Emma Brown: A Novel From the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte. Clare Boylan. 2005. Penguin. 464 pages.
We all seek an ideal in life.
The first two chapters of this one were written by Charlotte Bronte. A note to the readers shares that these chapters were written after the publication of Villette and before Bronte's marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls. Clare Boylan inspired by those chapters--and by another unfinished fragment written by Charlotte Bronte--wrote Emma Brown.
Who is Emma Brown? That is the question?! When "Matilda" is dropped off at boarding school--a school run in the Misses Wilcox's home--she's thought to be well off, a lady. But when the money for her schooling doesn't arrive, and further correspondence with her family fails completely, the women lose patience, hating the fact that they've been fooled. They blame "Matilda" for everything. Turns out that "Matilda" is really Emma. Not rich, not genteel, just plain old Emma Brown. The girl isn't sure of all her own history. She does know that some things are best kept secret.
Emma isn't completely friendless. A few in the community do take an interest in her case, in her story, in the mystery that is her past, her identity. Can Mr. Ellin and Mrs. Chalfont find out who the girl is in time? How will knowing Emma change their own lives, their own destinies?
I liked this one. It wasn't always an even read. (I think I liked the first half better than the second.) But I liked it for its exploration of life's injustices--it's a novel that examines how women and children could be treated, mistreated, ignored, and slandered by others. It's a novel about poverty, about hardships. It's a novel that can be dark in places. (Poor Jenny Drew and her "dolls.") But it's not a novel without hope, without love, without redemption.
Here's an exchange between Matilda--soon after she's found out--by Miss Wilcox:
"Look at you!" she declared. "You have faded away to a scrap of dust. You scarcely exist at all."
"I do exist," Matilda protested, but her voice, too, was dulled to dust. "My soul exists. Does not scripture say that all else is vanity?"
"How dare you talk to me of vanity?" Miss Wilcox said; "you who dressed like a princess with no pretension to the title!"
"If those clothes did not make me a princess then these will not make me a beggar," Matilda whispered, with weary defiance.
"Do you not care that I have stripped you of all that gave you significance?" Miss Wilcox spoke almost in wonder.
"Not unless I believe significance to be rolled up in a bale of cloth."
"You have the devil in you," Miss Wilcox declared. She marched the child to the fireplace so that she could see herself in the overmantel. "Now how do you like yourself?"
Matilda gazed with interest. Her pale face showed no perceptible change of expression but her eyes were keen and she looked over her reflection as if inspecting a stranger.
"Do you realize," said Miss Wilcox, "that if I put you outside the door at this moment, you would be just another urchin in the street?"
"I would be free," Matilda breathed. (66)
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews