A Bronte’s Story, Finished – “Emma Brown” by Clare Boylan
For “Emma Brown” isn’t just a lovely novel written by Ms. Boylan. It’s got a lot longer literary history than that. When Charlotte Bronte died, she left behind a twenty-page piece of a never-completed novel. Ms. Boylan took those twenty pages, fleshed them out, and completed the novel both with all due respect to Ms. Bronte, but with her own twists as well. The end result is the acclaimed 2003 release of “Emma Brown.”
Though she’s clearly a fan of Bronte and manages to keep one coherent voice through the entire novel, it’s Ms. Boylan’s hand that turns the novel to what makes it the most interesting – a mystery. It’s as if Ms. Boylan took the spark from Charlotte Bronte, added in the delightful mysteries of Wilkie Collins, and then sprinkled it with her own modern thinking.
A young girl named Matilda Fitzgibbon is dropped off at a girls boarding school, dressed in exquisite clothes and obviously wealthy. Soon, it’s discovered that she’s not rich, and her name isn’t Matilda Fitzgibbon at all – but Emma. She doesn’t remember her history at all, and despairs until a gentleman and a widow team up to find her identity. Meanwhile, Matilda/Emma has gone on the run to try and discover her own truth, and winds up in the seediest places in London.
The narration follows the three main characters – Matilda/Emma, Mr. Ellin (the gentleman) and Isabel Chalfont (the widow) as they make their way through the events of the story. All three are interesting, fully-formed, and complex characters. The more we get to know about their backstories, the more we care about them. This is particularly true of Isabel, our narrator, who brings the title character of “Jane Eyre” to mind in many ways, from her hard work ethic to her addressing the reader personally. I took it as an homage to the legendary Ms. Bronte and her most famous creation, and immediately felt like I found a friend in Isabel.
Having read a great deal of Bronte in my time, “Emma Brown” makes both a welcome addition to Bronte canon while at the same time bringing attention to Ms. Boylan, a remarkable writer in her own right. (Sadly, Clare Boylan passed away in 2006.)
This one’s for the Bronte nerds.