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Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte

Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte

by Clare Boylan, Charlotte Bronte

When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind twenty pages of a novel that signaled her most compelling work since Jane Eyre. One hundred fifty years later, Clare Boylan has finished Brontë’s novel, sparking a sensational literary event. With pitch-perfect tone that is utterly true to Brontë’s voice, Boylan delivers a


When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind twenty pages of a novel that signaled her most compelling work since Jane Eyre. One hundred fifty years later, Clare Boylan has finished Brontë’s novel, sparking a sensational literary event. With pitch-perfect tone that is utterly true to Brontë’s voice, Boylan delivers a brilliant tale about a mysterious young girl, Matilda, who is delivered to a girls’ school in provincial England. When everything about the girl’s wealthy background turns out to be a fiction, it falls to a local gentleman, Mr. Ellin, and a childless widow, Isabel Chalfont, to begin a quest for her past and her identity that takes them from the drawing rooms of country society to London’s seamiest alleys. With all the intelligence and pathos of the novel’s originator, Boylan develops Brontë’s sketch of a girl without a past into a stunning portrait of Victorian society with a shameful secret at its heart.

Editorial Reviews

Miranda Seymour
By making sporadic use of Brontë's own phrases, Boylan succeeds in creating a book that is convincing in voice even while it tells a vivid, dramatic and richly absorbing story. Her sense of the period is both precise and evocative; the characters Brontë had briefly but confidently sparked into life are plausibly developed, while their histories are artfully entwined … Emma Brown is a powerful and magnificently written novel that does ample justice to the two brief chapters from which it sprang.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
When Charlotte Bront died in 1855, she left behind a 20-page manuscript, which Irish novelist Boylan (Holy Pictures, etc.) uses as the first two chapters of her own sprawling novel. The result is a deeply satisfying Victorian mystery, at once cozy, witty, didactic and melodramatic. A young girl named Matilda Fitzgibbon is deposited at a ladies' school run by the "fantastic, affected and pretentious" Wilcox sisters. But Matilda is a "pseudo-heiress," unrelated to the elegant (and now vanished) gentleman who enrolled her. Spurned by the Wilcoxes, Matilda is taken in by motherly Isabel Chalfont, a childless widow whose comfortable station and "middling" temperament conceal a passionate romantic history. But Matilda proves to be "no ordinary child" secretive and prone to fainting spells, she claims to have no memory of her past, other than having been "sold like a farmyard creature." When she runs away, stealing the money still due the Wilcoxes, Mrs. Chalfont turns to her enigmatic friend Mr. Ellin, who tries to determine what happened. Searches through London's dirty streets reveal nothing. Meanwhile, Matilda who realizes that her name is actually Emma faces hunger, homelessness and conscription into child prostitution, as she searches for the mother who gave her up. Boylan's evocation of Victorian London is bleak but enthralling, and her characters turn Bront 's sharp sketches into nuanced creations. The plot is feverish and overly dependent on coincidence, and there are a few anachronisms, but who'll complain? Bront purists, maybe but other readers will embrace this as a treasure unearthed. (On sale Apr. 12) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
When Charlotte Bronte died, in 1855, she left behind a two-chapter manuscript of an unfinished novel. The plot may sound familiar to Bronte readers and to admirers of Victorian fiction. Bronte's narrator is Mrs. Chalfont, a sympathetic onlooker. The first two chapters take place in Fuchsia Lodge, a girls finishing school run by the Wilcox sisters who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. They have few pupils, little money and grand pretensions. One day they are visited by a well-appointed gentleman, a Mr. Fitzgibbons, who brings with him a young girl dressed in the highest fashion; he wants to enroll her in the school immediately. Mr. Ellin, who subsequently figures large in the story, describes the young Miss Fitzgibbon as a "miserable little wight." However, the wight is the heiress to the Fitzgibbon fortune. The Wilcoxes accept the girl and elevate her to favorite pupil status, storing her beautiful finery in their own wardrobes. Within months, much to their horror, the Wilcox sisters find that Mr. Fitzgibbon is a fiction, nowhere to be found. The young girl is an imposter and, on being accused of being so, falls insensible to the floor. Mr. Ellin, having been summoned to witness her unveiling, rescues her from the Wilcox wrath. Here Clare Boylan takes over and for the next 36 chapters treats the reader to a complicated Victorian plot enlivened by 21st-century insight. The characters all have secrets that are intertwined and have to be unraveled. Miss Fitzgibbon is rechristened Emma Brown; she must search out her real identity aided by Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin. The new author maintains the language and sensibility of 19th-century novels while adding historicaland social perspective. Emma Brown is as long as a Victorian novel but doesn't seem so, and it is easier to read. The paperback includes "A Conversation with Clare Boylan," in which the author describes her motive for completing the manuscript, the research that she carried out, and most interesting, the care she took in preserving Charlotte Bronte's voice. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Penguin, 450p., Ages 12 to adult.
—Penelope Power
Library Journal
From a meager 20 pages left by Charlotte Bronte, Boylan (Beloved Stranger) has fashioned a credible Victorian novel replete with orphans and paupers, governesses and shopkeepers, crusading journalists and scoundrels. As the tale opens, young Matilda Fitzgibbon, accompanied by trunks of expensive clothing, is delivered by her aristocratic father to the Fuchsia Hall boarding school, where it is hoped that her wealth will serve to attract other well-heeled pupils. It soon becomes evident that Matilda is an impostor. The man posing as her father is unreachable, and she herself is suffering from amnesia. A local gentleman named William Ellin and the widowed Isabel Chalfont step in to rescue Matilda and attempt to solve the puzzle of her origins. But before long, she escapes to London, determined to find her own answers. Her journey puts her in the path of a particularly unsavory ring of thugs involved in the abduction and sale of young girls into prostitution. Verging on melodrama, with a plot a little too coincidence-laden, this successor to Jane Eyre is still entertaining and should be popular with readers who cannot get their fill of Victoriana. Purchase for most public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vigorously detailed homage to a great 19th-century writer yields mixed results, in Irish author Boylan's unusual eighth novel (following Beloved Strangers, 2001, etc.). When Charlotte Bronte died in 1855, she left behind a 20-page fragment of a piece of fiction tentatively titled Emma, at which she had worked fitfully for nearly two years. Boylan painstakingly extends its arresting premise: a young heiress's arrival at a boarding school in the north of England (probably Yorkshire), the discovery that she is not what she seems, and her sudden disappearance. Emma Brown begins wonderfully, with the voice of Mrs. Chalfont, an elderly widow employed at Fuchsia Lodge, owned by the three maiden Wilcox sisters. Through her eyes, we observe the school's delighted welcome of young Matilda Fitzgibbon and her suave father. Then, in a clever abrupt shift, an omniscient narrative introduces us to William Ellin, a Wilcox adviser asked to investigate the nonpayment of Matilda's bills, her father's unknown whereabouts, and several subsequent interlocking mysteries. The story here is consistently intriguing, and Boylan enlivens it with an impressive wealth of social detail, as Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin separately plumb their own past histories, attempting to learn What Became of Matilda. In addition to inevitable echoes of Bronte's masterpieces Jane Eyre and Villette, Boylan layers in resonant echoes of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and other Bronte contemporaries-and reveals a huge debt to Henry Mayhew's classic sociological study London Labour and the London Poor. But Boylan's text is littered with anachronisms-ranging from language that would never have been used by proper Victorians to plot expansionsthat lead us, not just into London's criminal underworld (very vividly evoked, incidentally), but to outraged responses to the evils of child endangerment that sound like the testimony of contemporary victims' advocates. Bold and engrossing-but not, in the final analysis, especially convincing. Agent: Melanie Jackson

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
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6.38(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

We all seek an ideal in life. A pleasant fancy began to visit me in a certain year, that perhaps the number of human beings is few who do not find their quest at some era of life for some space more or less brief. I had certainly not found mine in youth, though the strong belief I held of its existence sufficed through all my brightest and freshest time to keep me hopeful. I had not found it in maturity. I was become resigned never to find it. I had lived certain dim years entirely tranquil and unexpectant. And now I was not sure but something was hovering around my hearth which pleased me wonderfully.

Look at it, reader. Come into my parlour and judge for yourself whether I do right to care for this thing. First you may scan me, if you please. We shall go on better together after a satisfactory introduction and due apprehension of identity. My name is Mrs. Chalfont. I am a widow. My house is good, and my income such as need not check the impulse either of charity or a moderate hospitality. I am not young, not yet old. There is no silver yet in my hair, but its yellow lustre is gone. In my face, wrinkles are yet to come, but I have almost forgotten the days when it wore any bloom. I lived for fifteen years a life, which, whatever its trials, could not be called stagnant. Then for five years I was alone, and, having no children, desolate. Lately, Fortune, by a somewhat curious turn of her wheel, placed in my way an interest and a companion.

The neighbourhood where I live is pleasant enough, its scenery agreeable, and its society civilized, though not numerous. About a mile from my house there is a ladies’ school, established but lately—not more than three years since. The conductresses of this school were of my acquaintances; and though I cannot say that they occupied the very highest place in my opinion—for they had brought back from some months’ residence abroad, for finishing purposes, a good deal that was fantastic, affected and pretentious—yet I awarded them some portion of that respect which seems the fair due of all women who face life bravely, and try to make their own way by their own efforts.

About a year after the Misses Wilcox opened their school, when the number of their pupils was as yet exceedingly limited, and when, no doubt, they were looking out anxiously enough for augmentation, the entrance-gate to their little drive was one day thrown back to admit a carriage—”a very handsome, fashionable carriage,” Miss Mabel Wilcox said, in narrating the circumstance afterwards—and drawn by a pair of really splendid horses. The sweep up the drive, the loud ring at the door-bell, the bustling entrance into the house, the ceremonious admission to the bright drawing-room, roused excitement enough in Fuchsia Lodge. Miss Wilcox repaired to the reception-room in a pair of new gloves, and carrying in her hand a handkerchief of French cambric.

She found a gentleman seated on the sofa, who, as he rose up, appeared a tall, fine-looking personage; at least she thought him so, as he stood with his back to the light. He introduced himself as Mr. Fitzgibbon, inquired if Miss Wilcox had a vacancy, and intimated that he wished to entrust to her care a new pupil in the shape of his daughter. This was welcome news, for there was many a vacancy in Miss Wilcox’s schoolroom; indeed, her establishment was as yet limited to the select number of three, and she and her sisters were looking forward with anything but confidence to the balancing of accounts at the close of their first half-year. Few objects could have been more agreeable to her than that to which, by the wave of a hand, Mr. Fitzgibbon now directed her attention—the figure of a child standing near the drawing-room window.

Had Miss Wilcox’s establishment boasted fuller ranks—had she indeed entered well on that course of prosperity which in after years an undeviating attention to externals enabled her so triumphantly to realize—an early thought with her would have been to judge whether the acquisition now offered was likely to answer well as a show-pupil. She would have instantly marked her look, dress, &c., and inferred her value from these indicia. In these anxious commencing times, however, Miss Wilcox could scarce afford herself the luxury of such appreciation: a new pupil represented £40 a year, independently of masters’ terms—and £40 a year was a sum Miss Wilcox needed and was glad to secure; besides, the fine carriage, the fine gentleman, and the fine name gave gratifying assurance, enough and to spare, of eligibility in the proffered connection.

It was admitted, then, that there were vacancies in Fuchsia Lodge; that Miss Fitzgibbon could be received at once; that she was to learn all that the school prospectus professed to teach; to be liable to every extra; in short to be as expensive, and consequently as profitable a pupil, as any directress’s heart could wish. All this was arranged as upon velvet, smoothly and liberally. Mr. Fitzgibbon showed in the transaction none of the hardness of the bargain-making man of business, and as little of the penurious anxiety of the straitened professional man. Miss Wilcox felt him to be “quite the gentleman.” Everything disposed her to be partially inclined towards the little girl whom he, on taking leave, formally committed to her guardianship; and as if no circumstance should be wanting to complete her happy impression, the address left written on a card served to fill up the measure of Miss Wilcox’s satisfaction—Conway Fitzgibbon, Esq., May Park, Midland County. That very day three decrees were passed in the newcomer’s favour:

1st. That she was to be Miss Wilcox’s bed-fellow.

2nd. To sit next to her at table.

3rd. To walk out with her.

In a few days it became evident that a fourth secret clause had been added to these, viz, that Miss Fitzgibbon was to be favoured, petted, and screened on all possible occasions.

An ill-conditioned pupil, who before coming to Fuchsia Lodge had passed a year under the care of certain old-fashioned Misses Sterling of Hartwood, and from them had picked up unpractical notions of justice, took it upon her to utter an opinion on this system of favouritism.

“The Misses Sterling,” she injudiciously said, “never distinguished any girl because she was richer or better dressed than the rest. They would have scorned to do so. They always rewarded girls according as they behaved well to their school fellows and minded their lessons, not according to the number of their silk dresses and fine laces and feathers.”

For it must not be forgotten that Miss Fitzgibbon’s trunks, when opened, disclosed a splendid wardrobe; so fine were the various articles of apparel, indeed, that instead of assigning for their accommodation the painted deal drawers of the school bedroom, Miss Wilcox had them arranged in a mahogany bureau in her own room. With her own hands, too, she would on Sundays array the little favourite in her quilted silk pelisse, her hat and feathers, her ermine boa, and little French boots and gloves. And very self-complacent she felt when she led the young heiress (a letter from Mr. Fitzgibbon, received since his first visit, had communicated the additional particulars that his daughter was his only child, and would be the inheritress of his estates, including May Park, Midland County)—when she led her, I say, into the church, and seated her stately by her side at the top of the gallery pew. Unbiased observers might, indeed, have wondered what there was to be proud of, and puzzled their heads to detect the special merits of this little woman in silk—for, to speak truth, Miss Fitzgibbon was far from being the beauty of the school: there were two or three blooming little faces amongst her companions lovelier than hers. Had she been a poor child, Miss Wilcox herself would not have liked her physiognomy at all: rather, indeed, would it have repelled than attracted her; and, moreover—though Miss Wilcox hardly confessed the circumstance to herself, but, on the contrary strove hard not to be conscious of it—there were moments when she became sensible of a certain strange weariness in continuing her system of partiality. It hardly came natural to her to show this special distinction in this particular instance. An undefined wonder would smite her sometimes that she did not take more satisfaction in flattering and caressing this embryo heiress—that she did not like better to have her always at her side, under her special charge. On principle, for she argued with herself: This is the most aristocratic and richest of my pupils; she brings me the most credit and the most profit: therefore, I ought, in justice, to show her a special indulgence; which she did—but with a gradually increasing peculiarity of feeling.

Certainly, the undue favours showered on little Miss Fitzgibbon brought their object no real benefit. Unfitted for the character of playfellow by her position of favourite, her fellow pupils rejected her company as decidedly as they dared. Active rejection was not long necessary; it was soon seen that passive avoidance would suffice; the pet was not social. No: even Miss Wilcox never thought her social. When she sent for her to show her fine clothes in the drawing-room when there was company, and especially when she had her into her parlour of an evening to be her own companion, Miss Wilcox used to feel curiously perplexed. She would try to talk affably to the young heiress, to draw her out, to amuse her. To herself the governess could render no reason why her efforts soon flagged; but this was invariably the case. However, Miss Wilcox was a woman of courage; and be the protégée what she might, the patroness did not fail to continue on principle her system of preference.

A favourite has no friends; and the observation of a gentle man, who about this time called at the Lodge and chanced to see Miss Fitzgibbon, was, “That child looks consummately unhappy”: he was watching Miss Fitzgibbon, as she walked, by herself, fine and solitary, while her schoolfellows were merrily playing.

“Who is the miserable little wight?” he asked.

He was told her name and dignity.

“Wretched little soul!” he repeated; and he watched her pace down the walk and back again; marching upright, her hands in her ermine muff, her fine pelisse showing a gay sheen to the winter’s sun, her large Leghorn hat shading such a face as fortunately had not its parallel on the premises.

“Wretched little soul!” reiterated the gentleman. He opened the drawing-room window, watched the bearer of the muff till he caught her eye and then summoned her with his finger. She came; he stooped his head down to her; she lifted her face up to him.

“Don’t you play, little girl?”

“No, sir.”

“No! why not? Do you think yourself better than other children?”

No answer.

“Is it because people tell you you are rich, you won’t play?” The young lady was gone. He stretched out his hand to arrest her, but she wheeled beyond his reach and ran quickly out of sight.

“An only child,” pleaded Miss Wilcox; “possibly spoiled by her papa, you know; we must excuse a little pettishness.”

“Humph! I am afraid there is not a little to excuse.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Compulsively readable fun." —The Baltimore Sun

"A nineteenth-century novel for today, with a creditable Brontëan flavor." —Penelope Lively, The Sunday Times, London

"...a powerful and magnificently written novel." —The New York Times Book Review

Meet the Author

Clare Boylan is the author of seven novels, which include Holy Pictures, Room for a Single Lady, Black Baby, and Beloved Stranger. She has also written several works of nonfiction.

Brief Biography

County Wicklow, Ireland
Date of Birth:
April 21, 1948
Date of Death:
May 16, 2006
Place of Birth:
Dublin, Ireland
Place of Death:
Dublin, Ireland
"Graduate of the Dublin School of Journalism, and a victim of assorted Irish convent schools."

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