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My expectations were high, but "Emma Brown" falls short!!
on 8 August 2005
Charlotte Bronte began writing what would have been her last novel, "Emma," soon after "Villette" was published in 1853, and before she married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854. According to some biographers, Charlotte allowed her husband to read the two chapters she had completed but he discouraged her from continuing. Nicholls, a diligent, serious-minded man, believed that since "Emma" was about a girl's school where the protagonist suffered, it would bear too much resemblance to "Jane Eyre." He was concerned the critics would accuse her of being repetitious. The twenty page draft was put away and Miss Bronte died five months later.
Author Clare Boylan was introduced to this fragment of unfinished work by Bronte biographers Lyndall Gordan and Juliet Barker and was inspired to undertake the awesome task of completing "Emma" - to recreate Charlotte Bronte's post-Romantic, gothic literary style as well as life in Victorian England, and to continue a tale hardly begun. This is not the first time a modern writer has tried to get inside the head and imagination of a long deceased author to write a sequel to a novel, or, as in this case, to complete one. I sincerely admire Ms. Boylan's efforts, but do not think she has succeeded. Although "Emma Brown" starts off well, and continues to intrigue far beyond Miss Bronte's contribution, halfway through the book the narrative begins to deteriorate.
Isabel Chalfont, a prosperous, attractive widow, "not young nor yet old," who resides in a rural English village, is our narrator. Three of her neighbors, the pretentious Misses Wilcox, own and teach at Fuchsia Lodge, a school for young ladies. Their enterprise is a small one, just a few students, but the Wilcox sisters are always on the lookout to expand. Therefore they are delighted when wealthy Conway Fitzgibbon, Esq. of May Park, Midland County, deposits his heiress daughter in their care. The mysterious Miss Matilda Fitzgibbon boasts an extremely expensive wardrobe and an "insolently distant" air. She possesses a plain, weary countenance and looks unhappy most of the time. This may be partially due to the fact that she sleepwalks and experiences strange fits. Matilda neither glories in her finery nor interacts with her peers. She is obviously favored by the Misses Wilcox over the other pupils, because of her wealth and status in society. However, she is indifferent to their pampering.
When letters are mailed to the girls' parents asking them if they expect their daughters to travel home for Christmas, the note sent to Fitzgibbon, Esq., is returned unopened. It appears that there is no such place as Midland County and no such person as the addressee. Another neighbor, local bachelor William Ellin, is asked to investigate. And indeed, he takes it upon himself to play detective, but consults with his friend, the level-headed, intelligent Widow Chalfont first. She pities the terrified girl, who seems to have no memory of her past, and offers her a home and affection while they wait for the mystery of her identity to be solved.
Isabel tries to draw the girl out, and at times she seems responsive. One morning, however, Matilda goes on an errand and never returns. Her destination and her history are much more shocking then anyone could have imagined. Mrs. Chalfont's story, as well as Mr. Ellin's tale, are interwoven into the narrative, where far too many contrivances and coincidences occur to make for credible reading. The excesses of fate and melodrama are among this novel's weaknesses. Also, during the seemingly never-ending period when Maltilda wanders through the stews of Victorian London, there is just too much repetition. As interested as I had become, I found the reading so tedious I was tempted to put the book down. I am reminded of the silent film episodic serial, "The Perils of Pauline." The perils never cease, but the suspense and drama do. I also seriously doubt whether Charlotte Bronte would have written as graphically as does Ms. Boylan about the perversions to be found in the back alleyways of London, especially child prostitution.
I find many similarities between "Emma Brown" and "Jane Eyre." I don't think Charlotte Bronte would have gone in this direction. Yes, there is the obvious similarity of the girl's schools, Lowood and Fuchsia Hall, where, when found to be a fraud, Matilda is tormented by her former benefactresses as much as Jane ever was by Mr. Brocklehurst. I accept that, and these scenes play only a small part overall. However, just as Jane was befriended by Helen Burns, despite her many humiliations, so does the once hostile Diana make friends with and comfort Matilda. Jane finds longed for maternal kindness in Miss Temple, as does Matilda with Isabel Chalfont. There is a governess who falls in love above her station, etc..
On a more positive note, the author is obviously familiar with Miss Bronte's writing, including her correspondence. At times I hear the voice she has strived to create throughout. She address effectively some of Miss Bronte's major themes, the search for one's identity, women's forced dependence no matter the social class, and the limited options open to educated but impoverished women. Elements of the story, apart from the girl's repetitive wanderings, are fascinating and certainly held my interest. I just feel disappointed that "Emma Brown falls short when my expectations were so high.