Emma Brown: A Novel From the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte. By Clare Boylan. Viking. 4484 pages. $25.95
When Charlotte Bronte died too young at 38, she left four novels and a sliver of a fifth, Emma Brown. Jane Eyre is, of course, the crown jewel, but Shirley and Villette are fine books, too -- enough so to secure Bronte's reputation as a major English writer. The fragment is a tantalizing literary artifact, a bare 20 pages whose tart wit and rich plot ingredients pull the reader in with great efficiency.
Irish writer Clare Boylan has spun out her own Emma Brown from Bronte's suggestive germ. The result is anachronistic in some of its concerns and a bit of a cartoon of the stereotypical twistingly providential Victorian plot. Still, Boylan brings good imaginative energy to a daunting ghostwriting assignment and produces a novel that, while not Bronte, is a reasonably authentic facsimile and, more important, compulsively readable fun.
Bronte's original two chapters plant a mystery. A little girl, outfitted in luxurious finery, is brought by her apparent guardian to a provincial boarding school. The school's struggling proprietresses, three practical sisters, thrill to the lace and damask filling their new student's trunks. They treat her in a manner befitting the social rank her wardrobe denotes, tacitly decreeing "that Miss Fitzgibbon was to be favoured, petted, and screened on all possible occasions." Miss Fitzgibbon, however, soon proves to be not what she seems. Her tuition goes unpaid, her guardian vanishes: "Conway Fitzgibbon was a man of straw; May Park a house of cards. There was no vestige of such a man or mansion in Midland County, or in any other shire in England." Asked to account for herself, she falls into a state of mute shock. At the end of the 20 extant pages, we are left with three indignant schoolmistresses, an ambiguous orphan, a kindly widow narrator and a local bachelor dispatched to find clues to the pupil's cloudy past.
The last three become joint protagonists of Boylan's continuation of Bronte. Much like Jane Eyre, all of these characters have histories of persecution by villains whose common moral error is to mistake rank for worth. In the moral economy that Boylan borrows from Bronte's age, the injustices her protagonists suffer make them especially worthy, and it comes as little surprise that they ultimately prosper.
Like Michael Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White) and other present-day novelists writing about 19th-century England, Boylan wears her 21st-century social conscience on her sleeve, making a point of visiting the seamy flip side of Victorian respectability. In her case, this means lingering in the slums and gutters of London. Her particular focus on child prostitution makes this novel unquestionably not your great-great-grandmother's Charlotte Bronte.
Emma Brown is a trifle, but an absorbing one. Read Bronte first, by all means -- but not necessarily last. Boylan is an inventive storyteller who draws on Dickens and Gaskell as well as Bronte, and knows her history, social and literary. The book should be an enjoyable supplement to Bronte's slender corpus for fans who aren't purists. It's virtual proof that nonpurists have more fun.
Laura Demanski is completing a dissertation at the University of Chicago about representations of the London poor in the writing of Henry James, Arthur Morrison and other late 19th-century novelists. She previously worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.