"Reader, I married him." Few sentences in English literature are more resonant for women. Millions of us have been inspired by the story of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester: a triumph of brains and character over money, looks or superficial charm. When Brontë-phile and author Clare Boylan became aware that Charlotte's last piece of fiction was a twenty-page fragment originally entitled EMMA (curious, considering that Miss Austen's novel of the same name had been published in 1816), she decided that it deserved completion. This book is the result.
Happily, EMMA BROWN is not simply a pastiche. Yes, it borrows elements from all of Brontë's novels --- the governess who falls in love above her station from JANE EYRE, the ambiguous ending from VILLETTE, the blossoming of social conscience from SHIRLEY. There is also more than a touch of Wilkie Collins-style mystery and Dickensian melodrama. But the book has a rousing pace and beating heart all its own. The plot rockets right along, moving from high society to low, from the mean streets of London to the calmer splendors of village life. Above all, it is propelled by the tension among three intriguing figures whose secrets are gradually revealed --- a young girl known first as Matilda Fitzgibbon, then as Emma Brown, who is presented as an heiress at the local school for young ladies; our narrator, Mrs. Chalfont, a widow who adopts Emma when she proves to be neither rich nor well connected; and Mr. Ellin, an enigmatic local bachelor who joins forces with Mrs. Chalfont to find Emma's true identity (and, in the process, his own). This is a real page-turner, with dizzy switches between past and present, one subplot and another. I couldn't wait to see what happened next.
One of the many pleasures of EMMA BROWN is the style: rich, but never dense or slow. Boylan writes easily and well in the leisurely, philosophizing narrative voice so typical of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel. The characters' inner conflicts and musings are expressed less directly than in contemporary fiction, mediated by moral observations, sharp social commentary and the contemplation of nature.
Boylan is witty, too. Speaking of her late husband, Mrs. Chalfont says, "It was not the quality of marriage that dismayed me, but the quantity of it. Confined in close proximity to the plump and whiskery personage who considered me as much his property and as much for his usage as if I were his pipe or slippers, I had need to remind myself that this shackling was not for a week or a year, nor for the number of years to which a criminal might be sentenced to bondage, but until one of us ran out of breath."
This jaundiced view of matrimony makes it clear that female dependence and independence is a central theme of EMMA BROWN, one of the qualities that raises the book above mere imitation and gives it a moral and psychological center. The seeds of feminism are certainly present in Brontë --- that's why she is so well loved --- but Boylan takes the idea further, giving explicit value to the autonomous, educated woman who possesses both courage and self-conviction. The female characters in EMMA BROWN are emphatically more interesting than the males, yet it is Mr. Ellin, meditating on his own clouded history and Emma's, who brings out a second theme: "We have most of us mislaid our past, although some of us have done so on purpose."
In this pre-Freudian era, people were pretty much on their own in finding the roots of their unhappiness and attempting to reconcile their former and present selves. The main characters in EMMA BROWN are spiritual-psychological detectives. Although the ending is not walk-into-the-sunset happy, they all discover something important about themselves.
In any historical novel, particularly a recreation, there is a temptation to show off your research. For the most part Boylan wears her knowledge lightly; at times, though, details feel dragged in. When Emma befriends a homeless waif named Jenny Drew, who carries around dead babies in lieu of dolls and earns her living by collecting and selling dog feces, you suspect that these facts were found in a monograph on the misery of London's poor. And perhaps the attitudes in EMMA BROWN (including a proto-animal rights sensibility) are a little too p.c. to be true. You can't quite forget that a modern woman wrote this book.
But so what? Boylan isn't trying to copy JANE EYRE; she's using the conventions of a Victorian literary form, combined with the insights and convictions of our own age, to bring the author's voice back to life. Brontë was a radical soul born at a time when strong, passionate women had to hide themselves; EMMA BROWN shows them struggling to emerge. I think Charlotte would have liked that.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 12, 2004
Emma Brown: A Novel From the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë