The Big Idea: Rachel Cantor
As much as people love the classics, sometimes they need an update. Luckily, author Rachel Cantor is here to bring us a modernized look at the Brontës in her new novel, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister. Follow along in her Big Idea to see how she swapped out the 1800s for the modern era.
I was overseas working on my first novel when I ran out of books to read (something that could happen before the blessed advent of e-readers). I was beyond thrilled, then, when I found Charlotte Brontë’s Villette in a dusty corner of a Danish bookshop. I’d never read Villette, despite it being the favorite book of a college chum whose opinion I madly respected: probably I knew it couldn’t match Jane Eyre, which had always been my favorite book by a super long shot.
The preface stunned me. It described how, one by one, Charlotte Brontë’s four sisters and one brother died young, the first at the age of ten, the last at barely thirty-one, leaving Charlotte, for all intents and purposes, alone, likely for the rest of her life. Having reached the “spinsterly” age of thirty-three, she could not reasonably expect to wed. Lonely and wrecked by grief, she survived and, by some measures, thrived. How? How had she done it? My novel, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, arose not so much out of a Big Idea as a Big Question. I wanted to understand.
For almost a decade, I kept the thought of a Brontë book in my head: when the time came, I would read novels, biographies, letters, and anything else I could find, and based on these sources, write four long stories from the point of view of Anne, Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte, respectively. Each would take place during a particularly important time in their collective lives; all would have as their natural backdrop Yorkshire, England, 1821-1855.
Big Problem: I am not a “realistic” writer; I adore historical fiction but I am even more definitely not a writer of realistic historical fiction. Luckily for me, I was (am) capable of enormous literary self-deception: more than ten years later, when it was time to write this book, I went for it. I bought all those research books and read, or reread, all those novels. Which was when, mercifully, my imaginative sub-brain, which is much smarter than I am, took over. I say mercifully because my imaginative sub-brain wasn’t interested in the plan I’d held on to all those years (my Big Idea, possibly): instead, it immediately placed young Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë not on the moors, not in quaint Haworth Parsonage, but in a park, where they hid behind bushes, conferring on “talkie-walkies” and looking for spies.
When they left that park, it was to sketch dioramas at a nearby museum; when they returned home, it was via a subway to a rent-controlled, much-too-small apartment. I had migrated this family, through a process mysterious—a process I still can’t say I understand—to a mid-sized North American city, probably in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century.
This shift was, obviously, decisive. It changed everything—it had to. No longer would I try to write in a manner to which I’m not suited; rather, I could rely on my strongest skill, which applying my imagination to questions of the heart. And possibly have fun doing so.
Thus I was able to convey the father’s extremely rushed (and entirely unrealistic) search for a replacement wife, seemingly moments after the death of the mother of his six children, via a dating-site profile.
Thus I could allow Charlotte’s publisher to share his thoughts about the sisters’ secret identities on a public radio show.
Thus Charlotte could express unmediated anguish following the loss of Branwell, Emily, and Anne in her diary, and a more curated version of same through letters.
And so on.
This freedom was exhilarating. It allowed me to present Charlotte and those around her not as inert figures in a wax museum (or romantic figures striding across the moors, or delicate ladies coughing tubercular phlegm), but rather as people who grow and change and spat and try really hard to do well—people who are, in other words, very much like us. It brought me close to their joys and sufferings and complications and achievements, which in turn allowed me to answer my Big Question—How did she do it?—long after I’d abandoned my Big Idea.