A vigorously detailed homage to a great 19th-century writer yields mixed results, in Irish author Boylan’s unusual eighth novel (following Beloved Strangers, 2001, etc.).
When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind a 20-page fragment of a piece of fiction tentatively titled Emma, at which she had worked fitfully for nearly two years. Boylan painstakingly extends its arresting premise: a young heiress’s arrival at a boarding school in the north of England (probably Yorkshire), the discovery that she is not what she seems, and her sudden disappearance. Emma Brown begins wonderfully, with the voice of Mrs. Chalfont, an elderly widow employed at Fuchsia Lodge, owned by the three maiden Wilcox sisters. Through her eyes, we observe the school’s delighted welcome of young Matilda Fitzgibbon and her suave father. Then, in a clever abrupt shift, an omniscient narrative introduces us to William Ellin, a Wilcox adviser asked to investigate the nonpayment of Matilda’s bills, her father’s unknown whereabouts, and several subsequent interlocking mysteries. The story here is consistently intriguing, and Boylan enlivens it with an impressive wealth of social detail, as Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin separately plumb their own past histories, attempting to learn What Became of Matilda. In addition to inevitable echoes of Brontë’s masterpieces Jane Eyre and Villette, Boylan layers in resonant echoes of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and other Brontë contemporaries—and reveals a huge debt to Henry Mayhew’s classic sociological study London Labour and the London Poor. But Boylan’s text is littered with anachronisms—ranging from language that would never have been used by proper Victorians to plot expansions that lead us, not just into London’s criminal underworld (very vividly evoked, incidentally), but to outraged responses to the evils of child endangerment that sound like the testimony of contemporary victims’ advocates.
Bold and engrossing—but not, in the final analysis, especially convincing.