Born to Scandal, my latest Harlequin Historical, is my homage to Jane Eyre, that iconic governess/lord story that so many of us fell in love with when first reading it. I can still remember being shocked and surprised by the insane wife hidden away in the attic.
I’m not sure a modern historical could get away with hiding a wife away, or in creating a heroine who couldn’t figure it out. The thing is, though, that part of Jane Eyre may not have been fiction. Charlotte Bronte may indeed have known about a madwoman in the attic.
Bronte worked as a governess in Yorkshire in the late 1830s, and, during that time, it is known that she visited Norton Conyers, the 16th century squire’s country house near Ripon that has been home to generations of Grahams. It has long been suspected that Norton Conyers was the model for Thornfield. The description of Thornfield in Jane Eyre matches Norton Conyers. Both are “three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable, a gentleman’s manor house, not a nobleman’s seat.” Both include a rookerie, a sunken fence, and battlements. Both have a wide oak staircase. What’s more, Norton Conyers even had a legend of a madwoman who was locked away in the house.
Sir James Bellingham Graham, 11th Baronet, and his wife were convinced that their ancestral home was indeed the model for Thornfield. In 2004, they went in search of the attic room. They discovered a staircase hidden behind a paneled wall. The staircase led to an attic and, within the attic was a secret room.
In 2005 when I was with a group touring sites along the Great North Road, we stopped at Norton Conyers and met Sir James and Lady Graham. We were shown the recently discovered door and we climbed the staircase to an attic. Crouching down in a small space, we walked across the attic and entered a small room with a tiny garret window. Had this been the home to some poor, unfortunate relation who needed to be hidden away? Had this been a room where once Charlotte Bronte had stood and where the story of Jane Eyre was born?
My book, Born to Scandal, does not have an insane wife in the attic, but it does have plenty of scandal and secrets. It even has a creepy old house. You can be sure I thought about my visit to Norton Conyers while I wrote the story. I only hope Charlotte Bronte would approve.