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When Charlotte Brontë, author of the classic novel "Jane Eyre" died in 1855, she left behind 20 pages of a manuscript of a new novel, along with some other scraps of pieces she had been working on. Almost 150 years later in 2003, Irish author Clare Boylan took it upon herself to complete what Charlotte had begun, and published "Emma Brown". Despite being published in the 21st century, this is truly a classic novel, and a credit to the Charlotte Brontë name and legacy.
Emma Brown is a tale of a young girl - Emma, of course - who goes through some of the most difficult and horrific things that one could imagine, even for Victorian England. Told from the perspective of a Mrs. Alfred Chalfont (Isabel), a woman who started out in poor circumstances and ended up in a position of both respect and able to help - to some extent - a few of those less fortunate than herself. She uses her uplifted status to assist Emma - a task made very difficult because the girl can't remember her own past, and has even been given the false name of Matilda Fitzgibbon and placed in a rural school for young ladies, Fuchsia Lodge by goodness knows whom! The story also goes into how Mrs. Chalfont got to where she is, and the difficulties she herself faced along the way - not the least of which was falling for a man too far above her station, and then being forced into a loveless marriage to another, solely to help care for her dieing mother.
The first thing you'll notice about this novel is that the language is far from 21st century, but not quite as difficult as that of some Victorian era novels you may have been exposed to previously. Still, there is a true feel of something close to that time, and Boylan has done her best to keep in line with Brontë's voice. Some phrases enter here and there that may seem a touch too modern, but the general feel is certainly aged and mostly consistent. I can't imagine how Boylan was able to push aside her own natural instincts to achieve this, and no small amount of credit is due her for succeeding here - even if there are a couple of minor lapses.
Probably just as taxing, but most likely the most interesting part of working on this novel, was inserting Charlotte Brontë's view of social injustice into the story. The situations in which these characters find themselves aren't all that unknown to us as we have read about them in the likes of Dickens, Austin and Thackeray. Dickens certainly showed the more squalid side of Victorian London to his readers, when few others had the guts to do so. However, he sometimes used hyperbole and comedic absurdities to help dull the sharp edge from his social commentary. Austin certainly knew first hand, and wrote almost only about how a lower income imposed a social glass ceiling upon those who were the moral and intellectual equals of the monied counterparts. But Austin's protagonists always made just enough of a crack in that ceiling to slip through and triumph fairytale-like into a financially stable happily ever after. Thackeray, in contrast, showed us through his satires how easily the upper classes can fall, and be felled, through their own foolish ways. However, Thackeray preferred to put most of the reasons for his character's changes in fortunes firmly in their own hands and due to their own choices, and hardly ever because of chance, luck or the doings of others.
Boylan, on the other hand, has taken all these elements just one step further. She delves into even muddier waters of the seedier side of London than Dickens, almost to the point of shocking. She also shows aspects of the British class system and how much more fluid it was than many, including Austin, would have admitted to. Finally, unlike Thackeray, while some of Boylan's characters are instrumental in their own changes in social standing, she doesn't discount that sometimes people prosper or fail due to things far beyond their own control. All this works in perfect harmony with Charlotte's own personal difficult history who also was appalled with many things she saw in the world around her, such as the plight of orphans, about which she wrote in "Jane Eyre".
This isn't to say that this is a novel you'll find heavy and hard to read. In fact, the book actually unfolds almost like a mystery novel, with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing, which gives its fairly lengthy text (over 400 pages) a real page-turner effect. And while the plot has many twists and turns, I in no way found any of it hard to follow. It is as if everything here just flowed - even when what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles were placed in the paths of the characters. Moreover, the characters are beautifully drawn, evoking sympathy for them and truly caring what happens to them - especially for Emma.
I know that I've been slightly evasive with many of the story's elements here, but this is only because I don't want to spoil it for those who may be interested in reading this book. I have to say that all told, this is truly a wonderful tale - even when there are scenes that will make you gasp in horror. It is well worth the effort, and I believe that anyone who picks this book up will have a very hard time putting it down. If you're looking for a classic novel to read, you could do far worse than "Emma Brown", even though it was published in the 21st century. A full five stars out of five and highly recommended.
Davida Chazan © March, 2010
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Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Abacus; New edition edition (1 July 2004)