When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she left behind twenty pages of a novel that signaled her most compelling work since Jane Eyre. One hundred fifty years later, Clare Boylan has finished Brontë’s novel, sparking a sensational literary event. With pitch-perfect tone that is utterly true to Brontë’s voice, Boylan delivers a brilliant tale about a mysterious young girl, Matilda, who is delivered to a girls’ school in provincial England. When everything about the girl’s wealthy background turns out to be a fiction, it falls to a local gentleman, Mr. Ellin, and a childless widow, Isabel Chalfont, to begin a quest for her past and her identity that takes them from the drawing rooms of country society to London’s seamiest alleys. With all the intelligence and pathos of the novel’s originator, Boylan develops Brontë’s sketch of a girl without a past into a stunning portrait of Victorian society with a shameful secret at its heart.
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Clare Boylan is the author of seven novels, which include Holy Pictures, Room for a Single Lady, Black Baby, and Beloved Stranger. She has also written several works of nonfiction.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
We all seek an ideal in life. A pleasant fancy began to visit me in a certain year, that perhaps the number of human beings is few who do not find their quest at some era of life for some space more or less brief. I had certainly not found mine in youth, though the strong belief I held of its existence sufficed through all my brightest and freshest time to keep me hopeful. I had not found it in maturity. I was become resigned never to find it. I had lived certain dim years entirely tranquil and unexpectant. And now I was not sure but something was hovering around my hearth which pleased me wonderfully.
Look at it, reader. Come into my parlour and judge for yourself whether I do right to care for this thing. First you may scan me, if you please. We shall go on better together after a satisfactory introduction and due apprehension of identity. My name is Mrs. Chalfont. I am a widow. My house is good, and my income such as need not check the impulse either of charity or a moderate hospitality. I am not young, not yet old. There is no silver yet in my hair, but its yellow lustre is gone. In my face, wrinkles are yet to come, but I have almost forgotten the days when it wore any bloom. I lived for fifteen years a life, which, whatever its trials, could not be called stagnant. Then for five years I was alone, and, having no children, desolate. Lately, Fortune, by a somewhat curious turn of her wheel, placed in my way an interest and a companion.
The neighbourhood where I live is pleasant enough, its scenery agreeable, and its society civilized, though not numerous. About a mile from my house there is a ladies’ school, established but lately—not more than three years since. The conductresses of this school were of my acquaintances; and though I cannot say that they occupied the very highest place in my opinion—for they had brought back from some months’ residence abroad, for finishing purposes, a good deal that was fantastic, affected and pretentious—yet I awarded them some portion of that respect which seems the fair due of all women who face life bravely, and try to make their own way by their own efforts.
About a year after the Misses Wilcox opened their school, when the number of their pupils was as yet exceedingly limited, and when, no doubt, they were looking out anxiously enough for augmentation, the entrance-gate to their little drive was one day thrown back to admit a carriage—”a very handsome, fashionable carriage,” Miss Mabel Wilcox said, in narrating the circumstance afterwards—and drawn by a pair of really splendid horses. The sweep up the drive, the loud ring at the door-bell, the bustling entrance into the house, the ceremonious admission to the bright drawing-room, roused excitement enough in Fuchsia Lodge. Miss Wilcox repaired to the reception-room in a pair of new gloves, and carrying in her hand a handkerchief of French cambric.
She found a gentleman seated on the sofa, who, as he rose up, appeared a tall, fine-looking personage; at least she thought him so, as he stood with his back to the light. He introduced himself as Mr. Fitzgibbon, inquired if Miss Wilcox had a vacancy, and intimated that he wished to entrust to her care a new pupil in the shape of his daughter. This was welcome news, for there was many a vacancy in Miss Wilcox’s schoolroom; indeed, her establishment was as yet limited to the select number of three, and she and her sisters were looking forward with anything but confidence to the balancing of accounts at the close of their first half-year. Few objects could have been more agreeable to her than that to which, by the wave of a hand, Mr. Fitzgibbon now directed her attention—the figure of a child standing near the drawing-room window.
Had Miss Wilcox’s establishment boasted fuller ranks—had she indeed entered well on that course of prosperity which in after years an undeviating attention to externals enabled her so triumphantly to realize—an early thought with her would have been to judge whether the acquisition now offered was likely to answer well as a show-pupil. She would have instantly marked her look, dress, &c., and inferred her value from these indicia. In these anxious commencing times, however, Miss Wilcox could scarce afford herself the luxury of such appreciation: a new pupil represented £40 a year, independently of masters’ terms—and £40 a year was a sum Miss Wilcox needed and was glad to secure; besides, the fine carriage, the fine gentleman, and the fine name gave gratifying assurance, enough and to spare, of eligibility in the proffered connection.
It was admitted, then, that there were vacancies in Fuchsia Lodge; that Miss Fitzgibbon could be received at once; that she was to learn all that the school prospectus professed to teach; to be liable to every extra; in short to be as expensive, and consequently as profitable a pupil, as any directress’s heart could wish. All this was arranged as upon velvet, smoothly and liberally. Mr. Fitzgibbon showed in the transaction none of the hardness of the bargain-making man of business, and as little of the penurious anxiety of the straitened professional man. Miss Wilcox felt him to be “quite the gentleman.” Everything disposed her to be partially inclined towards the little girl whom he, on taking leave, formally committed to her guardianship; and as if no circumstance should be wanting to complete her happy impression, the address left written on a card served to fill up the measure of Miss Wilcox’s satisfaction—Conway Fitzgibbon, Esq., May Park, Midland County. That very day three decrees were passed in the newcomer’s favour:
1st. That she was to be Miss Wilcox’s bed-fellow.
2nd. To sit next to her at table.
3rd. To walk out with her.
In a few days it became evident that a fourth secret clause had been added to these, viz, that Miss Fitzgibbon was to be favoured, petted, and screened on all possible occasions.
An ill-conditioned pupil, who before coming to Fuchsia Lodge had passed a year under the care of certain old-fashioned Misses Sterling of Hartwood, and from them had picked up unpractical notions of justice, took it upon her to utter an opinion on this system of favouritism.
“The Misses Sterling,” she injudiciously said, “never distinguished any girl because she was richer or better dressed than the rest. They would have scorned to do so. They always rewarded girls according as they behaved well to their school fellows and minded their lessons, not according to the number of their silk dresses and fine laces and feathers.”
For it must not be forgotten that Miss Fitzgibbon’s trunks, when opened, disclosed a splendid wardrobe; so fine were the various articles of apparel, indeed, that instead of assigning for their accommodation the painted deal drawers of the school bedroom, Miss Wilcox had them arranged in a mahogany bureau in her own room. With her own hands, too, she would on Sundays array the little favourite in her quilted silk pelisse, her hat and feathers, her ermine boa, and little French boots and gloves. And very self-complacent she felt when she led the young heiress (a letter from Mr. Fitzgibbon, received since his first visit, had communicated the additional particulars that his daughter was his only child, and would be the inheritress of his estates, including May Park, Midland County)—when she led her, I say, into the church, and seated her stately by her side at the top of the gallery pew. Unbiased observers might, indeed, have wondered what there was to be proud of, and puzzled their heads to detect the special merits of this little woman in silk—for, to speak truth, Miss Fitzgibbon was far from being the beauty of the school: there were two or three blooming little faces amongst her companions lovelier than hers. Had she been a poor child, Miss Wilcox herself would not have liked her physiognomy at all: rather, indeed, would it have repelled than attracted her; and, moreover—though Miss Wilcox hardly confessed the circumstance to herself, but, on the contrary strove hard not to be conscious of it—there were moments when she became sensible of a certain strange weariness in continuing her system of partiality. It hardly came natural to her to show this special distinction in this particular instance. An undefined wonder would smite her sometimes that she did not take more satisfaction in flattering and caressing this embryo heiress—that she did not like better to have her always at her side, under her special charge. On principle, for she argued with herself: This is the most aristocratic and richest of my pupils; she brings me the most credit and the most profit: therefore, I ought, in justice, to show her a special indulgence; which she did—but with a gradually increasing peculiarity of feeling.
Certainly, the undue favours showered on little Miss Fitzgibbon brought their object no real benefit. Unfitted for the character of playfellow by her position of favourite, her fellow pupils rejected her company as decidedly as they dared. Active rejection was not long necessary; it was soon seen that passive avoidance would suffice; the pet was not social. No: even Miss Wilcox never thought her social. When she sent for her to show her fine clothes in the drawing-room when there was company, and especially when she had her into her parlour of an evening to be her own companion, Miss Wilcox used to feel curiously perplexed. She would try to talk affably to the young heiress, to draw her out, to amuse her. To herself the governess could render no reason why her efforts soon flagged; but this was invariably the case. However, Miss Wilcox was a woman of courage; and be the protégée what she might, the patroness did not fail to continue on principle her system of preference.
A favourite has no friends; and the observation of a gentle man, who about this time called at the Lodge and chanced to see Miss Fitzgibbon, was, “That child looks consummately unhappy”: he was watching Miss Fitzgibbon, as she walked, by herself, fine and solitary, while her schoolfellows were merrily playing.
“Who is the miserable little wight?” he asked.
He was told her name and dignity.
“Wretched little soul!” he repeated; and he watched her pace down the walk and back again; marching upright, her hands in her ermine muff, her fine pelisse showing a gay sheen to the winter’s sun, her large Leghorn hat shading such a face as fortunately had not its parallel on the premises.
“Wretched little soul!” reiterated the gentleman. He opened the drawing-room window, watched the bearer of the muff till he caught her eye and then summoned her with his finger. She came; he stooped his head down to her; she lifted her face up to him.
“Don’t you play, little girl?”
“No! why not? Do you think yourself better than other children?”
“Is it because people tell you you are rich, you won’t play?” The young lady was gone. He stretched out his hand to arrest her, but she wheeled beyond his reach and ran quickly out of sight.
“An only child,” pleaded Miss Wilcox; “possibly spoiled by her papa, you know; we must excuse a little pettishness.”
“Humph! I am afraid there is not a little to excuse.”
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