8.21.2011

Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #12 - Emma Brown, by Clare Boylan, based on the manuscript by Charlotte Brontë

I wouldn't actually call this a beach read. It's far too thick to lug to the beach and, honestly, the way I sobbed a little reading it on the train would also be inappropriate for the beach. You'll just have to let this one slide. My blogging schedule is very tight these next few weeks so you get what you get.

And what you're getting today is a beautiful book inspired by some twenty-odd pages Charlotte Brontë abandoned in the two years before her death. These same pages (it is assumed) inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, wherein a well-mannered and well-off little girl is established at a boarding school but, when she loses her father, the school keeps her on as a maid, of sorts, until she meets with a happy ending at the hand of an exotic gentleman who was previously a friend of her father's.

Most people know the Shirley Temple version or the 1995 version (Liam Cunningham FTW!!.... sorry... sometimes I'm a 15 year-old-girl...), both of which took liberties with that story and resolved the plot with the girl's father being recovered from an injury in the war (oh, he's not dead... we just thought he was dead!) and they're reunited la-dee-da. Well. It's interesting to see the way twenty pages of introduction can influence two decidedly different stories.

Boylan begins her version by including Brontë's twenty-page text, and then continues in Brontë fashion, that is from the perspective of a youngish (30s) widow. It is from her that we learn Emma's tale. You can almost see Mr. Carrisford and others in Mrs. Chalfont and in Mr. Ellin, whose backstory is taken from another unfinished Bronte work, and who, with Mrs. Chalfont, goes about Emma's salvation. True to Charlotte's style, there's more here than meets the eye--everyone involved seems to always have more history to share. Boylan fleshes them out in the form of self-narrative, something Charlotte Brontë was very accustomed to doing.

Boylan not only carried on in Brontë style and character, she considered Charlotte's life - her experiences in her later life which would have surely influenced this novel, had she completed it. She was very attuned to the plight of London's poor, and since Charlotte wrote best about what she knew, it's almost certain that similar episodes would have made it into her text. But while little Emma holds the title's name, it is the narrator's life story that is the most sympathetic and the most genuine.

Part of this surely comes from the fact that Charlotte was yet again writing as a governess whose life was not ideal - I'll grant Charlotte the credit for that. But the way in which Boylan brings her to life - quite literally by mashing together tiny bits and pieces of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Vilette. As Mrs. Chalfont's youth unfolds as young Isa on the page, she is vibrant and alive and, most importantly, full of passion. Passion is perhaps one of the most important qualities in a Charlotte Bronte novel. After all, it was she who criticized Jane Austen, saying "...she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood..."

True, passion is of the utmost importance and Boylan has written it beautifully. But while these similarietes stand, and the key features are honored, there is a certain unease in the pastiche. Boylan did, I'm sure, her best to capture Brontë's voice and tone, but by clipping together her past works and then laying her later life's experiences over them, the voice of the novel seems off. There is almost as much of Brontë in the stroytelling as there is of Thackeray and, perhaps even more so, Dickens.

I can see how that would irk a Brontë scholar, and it must be observed that, as much as we would like it to be Charlotte's novel, it is only Clare Boylan's. But for being her novel, it is touching and passionate and excellent. I borrowed this one from the library, and I truly regret it - I wish I'd sucked it up and bought it for myself. But hey, Christmas is coming!

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