Seeking an ideal in life

Charlotte Brontë: Emma (1855)
in Unfinished Novels
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

Not to be confused with Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), Charlotte Brontë’s fragment of a novel remained incomplete at her death in 1855, forty years after Austen’s saw the light of day. As Tom Winnifrith in his introduction reminds us, Austen’s Sanditon and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood continue to fascinate us, getting us wondering what the authors may have intended had they managed to finish their tales; and the same applies to Emma. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess allegedly took Brontë’s broad hints for a plot and ran with them, but all we are truly left with in the original is that tantalising opening, the one beginning “We all seek an ideal in life.”

The first puzzle is the identity of Emma. Who is she? The narrator (who addresses us directly as “reader”) tells us she is the widow Mrs Chalfont, and we guess she is around forty (perhaps not coincidentally about Charlotte’s age). Thereafter she disappears from the fragment’s pages. Is she the titular character? We never find out.

The second mystery concerns the identity of the poor little rich girl called Matilda Fitzgibbon sent to a small girls school run by the Misses Wilcox. What’s the history of this taciturn girl? Who is her father, Conway Fitzgibbon, and why is there no trace to be found of him when the end of term arrives?

To start with Matilda, apparently with wealth to support her, is treated as teacher’s pet by Miss Mabel Wilcox (who hopes thereby to substantially increase the school’s income); unsurprisingly this results in Matilda being shunned by the handful of other pupils — Mary, Jessy and, in particular, Diana. But the girl’s odd behaviour and lack of sociability is compounded when she starts sleepwalking.

When missives to Matilda’s father’s address are returned as undeliverable, a regular visitor to the Wilcox establishment — a bachelor called Mr Ellin — offers to investigate, only to find that neither the residence of May Park, Midland County nor its alleged occupier Mr Fitzgibbon appear to exist. When violently charged by Miss Wilcox to explain everything Matilda collapses, and Mr Ellin offers to question her more gently. And at this point the fragment teasingly stops.

Even in this truncated form this has so many traits one recognises from Charlotte’s earlier novels — the knowing humour, the cutting descriptions of adults, the telling thumb portraits, the sympathetic treatment of those who’d been victimised, and the confident writing style honed over decades. One wishes she’d been able to continue.

It may be of interest to know that Emma was published posthumously in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, along with a starry-eyed introduction (included in this collection of unfinished tales) by Charlotte’s friend William Thackeray:*

With a feeling much akin to that with which I looked upon the friend’s — the admirable artist’s — unfinished work, I can fancy many readers turning to these — the last pages which were traced by Charlotte Bronte’s hand.

Of the multitude that has read her books, who has not known and deplored the tragedy of her family, her own most sad and untimely fate? Which of her readers has not become her friend? Who that has known her books has not admired the artist’s noble English, the burning love of truth, the bravery, the simplicity, the indignation at wrong, the eager sympathy, the pious love and reverence, the passionate honour, so to speak, of the woman? What a story is that of that family of poets in their solitude yonder on the gloomy northern moors!

Though Charlotte’s husband Arthur Nicholls commented that, because her tale was set in a school, “The critics will accuse you of repetition,” she blithely responded, “Oh! I shall alter that. I always begin two or three times before I can please myself.” Thackeray sombrely, if not a little melodramatically, observed:

But it was not to be. The trembling little hand was to write no more…

Tom Winnifrith’s commentary gives some of the background to those final attempts to pen a novel, including of course Emma. Of the three other incomplete pieces in this collection — the others include Ashworth and The Moores — another also has a Mr Ellin; but I shall discuss The Story of Willie Ellin and its possible links with Emma another time. Meanwhile one has the possible consolation that there have been attempts to complete the last ever story Charlotte has left us, Constance Savery’s Emma (1980) and, more recently, Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown (2003).

However I fancy I shall focus next on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s variation, her Cinderella-like treatment of Emma in A Little Princess which was published in 1905, exactly half a century after Charlotte’s untimely death, though FHB had worked on a shorter treatment nearly twenty years before that.


* William Makepeace Thackeray, ‘The Last Sketch’, in Cornhill Magazine, April 1860

31 thoughts on “Seeking an ideal in life

  1. Fascinating to see the similarities–usually, I stay clear of unfinished works, but it would be interesting to see how CB would treat a similar storyline–I do like the voices she gives her characters, Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe in Villette for that matter

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    1. I’m saving Lucy Snowe’s story till last, Mallika, as a treat! Hence my reading Brontë’s other bits and pieces first.

      Disappointingly, Charlotte’s Emma stops just at the point we have had our attention grabbed. It seems to be a classic fairytale scenario: a mysterious child with missing parents, a witch-like stepmother figure, a kindly bystander, jealous ‘stepsisters’ in the form of the other girls at the school.

      Yet we’re kept wondering, Who is Emma? Is it Matilda, the mystery girl, or is it the narrator Mrs Chalfont? CB’s first person narratives that I’ve read have William Crimsworth as ‘The Professor’ and Jane Eyre as the protagonists we’re meant to sympathise with, so Mrs Chalfont’s brief appearance is a puzzlement.

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      1. Lucy’s narrative I find is the most complex–she isn’t exactly reliable (or very likeable), has many secrets to hide, and is hard to understand as well–and to me that made the book really interesting to read, and I felt CB did a wonderful job of it.

        I haven’t read the Professor yet and Shirley (which isn’t first person, if I remember right), I don’t remember very well, so need to get to those two sometime soon.

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        1. No, Shirley isn’t first person, and she doesn’t even appear for a good quarter of the book, does she, which is quite confusing on a first read. Anyway, glad I’m leaving Lucy till last, and I’m interested in how she transforms the essential plot of The Professor (English teacher in Brussels attracted to student), swapping gender roles and hopefully providing a more satisfying envoi.

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            1. Yes, I gave an all-too-brief blink-and-you-miss-it mention of that and an earlier completion in the post; however, I’ve read neither so no idea if they’re worth chasing up.

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  2. How tantalising! I too want to know more. The similarities with A Little Princess are striking as are the fairy tale connections. Shamefully although I knew there was unfinished work I had never read of these links before. I’m looking forward to reading your views on A Little Princess too.

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    1. Thanks, Anne, the FHB novel is high up on my 10 Books of Summer list, so you may not have too long to wait!

      This collection of four incomplete fragments is very short (it’s described as a ‘pocket classic’ though it doesn’t actually fit in any of my pockets!) and I’ve got just one more of these pieces, ‘Ashworth’, to finish properly having only skimmed through it.

      Of the remaining fragment, The Moores relates closely to Shirley (where the brothers are also called Moore), The Professor (as here, the brothers are also called William and Edward) and ‘The Story of Willie Ellen’ (William and Edward — again!).

      I hope to do a post some time about her obsession with two contrasting brothers, in these pieces and in her Angria pieces — but I need to read a lot more of her juvenilia…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with the previous commenters, you’ve made Emma seem tantalising, and I too don’t usually like reading something that didn’t get finished by the original author. Not sure why, as most of the films and dramas I like are written by teams of scriptwriters…

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    1. That’s the key word, isn’t it, Cath: ‘team’ — hard to call a collaboration separated by two centuries a team effort! And is that any different from a translation from page to visual medium (eg the popular TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) in which, say, a scriptwriter has to come up with new dialogue and take other liberties with plot and characters?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. How right you are to identify my casual use of that word ‘team’. It does make all the difference, and in turn, I like your choice of the word ‘liberties’, and I’d provocatively add, ‘criminal’ (on occasion).

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            1. Don’t mention the film version of HHGG, sadly misguided: I loved the radio version from way back more than the book even, but even the BBC TV series was more faithful than the movie. And Dracula? I couldn’t be bothered.

              Liked by 1 person

            1. Nothing wrong with pernickety, I suppose — but I think that with current events, political as they must inevitably be, many of us are getting increasingly pernickety if we weren’t already.

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  4. You’ve left us tantalized too, Chris, almost as Charlotte has with her unfinished Emma 😊 A Little Princess was a childhood favourite. I shall await your thoughts and the development of this thread with interest 🙂

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  5. How much did she manage to write – you call it a fragment so I’m curious whether she managed to write more than Austen did with Sanditon.
    As for the people who tried to finish the book – I wish they wouldn’t !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She wrote two chapters though, as the manuscript is no longer extant, whether those two chapters (and the paragraphing) were editorial when published in the Cornhill Magazine or what CB wrote originally I don’t know!

      I don’t mind completions — the more the merrier! — so long as it’s clear where the transition is. I was really disappointed with the Sanditon adaptation, however, not so much the outcome as the way it was done — it’s episodic nature was not in the spirit of Austen (who had two or three ‘acts’ because of the way fiction was published in her time) being more akin to Dickens’ novels published in magazine instalments. In particular the will-they-won’t-they courtship was tedious, unworthy of both Andrew Davies as well as Austen.

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      1. I gave up on Sanditon part way through episode 2. It was awkward because we were having some landscape gardening work and the guy doing the work was an extra on sanditon – his first ever film work so he had stars in his eyes. He kept asking what we thought of it!

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        1. Awkward indeed! I may have mentioned before that our son is a key grip in TV and film and, as Sanditon‘s production company was based in Bristol he was asked to be on the film crew but I think he went for a Poliakoff drama followed by Doc Martin, a wise choice in retrospect.

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            1. Not sure why this comment ended up in spam, which I check now and again, maybe because it started with a lower case letter? Anyway, I’ve not heard any more either about a second series — I think Andrew Davies may have made a false step here, unless the production, direction, or actors were weaker than the script.

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