I admit that I was a little reluctant to pick up The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, mainly because of the title, because with the exception of Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, I haven't been terribly impressed by most novels that take the form of diaries, secret or otherwise. But pick it up I did, because I wanted a paperback to take to the beach, and I was very pleasantly surprised.
The title of this book is actually somewhat misleading, in fact, because although the narrator (Charlotte, of course) occasionally refers to her writing as a diary, the story is not in the usual day-to-day journal format. "Secret Memoirs" would be a more apt title. So if you're not keen on the diary format, there's no need to avoid this novel.
The event that prompts Charlotte to write about her life is the unexpected proposal she receives from her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. As Charlotte wrestles with the question of whether to accept, she reflects about her evolving relationship with Nicholls, her infatuation with a married professor in Brussels, her career as an author, and her life with her siblings, all now deceased.
James has researched her subject thoroughly, and it shows without appearing pedantic. Her portrayals of Charlotte's friends and family are true to life and three-dimensional, and where the author fills in gaps and creates dramatic tension between Charlotte and her suitor, it seems plausible. Having read more than my fair share of feminist critics who treat Charlotte's marriage to Nicholls as a tragic example of a gifted female succumbing to male domination, I was pleased to see that James treats the marriage positively, and even romantically.
Though one might enjoy this book better if one has read Charlotte Bronte's novels (and those of her sisters), it's not necessary. James' book also contains a number of extras: besides the usual afterword, there's a question-and-answer section for the author, excerpts from some of Charlotte's letters, and some poems by the Bronte siblings.
As I liked this book so much, I'll be picking up James' first novel, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.