Victorian scholars often wonder what Charlotte Brontê's literary output would have been if she had not died at 39. Clare Boylan provides a hint, completing Brontê's unfinished manuscript, Emma Brown (Viking, 435 pp., $25.95). The result is a treat for all fans of the Victorian novel.
The first two chapters are Brontê's, written after Villette and before her marriage. In the opening, a man brings a girl to a boarding school where she is treated as a favorite due to her apparent wealth. At Christmas, however, no one arrives to take Emma home, her tuition is unpaid, and the "father" cannot be found.
In Boylan's seamless continuation, Emma's own memory is muddled, and she offers no explanation of her origins. A local gentleman, Mr. Ellin, and a widow, Isabel Chalfont, take up her cause, with Isabel providing Emma a home and Ellin searching for the girl's identity. Eventually Emma travels to London to discover her past.
Fans of Charlotte Brontê will find plenty to like here. The Ellin subplot originates from another Brontê novel fragment, and segments from her letters are incorporated into the plot. Boylan successfully integrates many of Brontê's recurrent themes, as well: Isabel, like Charlotte herself, survives the degradation of being a governess. Although suffering in London, Emma remains determined to survive, as Jane Eyre does after leaving Rochester. Like Villette, there is hope of romantic love, although its fulfillment is compromised by the vagaries of fate. While London is not often associated with Brontê, Boylan contends she had grown interested in exposing social conditions there since, as Isabel says, "...good must acquaint itself with the bad. Dissipation thrives in the dark and can be vanquished only by the bright fire of its opposite."
Those unfamiliar with Victorian fiction may find the coincidences tying together the subplots a little too convenient. Boylan's intricate research can be overwhelming, too: Every possible danger to a Victorian woman seems to occur, and the social commentary is over the top at timesas with Jenny, the homeless girl who picks up infant corpses to use as dolls.
These are small complaints, however. Emma Brown is obviously written with respect and love for Charlotte Brontê, and Boylan's own skills as a writer keep the reader interested to the end.
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