Saturday, 25 September 2010

Emma Brown by Clare Boylan

GENRE: historical novel

When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind twenty pages of a novel that signalled her most compelling work since Jane Eyre. One hundred and fifty years later, Clare Boylan has finished Brontë’s novel, sparking a sensational literary event. With pitch-perfect tone that is utterly true to Brontë’s voice, Boylan delivers a brilliant tale about a mysterious young girl, Matilda, who is delivered to a girls’ school in provincial England. When everything about the girl’s wealthy background turns out to be a fiction, it falls to a local gentleman, Mr. Ellin, and a childless widow, Isabel Chalfont, to begin a quest for her past and her identity that takes them from the drawing rooms of country society to London’s seamiest alleys. With all the intelligence and pathos of the novel’s originator, Boylan develops Brontë’s sketch of a girl without a past into a stunning portrait of Victorian society with a shameful secret at its heart.

I am a huge fan of Charlotte Brontë, so this novel was a must-read for me. The first two chapters were written by Charlotte Brontë herself, but Clare Boylan finished the story the great authoress had begun, but sadly Charlotte died before she could write anything more.

Clare Boylan tried to imitate Brontë’s pitch as much as was possible, and I think she succeeded wonderfully. There were passages that didn’t seem exactly like something Charlotte Brontë would have written, but most of the time, Boylan was truly pitch-perfect and I congratulate her for that. It is not easy to imitate a writer like Charlotte Brontë, but Boylan managed it. This shows that she studied Charlotte Brontë and did a lot of research, which is what I truly appreciate in an author.

The story itself would have been very revolutionary in Charlotte Brontë’s time and perhaps even scandalous, and as far as I am concerned, it would have been a deviation from Charlotte’s work, but at the same time it still retains her essence, in particular the essence that prevails Jane Eyre. I’d say the story is a mix of Charlotte Brontë as we know her from Jane Eyre and of Charles Dickens. At the time when Charlotte Brontë began to outline and then write what became Emma Brown, Charlotte became interested in the social situation of the lower classes in England, especially London, as well as in the hardships that women had to endure, which, in the case of Emma Brown, was (forced) prostitution. I absolutely loved the social awareness of the novel. It begins in a comfortable environment of a nice provincial English town and moves into the very gutters of London, shattering that comfort.

At first, I disliked the writing style, as the narration alternated between the first and the third points of view, but I got used to it. The story features some great characters – the widow Isabel Chalfont, Emma Brown, William Ellin and Finch Cornhill; these are the characters that are in the forefront of the story. Every one of them has a sad and powerful life story to share with the reader and I have to say that I felt closest to Isabel Chalfont and William Ellin. Although Emma Brown was the crucial, linking character, I felt as if this was Isabel’s story that evolved and reached its end through Emma, a girl that was a wake-up call for all these people. Isabel Chalfont is an older version of Jane Eyre, but with more social awareness and criticism to deliver. She is a female with a rich brain that she cannot exercise very often in her provincial town, but she has a strong will and keeps educating herself and nurturing her soul, which makes her a typical heroine of Charlotte Brontë. Emma Brown is a girl with an old soul, who is forced to grow up the hard way. William Ellin is a man searching for something to make his idle, comfortable existence meaningful, and Finch Cornhill is his exact opposite, dynamic and constantly on the move. Every one of these characters has suffered in some way, but they try to make the best of it, instead of simply giving up.

The plot is very interesting and quite suspenseful, but perhaps a bit too much at times. It’s one of those stories that involves characters who have no reason to have anything in common, but suddenly it becomes evident they share more than they believed it possible. Their lives become intertwined and I really love that, but at times it was a bit far-fetched. But all in all, a great plot, with much social awareness of the 19th century England. There is drama, romance and life.

I recommend this novel to lovers of the Brontë sisters, of the classics and of historical novels. Kudos to Clare Boylan for finishing Charlotte Brontë’s novel in such a wonderful and pitch-perfect way.



Introverted Jen said...

Great review!

I read this last summer, and I liked it well enough, but I rated it three stars because I just couldn't like Emma. I did love Isabel though.

Blodeuedd said...

I didn't know she had an unfinished tale, or that someone finished it. I'd like to read it and hope it is better than that unfinished Austen novel

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@Jen: I didn't really like Emma either, but she's a well written character in my opinion and I couldn't get past that in my review.

@Blodeuedd: Is there an unfinished Austen novel? Otherwise, Boylan's novel really did Charlotte Bronte justice, in my opinion.

Jan von Harz said...

Wow an unfinished manuscript what a great foray for an author. Love your review, and being a fan of Jane Eyre would love to read this some day. Thanks.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hmmmmm. I'm still undecided about other writers finishing the books of dead authors. =S

I read Scarlett, the sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and it was just awful to me! =( Yes, I know, it's not the same thing, because it's a whole other book, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

At the same time, I'm really curious about Emma Brown, for two reasons: a) Jane Eyre is my favourite novel and I'd love to read any book that retains its "essence;" and b) I like the joke that Jane Austen's Jane Fairfax is actually Jane Eyre (You might want to read that bit again--LOL!), so I'm up for any Charlotte Bronte character who is an Emma! I'm sure she won't be anything like Emma Woodhouse, though . . . =P

Thanks for the review! I hadn't even known this one was out. =)