From Publishers Weekly
When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind a 20-page manuscript, which Irish novelist Boylan (Holy Pictures, etc.) uses as the first two chapters of her own sprawling novel. The result is a deeply satisfying Victorian mystery, at once cozy, witty, didactic and melodramatic. A young girl named Matilda Fitzgibbon is deposited at a ladies' school run by the "fantastic, affected and pretentious" Wilcox sisters. But Matilda is a "pseudo-heiress," unrelated to the elegant (and now vanished) gentleman who enrolled her. Spurned by the Wilcoxes, Matilda is taken in by motherly Isabel Chalfont, a childless widow whose comfortable station and "middling" temperament conceal a passionate romantic history. But Matilda proves to be "no ordinary child"â"secretive and prone to fainting spells, she claims to have no memory of her past, other than having been "sold like a farmyard creature." When she runs away, stealing the money still due the Wilcoxes, Mrs. Chalfont turns to her enigmatic friend Mr. Ellin, who tries to determine what happened. Searches through London's dirty streets reveal nothing. Meanwhile, Matildaâ"who realizes that her name is actually Emmaâ"faces hunger, homelessness and conscription into child prostitution, as she searches for the mother who gave her up. Boylan's evocation of Victorian London is bleak but enthralling, and her characters turn Brontë's sharp sketches into nuanced creations. The plot is feverish and overly dependent on coincidence, and there are a few anachronisms, but who'll complain? Brontë purists, maybeâ"but other readers will embrace this as a treasure unearthed.
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Before she died in 1855, Charlotte Bronte completed two chapters of a new novel with the working title Emma. Boylan has constructed her own novel from this tantalizing fragment, in which a girl is deposited at a provincial boarding school under a cloud of mystery. The melodramatic plot revolves around the girl's search for her true identity. Boylan makes use of the characters introduced by Bronte and attempts to borrow her "voice" by using lines from her letters. She also plunges her heroine into a Dickensian foray into London's slums on the assumption that Charlotte would have wanted to use her own impressions of London as material for her fiction. Whether this novel is anything like the one Charlotte would have written is beside the point; Boylan's work succeeds on its own as a compelling tale. Though rather tame compared to Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002) and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), it should appeal to readers fascinated by Victorian England and its underside. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.