watson) to life with such wit, warmth and true Sherlockian spirit that they feel like a natural extension of the Sherlock Universe. And your richly described locations are vivid characters in their own right. How do you conjure up such evocative magic from across the Atlantic?
Sherry Thomas: Description actually does not come naturally to me. I write blind, in that I don’t see anything in my head but stick figures emitting speech bubbles. I grope around for just enough details so that the words on the page coalesce into an image, so that I myself can finally see something of the setting.
But I do find late Victorian-era England fascinating, in that it is such a parallel for turn-of-the-21st-century America, with one global imperial, economic, and cultural power bestriding the world and all the political and moral questions that engenders.
It’s also an interesting parallel for today in terms of the advancement of women in society. Today there are glass ceilings. Back then there were probably stone ceilings. Yet lots of intrepid women went after those stone ceilings, wielding excellence, courage, and persistence, so that they could have a bigger say in defining their own lives.
Women weren’t the only ones constrained by the expectations of society. Men were too. But society was much more willing to overlook the idiosyncrasies of a man like Sherlock Holmes, who uses cocaine and puts bullets in walls that don’t belong to him, if he could prove himself good enough and indispensable enough in some other regards.
Whereas a woman most likely would not have been given the chance to prove herself. Or even if she did, she might still be dismissed as “just a woman.” When I decided to gender-bend Sherlock Holmes in his own era, I knew I couldn’t simply put the same character in a dress. I had to confront the thoroughly different life experiences Holmes would have had, born and raised as a woman, and how that would have both her temperament and her outlook.
And interestingly enough, that has been one of the things readers have responded most favorably to, how Charlotte Holmes breaks certain constraints and how she negotiates the rest.
Another thing that readers like the Lady Sherlock books have been the “found family” aspect, the happy accident of misfits coming together to form a home of their own—you mentioned Charlotte and Mrs. Watson above. One of the things I love about The Vanished Bride is the strong familial ties among the Brontës.
Families can be tricky because you cannot choose those to whom you are related by blood. And we see the entire spectrum of emotions here, so much love, such deep understanding, almost as much frustration, incomprehension, worry, guilt, anguish—I could go on and on. It’s a family drama about the Brontës as much as it is about the Brontë sisters as “detectors”. How did you arrive at this lovely balance between character and plot? And how did you decide to open the book with reminiscences from Charlotte Brontë when all her other siblings have passed away? It’s a brilliant framing device but also endows the entire narrative with a sense of both urgency and premonition.
Bella Ellis: It fascinates me to learn how the process of imagining worlds works for other authors! As a dyslexic writer, my process is very visual, playing out like a movie in my head. Punctuation doesn’t come quite so easily…!
For me it made perfect sense to begin The Vanished Bride in a moment of reflection between Charlotte losing all of her beloved siblings in such a short space time, and before she finally agreed to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls. Her struggle to find the will to write again in the face of such loss was almost insurmountable. Emily, Anne and Branwell had been her creative foils since childhood. Also, she felt the weight of following on from the success of Jane Eyre very heavily, a sort of second album syndrome that I know a lot of contemporary authors experience—how to follow up that big hit?
There is a great deal of joy in The Vanished Bride, I hope; the close family, the sibling rivalry, the fun of adventure and the promise of genius about to be uncovered, but as much as I would love to, I can’t change to outcome for my detectors. I plan to keep them detecting as long as readers want them to, there’s scope for so many adventures, but in a way remembering the fate that they eventually meet adds poignancy and depth to the fun they are having in the stories—my way of saying that life is for living right now, don’t wait for it to begin, I suppose.
I love the parallels you draw between The Lady Sherlock series, The Art of Theft, the Victorian world view and present-day politics and global attitudes. In the 19th century Britain was a tiny island that had colonized half the word using force, religion, the slave trade and a great deal of devastation to the indigenous peoples of the lands countries they folded into the ‘empire’ and pride in that in achievement was an integral part of the Victorian identity. It’s an undeniable part of our history, and one I think we need to remember and learn from, and I’m pleased to say that some institutions in the UK are making reparations for financially benefiting from the slave trade, most recently Glasgow University.
In The Vanished Bride we see a world where a woman cannot expect the right to live and be accepted as an autonomous individual. Where she must fight, and wrangle and use subterfuge to gain even the slightest ground. Charlotte, Emily and Anne certainly did their part to widen the horizons for women, simply by coming from an ecclesiastical middle class background (which as recently as Patrick’s Irish youth had been poor working class) and enjoying success within their own life times, but also because of how the represented the woman’s view on the page. At the time it was extremely rare to have a heroine as passionately independent as Jane Eyre, or as courageous as Helen from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. As gothic and romantic as all the Bronte novels are, they are also groundbreaking when it comes to making women the architects of their own fate.
With that in mind, when Charlotte Holmes and her band of friends are adventuring across Europe, how do you feel that things have changed or advanced for her, some forty years after The Vanished Bride is set, and how do you feel the progress that she fights for in late Victorian Britain speaks to contemporary readers?
Sherry Thomas: It really shocked me when a character in your book, the husband of the titular vanished bride, told his father-in-law that the woman wasn’t the father’s property anymore, but the husband’s. That was when the difference between our eras really struck me.
In the intervening years, coverture, the doctrine in English common law that subsumed a woman’s legal rights and obligations in her husband’s, became substantially modified, until by 1893 married women had the same property rights as unmarried women.
In those year women also gained entrance into higher education. In the era I’m most familiar with, the 1880s and 1890s, there were a number of train female physicians, though still no female barristers in the UK.“In the advancement of women, it’s always been two steps forward and one step back, or sometimes even one step forward and two steps back. I think what today’s readers recognize in stories like ours is that they are still facing many of the same issues…”—Sherry Thomas
Overall, the trend was definitely moving toward greater ease for women in entering public life. And just in moving about. By the time Charlotte was gallivanting around, Englishwomen were globe-hopping all over. A friend once gifted me with a pdf called “An Alphabetical Bibliography of Books by Victorian and Edwardian Women Travellers Published Between 1837 and 1910.” There were relatively few entries before the middle of the 19th century and a flood toward the end.
But the thing about progress is that it is never made without meeting pushback from those who would benefit from things as they and therefore do not wish for change, never mind that the structure that benefit them systematically disadvantage others. In the advancement of women, it’s always been two steps forward and one step back, or sometimes even one step forward and two steps back.
I think what today’s readers recognize in stories like ours is that they are still facing many of the same issues, that while the disparity between the genders might have become less overwhelming since then, it is still great and pervasive.
But they also recognize that attitudes and institutions that have persisted since the dawn of civilization cannot be made to disappear in 150 years’ time, or even twice that much time. The work will go on with each subsequent generation and the hope will also go on.
And now I want to say I completely agree with what you said earlier about there being a great deal of joy in spending time with the Brontë sisters, in their vitality, their mutual devotion, their love of life, beauty, and creativity.
Would you please let me know what we can expect next from these wonderful sister “detectors”?
Bella Ellis: Firstly, I love the sound of the list your friend gave you! Howe wonderful. There is much more fun to come for my lady detectors! I can’t give away too much about the next novel, The Diabolical Bones, except to say that it is set in the wintery February of 1846. Charlotte, Emily and Anne hear the news that the bones of an unknown child have been discovered concealed within the moor top house of a local scoundrel. The sisters set out to discover who the bones belong to, and how they came to be there, and who could be guilty of such a heinous crime when suddenly another child goes missing…
I’m so excited for everyone to read The Art of Theft, and please tell me what’s next for you and your wonderful characters?
Sherry Thomas: I also can’t give away too much about the next Lady Sherlock book, but that’s because I don’t know anything about it yet, other than that Charlotte will be investigating a case for someone who has been professionally important to her. I would like for it to be a locked-room mystery, but I really don’t know how I would manage that, or even if I’ll still be going down that path in a month’s time. So I am going on a journey of discovery, as I always do with every book, with my fingers crossed that I find something good in the end.