I feel like a very spoilt woman: after I had read the book “Charlotte & Arthur” (which I reviewed some weeks ago) my husband accidentally came across another book on Charlotte Brontë’s Irish honeymoon, “Charlotte Brontë – An Irish Odyssey”, which takes a very different but interesting approach.
My husband found “An Irish Odyssey” (subtitle: “My Heart is Knit to Him – The Honeymoon”) on the website of Realboyle (Boyle is the town where we stay when on holidays in Ireland). The website mentions this book because the author grew up in Boyle. As there were no details about where to buy it, I contacted the author, Michael O’Dowd (who now lives in Galway), by email.
While “Charlotte & Arthur” is a fictionalised recreation of the honeymoon (based on some facts of course) and was written as a novel, “An Irish Odyssey” is categorized as a non-fiction book and is interesting in its own way. Throughout “An Irish Odyssey” there are references to Charlotte’s few letters that contain information on the honeymoon, on the basis of which it was possible for biographers to recreate the honeymoon itinerary.
But in this book the author gives us so much more! For his recreation of the honeymoon, he also uses writings of literary friends and acquaintances who had visited the same places before Charlotte and Arthur’s honeymoon, including Harriet Martineau and William Makepeace Thackera, as well as well-known guidebooks on Ireland of the time (e.g. by Anna Maria and Samuel Hall).
Moreover, “An Irish Odyssey” is interspersed with extracts from poems and verse by well-known British and Irish poets (such as Thomas Moore, Sir Aubrey de Vere, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and many more), which creates a very poetic atmosphere.
The author wanted “to become enveloped and immersed in Charlotte’s psyche, her spirit of romantic creativity and fantasy” and to that end used elements of Charlotte’s letters and novels throughout the book as these “offered many clues to her abiding interests in art, nature, literature, religion, travel, romance”.
Before going into the actual honeymoon itinerary, he recalls Charlotte’s “romantic interludes”(Charlotte received a number of marriage proposals, had a crush on her Belgian teacher Constantin Héger and was close to her publisher George Smith) before the final romance and marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls. O’Dowd also explores the possible reasons for choosing Ireland as a destination for their honeymoon (for me this was also a very interesting chapter!)
The next chapters deal with the actual honeymoon, starting in Haworth, then to Holyhead, Dublin, Banagher and surroundings, Kilkee, Tarbert, Killarney, Glengarriff, Cork and back to Haworth via Dublin.
In all of these chapters, the author gives us a lot of information on the scenery that Charlotte and Arthur may have seen on their visits (based on travel and tourist guides of the time). He explores possible ways of travelling (by boat, train, coach, jaunting car, …) that Charlotte and Arthur may have used, as this is not always clear from the letters. He provides scientific facts on fauna and flora. He explores the historical and spiritual heritage of Banagher (where Arthur’s family lived) and its surroundings in great detail, but also historical facts about Ireland in general are shared with the reader.
O’Dowd explains Irish culture and language (for me personally very interesting as I am trying to learn Irish) and also the origin of Irish place names. He recounts some local stories and tales and once in a while throws in some Irish mythology. All these “allowed unique flavours to enhance the storyline”, according to the author.
The book ends with a short chapter (called “The knit heart”) that refers to the aftermath of the honeymoon until Arthur’s death.
What is also remarkable is the very extensive bibliography at the end of the book. It shows that this book gives a very well-researched and well-documented account of various aspects of Charlotte and Arthur’s “Grand Tour of Ireland”. The author has clearly done his homework!
It is a non-fiction book (not a novel) and is therefore not always an easy book to read, but the poetic language that the author himself uses throughout the book to describe certain facts, together with the many extracts of poems and other writings, makes it, for me at least, a very agreeable, pleasant read.
I enjoyed it very much and I learned a few new things on the way!