Charlotte Brontë is best remembered as the author of Jane Eyre (1847), a literary masterpiece and quite possibly my favourite novel of all time. In her lifetime she also published two other novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). Another novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857 after being rejected by publishers a decade earlier. Prior to this in 1846, Poems by Charlotte and her sisters, Emily and Anne Brontë, appeared under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Readers of my blog will know of Charlotte’s literary apprenticeship during her youth and early adulthood when she spent over a decade writing about her fantasy world of Glass Town and Angria. However, many people remain unaware of the fragments Charlotte composed following her abandonment of Angria in 1839. Whilst some of these are arguably recycled aspects of Angria, such as Ashworth, others written towards the end of her life are more puzzling and tantalising. Emma is one of these pieces.
Over the years many critics and readers have pointed to a lack of literary activity on Charlotte’s part following her courtship and eventual marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls between 1852 and 1854. It must be stressed that there is no evidence to suggest that Nicholls interfered with Charlotte’s writing (it was, after all, her primary source of income), however, it is evident that Charlotte began to slow down. This does seem strange especially when one has knowledge of the vast amount of writing she produced in her youth. It is possible that Charlotte did write more during this period, and that it simply did not survive, however, I’m personally inclined to think she didn’t. The reason for this may well have been her focus on her marriage and her determination to make it succeed rather than any direct interference from Nicholls.
We know from her surviving correspondence that Charlotte did not immediately fall in love with Arthur, but she certainly became fond of him in due course, writing on 26th Decemeber 1854 that he “is certainly my dear boy, and he is dearer to me today than he was six months ago.” Was it love though? That’s a question for another piece. Charlotte’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell also seems to have disliked Nicholls, however, she wasn’t fond of Patrick Brontë either, but fortunately time has righted her negative depiction of the Brontë patriarch. Ellen Nussey, a close friend of Charlotte’s shared Gaskell’s bad view of Nicholls, once writing of “that wicked man who was the death of dear Charlotte.” Others such as another friend of Charlotte’s, Mary Taylor, and the servants at the parsonage defended Nicholls, however, many people view him as being responsible for Charlotte’s lack of literary activity during their courtship and marriage.
That is not to say that Charlotte neglected her storytelling abilities completely during this time. Willie Ellin was begun in 1853, followed by Emma which is barely more than a fragment. It remained incomplete following Charlotte’s death in March 1855. Although it is a less substantial offering than other unfinished novels such as Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Jane Austen’s Sanditon, it too has a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, the manuscript of Emma is now lost, however, it has appeared in print several times since Charlotte’s death. Sir James Kay Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire was an acquaintance of Charlotte’s and he acquired the rights to Emma in 1856. It was initially published four years later in the April 1860 edition of the Cornhill Magazine. An introduction was penned by William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, and a talent Charlotte very much admired (she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him). In the introduction, Thackeray praises Charlotte and recalls their initial meeting in London as well as her “trembling little frame” that housed “an independent, indomitable spirit” and “extraordinary keenness of vision.” He could almost be describing Jane Eyre here. Thackeray also takes care to present Nicholls in a more flattering light than Gaskell, portraying him as a loving husband who encouraged his wife’s gift as they sat by the fire together. It seems like Gaskell, Thackeray too couldn’t resist straying too far from his novel writing background when documenting Charlotte’s life.
Emma is narrated by a wealthy widow named Mrs Chalfont. Seemingly wealthy heiress, Matilda Fitzgibbon, arrives at a struggling school for girls run by the Misses Wilcox. Although Matilda is solitary and somewhat anti-social after being delivered to the school by her father, Mr. Fitzgibbon, she receives preferential treatment from Miss Wilcox, angering the other boarders. One girl in particular, Diana, can’t abide this favouritism and storms out of Miss Wilcox’s presence while she is entertaining Mr. Ellin one night. Miss Wilcox does not particularly like Matilda and is inclined to stop her preferential treatment of her, however, Matilda’s fine clothing and the gifts she receives changes her mind. As the Christmas holidays approach, Miss Wilcox attempts to contact Matilda’s father to arrange her trip home, however, she is dismayed when her correspondence is returned having been undelivered and unopened. Mr. Ellin, a character re-used from Charlotte’s previous attempt at writing, Willie Ellin, is a good-natured figure who offers to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Mr. Fitzgibbon. On his return he announces that there is no trace of Fitzgibbon or his manor house. An angry Miss Wilcox demands answers from Matilda but she is silent and falls into a swoon. Ellin protects Matilda from the wrath of Miss Wilcox once it has been revealed that the man who called himself her father has disappeared without a trace, and unfortunately this is where the narrative ends.
Connections to Other Works
You can see just how much potential Emma has: an abandoned child, a mystery, a school, and social class issues. This is a solid and plot-driven piece with characters you have already warmed to or been intrigued by by the time Emma is cut short. Like Edwin Drood, there is a mystery at its heart that I could potentially become obsessed with and attempt to piece together by examining Charlotte’s other works and fragments.
Charlotte was no stranger to setting her writing in schools, however, with the exception of Jane Eyre, these schools are foreign schools. Unlike Jane Eyre, however, this is not a bad school, just a struggling one, but like Jane, Matilda is alone, friendless, and poor. The jealous school girls reminded me of the pupils in The Professor, and Miss Wilcox brought to mind Mademoiselle Zoraïde Reuter, and consequently, Wilcox’s treatment of Matilda made me think of Reuter’s relationship with Frances Henri. The incident where Matilda sleepwalks like an apparition also brought to mind Bertha from Jane Eyre when she creeps into Jane’s room and destroys her wedding dress. I also loved Mrs Chalfont’s use of the term “Reader” which was a term famously used in Jane Eyre but which is also used in both Charlotte and Branwell’s Glass Town and Angrian stories.
Emma’s “Mr. E” who takes tea with the ladies and seems to be pining after Miss Wilcox also initially reminded me of another Mr. E from another Emma. I am of course talking about Mr. Elton from Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name, Emma. Unlike Mr. Elton though, Mr. Ellin’s kind treatment of Matilda suggests he is more of a genuinely benevolent figure. In his introduction to the Alan Sutton edition pictured above, Tom Winnifrith also compares Emma to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905), and it is certainly possibly that it could have been inspired by Brontë’s unfinished piece about an heiress, her mysterious past, and her missing father.
There have also been two attempts made to finish Emma by different authors. Constance Savery produced a completed version in 1980 and more recently, Emma Boylan published Emma Brown in 2003. If you can track down Brontë’s original version though, it’s well worth a read despite its short length.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
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Charlotte Brontë quote is taken from The Letters of Charlotte Brontë 1852-1855 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), edited by Margaret Smith.
Ellen Nussey quote is taken from Strange World of the Brontës by Marie Campbell (Wilmslow: Sigma Leisure, 2001).
All other quotes are taken from Charlotte Brontë: Unfinished Novels by Charlotte Brontë (Dover: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993).