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Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland

Rowland’s “Bedlam” is a very Victorian Gothic adventure based very loosely on the life of Charlotte Bronte. In this fictional tale Charlotte is admitted as a visitor to London’s insane asylum, Bedlam and accidentally witnesses a torture of her spy friend, Slade. It turns out a Prussian/Russian spy has bribed the doctor in charge of the criminally insane unit to use the facility to torture information out of his enemies.

Think of the plots in this book and the characters as if they were from a James Bond novel set in the mid-19th century. The reader must suspend a sense of the possible to believe Slade could escape from a Bedlam torture chamber, or that Queen Victoria would be involved a confrontation with a mad bomber at the Crystal Palace during the Great Exposition in London. The book is pure spy thriller, not history.

The author does explain at the end of the book some of the characters and incidents that are real. Obviously, Charlotte Bronte was a literary celebrity in the mid-19th century and she was friendly with her publisher, George Smith ans with author, William Makepeace Thackeray, both of whom are portrayed in “Bedlam”. She would probably turn over in her grave at the implications of this novel, especially the implication that she secretly married a British spy.

Several other characters in the book were historical, including, of course, Queen Victoria. I doubt if she would have entertained the behavior of Bronte and Slade in the book, and her character does show some disapproval.

There was also a mid-19th century serial killer in White Chapel who forms the basis of the mad bomber/murderer figure. Wilhelm Stieber, the Prussian spy who worked for the Russian Czar, was also a real person.

I find this an interesting mixture of fact and fiction, although as I said, the reader must understand that the book is far more spy thriller fiction than fact.

Liz Nichols

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