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Emma: A Fragment Written by Charlotte Bronte: All the Elements of a Great Story, and Yet…

Welcome back and thank you for returning to JASP’s series dedicated to exploring the abbreviated, abandoned, unfinished, and rough drafts of novels that were written by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Our examination began with a brief study of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, The Professor, and it continues today with reviews and recommendations surrounding her work entitled Emma. So, come along, friends. Cruise through these short pieces with us and discover the first drafts of stories that might’ve been different, had time, circumstances, and illness not taken their authors away from the task of writing them.

Hello, friends and fellow Janeites.

            Today we seek to read and dissect Charlotte Bronte’s unfinished work, entitled Emma. For those of us who cannot abide doing anything halfway, this short reading will be torturous. It begins well enough, showcasing all the elements that might lead to a great story. But then, because the author died abruptly, before having any time to flesh out her characters and continue with this manuscript, the work is left undone. There is little to read, but much to analyze, and so, we carry on and delve into this piece together.


            The story begins with a frame setup in which Mrs. Chalfont, a widow, is addressing the audience, but she wishes not to tell her own story. Or rather, it seems as if she’s going to tell a tale relating to her own life and her search for “the ideal” but she never gets around to it because we, the reader, are only privy to the details so far as Miss Wilcox is concerned.

            And that is when the journey begins, once we join the Misses Wilcox. The Wilcox sisters, of which there are at least three, run a school together. And we learn from Mrs. Chalfont that the school, in the very beginning, struggled because the sisters could not find young ladies to educate. It was in a state of despair and that prompted the Misses Wilcox to make a terrible mistake. Because they were so eager to make money and see their business thrive, they took on any boarder and young pupil who showed themselves.

In chapter one, Mr. Fitzgibbons arrives at the house, eagerly looking forward to enrolling his daughter in the Wilcox sisters’ school. He purports to be well-to-do and judging by his mannerisms, as well as the exquisite gowns his daughter wears, the schoolmistresses agree to take young Miss Fitzgibbons on as their charge at once. Not only do they need the money to keep the business open, but they also look forward to having the patronage of someone who is so respectable as Mr. Fitzgibbons.

            At the beginning of chapter two, a family friend, Mr. Ellins, is introduced as a man who loves to gossip. He regularly visits the Misses Wilcox, and it is standard procedure for the young ladies of the house to spend time in his company. While the Wilcox women talk with him, the girls who are studying at the school might be asked to display their musical talents. Miss Fitzgibbons does not possess any such accomplishments yet, but she is invited, almost always, to join the throng. It is explained that Miss Wilcox dotes upon Miss Fitzgibbons, treating her almost pettishly, because of her status in society and desire to make a good impression on someone whose father is so powerful. But the other girls in the school resent this preferential treatment just as much as they abhor Miss Fitzgibbons’ way of looking down upon them. One of the young ladies, Diana, after finishing her performance of a piano concerto, rises from her seat and says Miss Fitzgibbons does not deserve praise. She acts as if she is better than everyone else because she’s rich, but she’s not good at all. It is odd that young Diana is not scolded for making such a pronouncement, but instead, this bit of foreshadowing is left hanging there, so that hopefully the reader will absorb its true meaning.

            Matters at the school become a little odd when, to celebrate Miss Wilcox’s birthday, a box of fruit arrives. It seems to have been sent by Mr. Fitzgibbons and so the goodies are shared with all the girls. But when Miss Fitzgibbons eats some of the fruit, she becomes ill. Almost at once, she starts to suffer from bouts of sleepwalking. She is unsettled and restless during the day, then at night, she wanders the house. Miss Wilcox becomes so worried about her young charge that she takes to having Miss Fitzgibbons lie on a nearby couch, so she is always at hand and under careful watch. But then, the author suggests that this treatment as well as Miss Fitzgibbons way of glorying in it are soon to end and both characters will learn a lesson from their behavior.

            Just before the Christmas holiday, Miss Wilcox sends a note to Miss Matilda Fitzgibbons’ father, Mr. Conway Fitzgibbon. She wishes to know what is to become of her young charge during the break from school. Will she stay at the house or go home to celebrate? This is standard procedure, and the letters Miss Wilcox sends to the homes of her other students are returned with a response post-haste. But she does not hear from Conway Fitzgibbons for weeks. And, when a reply finally does arrive, it is the same one Miss Wilcox sent. On the exterior of the letter, a note is scrawled, letting Miss Wilcox know there is no Mr. Conway Fitzgibbons and the estate he spoke of owning, May Park in Midland, does not exist.

            At once, Miss Wilcox reaches out to her friend, Mr. Ellin, and begs for his assistance. Quite interested in this bit of duplicity, he embarks on a journey to Midland County. After spending a week there, he returns to let Miss Wilcox know the results of his search were fruitless. It appears as if Mr. Conway Fitzgibbon is a fictional character and the sprawling estate he intimated having is no more than a figment. Enraged, Miss Wilcox summons Miss Matilda Fitzgibbons and demands answers. But the young lady gives her nothing. As the story concludes, Miss Fitzgibbons has been taken ill, with a headache, and she refuses to speak the truth about the matter. Miss Wilcox wants to push and get the answers she feels she deserves, but Mr. Ellin cautions her to wait. He will question the young lady in the morning.

Impressions and Overall Thoughts

            It is wildly disappointing that this tale ends at this point for a bevy of reasons. First, the reader is left with this tremendous mystery to solve. Who is Miss Fitzgibbons, really? Was she simply a pawn in a game the gentleman who dropped her off at the house was playing or was she somehow in on the setup? And then…in what way could Matilda Fitzgibbons profit from being part of such a scheme? Surely, she is currently receiving free room, board, and an education from the Misses Wilcox, but to what end? Why did she come to the school?

            The questions continue because it is yet to be discerned how the narrator, Mrs. Chalfont, is part of the story. Does she work for the Wilcox sisters? Is she a neighbor or friend? And who, of course, is Emma? Is that the Christian name of Mrs. Chalfont or Miss Wilcox, or was that meant to be Miss Matilda Fitzgibbon’s true given name?

            Undoubtedly, a plethora of scholars have reviewed this text time and again, in hopes of understanding what was here and determining where the author meant to take the tale, but all those musings are simply that—fantastic flutterings. We cannot know what would’ve happened with this story or its characters if Charlotte Bronte had continued with her writing. In this piece, as she does in other works, like The Professor, she shows a certain amount of respect for abstract feelings and emotions, going so far as to personify aspects like “Fortune” and “Rumour”. So, it can be assumed that Emma would’ve also served to teach a lesson to its readers…and yet…what did Charlotte Bronte wish to say with this story?


            In an introduction that was written by W.M. Thackeray and originally published in the “Cornhill Magazine” in April 1860, he speaks of feeling the loss of his friend and this great artist keenly. But he also references how Charlotte reacted after first sharing this bit of work with her husband. When he questioned her writing style and said it might be marked or critiqued as being “repetitive”, she replied airily that she’d change that bit because she always stopped, started, and revised several times before becoming truly happy with her work. And it is with that thought the reader must sit. This fragment of Emma was but a first draft and it is likely that much would’ve changed before it was properly published. But for now, feel free, dear reader, to peruse the text for yourself and wonder away at what would’ve become of these characters—Miss Wilcox, Mr. Ellin, Mrs. Chalfont, and Miss Matilda Fitzgibbons—had the work drawn to its natural completion.


            Please, consider joining us next time as we skirt away from the work of the Bronte sisters and dive headlong into the abandoned novel, The Watsons, that was penned by Jane Austen.


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