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