Charlotte, Emily and Anne live in an isolated house with their father. (Their brother Branwell died young, at the old house -- Haworth.) The sisters are virtual prisoners, but their imagination knows no bounds: they invent a fantastical land called Gondal, and dream of fine clothes and passionate romance. Charlotte is convinced that the only way to take control of her own life is as a successful novelist: Anne writes to make sense of the people around her: Emily yearns for a love stronger than death.
This is not Yorkshire: these are not the Brontes. McConnochie's reimagining of their lives and works is set on Coldwater, a penal colony off the coast of Australia. The girls' father, Captain Wolf, is the Governor of the island, from which no prisoner has ever escaped. His ambition is to create the perfect prison: the arrival of a new prisoner, an Irishman convicted of rebelling against the English, seems the ideal opportunity to put some of his ideas concerning rewards and punishment into practice.
The novel's multiple voices -- sensible but domineering Charlotte, Gothic Anne, passionate Emily -- are distinctive and engaging. There are also passages from Captain Wolf's journal, and occasional interjections from other characters: one might argue that the novel could stand, could work, without these (and Wolf's voice in particular feels as though it's hammering home his changing mental state, which we already observe in the girls' reactions to him) but the inclusion of other -- mostly masculine -- voices does provide a counterweight to the claustrophobic closeness (or self-involvement) of the sisters. Their intimacy, and their eccentricities, add to the Gothic atmosphere: the attunement between Anne and Emily is so strong that "When Emily was ill it felt dark, jagged, roiling, like a scream, with a texture to it, thick, like matted fur." And later Charlotte, discovering Emily sleepwalking, has "the feeling that I was in the presence of something malign, something other".
Each of the sisters is writing a novel, though not quite the novels we might expect. Emily's, for example, is a romance: the story of a prison governor run wild, and the young officer who comes to investigate, and the governor's beautiful daughter. Anne ... "Your central character is interesting," says Charlotte to Anne, in one of the passages of modern critical dialogue that don't quite mesh with the tone of the narrative. "A headstrong young lady will always drive a story forward. But I would be wary of making her too headstrong -- it is potentially alienating for the reader." And later, "if you want to succeed as a novelist, you have to think about the reading public, you have to show a proper adherence to literary tradition."
Charlotte takes her writing most seriously, and thus is most vulnerable to her father's devastating criticisms: "the work that you have pursued over these many years, while charming in its own facile way, is of no more interest to the general public than the children's tales it closely resembles." But, rallying, she realises that she is her father's daughter.
"He had built a world for himself on Coldwater. It was his Gondal, only it was real ... its population were his characters, and he controlled their actions through a multitude of different means ... suddenly he was forced to realise that we were not part of his story any more; we were trying to write our own."
The sisters' writing becomes a metaphor for their lives. It feels like a premonition of tragedy when Anne watches Emily throw her writing, page by page, to the wind: "as if she hoped ... to open all the doors, to release the helpless prisoners of passion confined within the pages and all the captives on the island, to crack open the authority of the author and eject everyone from the narrative, characters and prisoners and daughters and troopers all, to begin their own journeys and engineer their own endings."
And, after all, events rewrite themselves. At the end of the novel Charlotte is told how matters resolved and reputations were restored: and even though she knows differently, she nods and smiles and lets the happy lie prevail.
I'm not that familiar with the Bronte sisters' novels, so I suspect there are a lot of references, allusions, reworkings that passed me by. I did recognise elements of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and I'd be surprised if there were not many more. The writing, whilst occasionally exasperatingly modern ('like' instead of 'as if'; modern critical jargon such as 'alienated'), is mostly a pleasure to read. (Charlotte notices details: "a smudge of green on his cheekbone where he must have fallen; the tiny black dots of stubble on his jaw, etched sharply against the pallor of his skin; the change of colour and texture between his weatherbeaten face and neck, and the exposed skin of his chest; blood; hair; a nipple, that odd, tender brown button.") Several threads of plot -- the psychological, the 'model prison', a romance, a mysterious Diver -- maintain suspense and interest. Recommended.