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Boylan, Clare. Emma Brown.

BOYLAN, Clare. Emma Brown. Penguin. 450p. c2003. 0-14-303483-9. $14.00. JSA

When Charlotte Bronte died, in 1855, she left behind a two-chapter manuscript of an unfinished novel. The plot may sound familiar to Bronte readers and to admirers of Victorian fiction. Bronte's narrator is Mrs. Chalfont, a sympathetic onlooker. The first two chapters take place in Fuchsia Lodge, a girls finishing school run by the Wilcox sisters who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. They have few pupils, little money and grand pretensions. One day they are visited by a well-appointed gentleman, a Mr. Fitzgibbons, who brings with him a young girl dressed in the highest fashion; he wants to enroll her in the school immediately. Mr. Ellin, who subsequently figures large in the story, describes the young Miss Fitzgibbon as a "miserable little wight." However, the wight is the heiress to the Fitzgibbon fortune. The Wilcoxes accept the girl and elevate her to favorite pupil status, storing her beautiful finery in their own wardrobes. Within months, much to their horror, the Wilcox sisters find that Mr. Fitzgibbon is a fiction, nowhere to be found. The young girl is an imposter and, on being accused of being so, falls insensible to the floor. Mr. Ellin, having been summoned to witness her unveiling, rescues her from the Wilcox wrath.

Here Clare Boylan takes over and for the next 36 chapters treats the reader to a complicated Victorian plot enlivened by 21st-century insight. The characters all have secrets that are intertwined and have to be unraveled. Miss Fitzgibbon is rechristened Emma Brown; she must search out her real identity aided by Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin. The new author maintains the language and sensibility of 19th-century novels while adding historical and social perspective. Emma Brown is as long as a Victorian novel but doesn't seem so, and it is easier to read. The paperback includes "A Conversation with Clare Boylan," in which the author describes her motive for completing the manuscript, the research that she carried out, and most interesting, the care she took in preserving Charlotte Bronte's voice. Penelope Power, retired Libn., Baltimore, MD
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Author:Power, Penelope
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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