This is a transcription of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Emma’ and New Books — 21 April 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a novel set in a midwestern family restaurant.
David: A Southern Gothic tale with a modern twist.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: If you like novels that intertwine food with family shenanigans, you might know the work of author J. Ryan Stradal. His previous novels — both well-received — are The Lager Queen of Minnesota and Kitchens of the Great Midwest. The author lives in LA now, but he grew up in Hasting, Minnesota. His bio says he ‘often failed his driver’s license exams, and graduated from Northwestern University, where he often slipped on the ice. He does not own a gun and a motorcycle, which makes him unique among the men in his extended family.’
Melissa: That sense of humor and local’s eye for telling detail seems to be the hallmark of his writing. His new novel is Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club. The story centers on Mariel. Her family owns the supper club of the title. It’s found on the shore of Bear Jaw Lake in Minnesota, and like it or not, it defines Mariel’s past, present, and future. Because she’s inherited the burden of the family business.
Melissa: I like how this is an American version of a British manor house story, you know? Finding out that you’d inherited some giant pile of a country estate at a dramatic will reading, it’s not always a blessing.
Melissa: This story is told in alternating points of view and shows how a family restaurant can be viewed as a gift, a safe place, or a burden, depending on your generation and point of view.
Melissa: The flap copy says it describes the ‘colorful, vanishing world of relish trays and brandy Old Fashioneds’ and Kirkus said it’s a ‘loving ode to supper clubs, the Midwest, and the people there who try their best to make life worth living.’
Melissa: This sounds like it would make a great pairing with Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Elyssa Friedland. That tells the story of the hijinks at a family-owned resort in the Catskills.
Melissa: This book is Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal is out now.
David: T. Kingfisher is an author who works primarily in Southern Gothic Horror. Her gift is lacing humor and a modern voice together with some alarming stuff. She’s got a new book called A House with Good Bones.
David: It’s set in the present day. A biologist — Samantha Montgomery — goes home to visit her mother. She’s looking forward to hanging out, drinking wine, and watching British detective shows.
David: But something’s wrong with Mom. She seems skittish and forgetful, which is a change from her usual buoyant self. And she’s lost a lot of weight. She also redecorated the house. It used to have brightly colored walls, but now it’s flat white. It’s starting to resemble what it looked like twenty years ago when Grandma was alive.
David: Sam starts digging around. And she doesn’t like what she finds. This book starts straight eerie and then wanders into Lovecraft territory.
David: The part that I’m enjoying the most right now, though, is the narrator’s voice. I picture her as Aidy Bryant. She’s smart and funny and fun to hang around with, even as things are going very poorly for her.
David: If you’re looking for a creepy trip into North Carolina, you might enjoy this. It’s A House with Good Bones by T. Kingfisher.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: If you’re listening to this show on its release day, today is Charlotte Brontë’s 207th birthday. She was born on April 21, 1816.
Melissa: As you probably know, she’s the author of Jane Eyre, aka, my favorite book of all time. She also wrote three other novels and a slew of poetry.
Melissa: Now, I’ve made a hobby of the Brontës. We’ve visited the Bronte Parsonage museum in Haworth. I collect copies of Jane Eyre. I’ve read all of Charlotte’s major biographies. But this week I learned something I’m somehow previously missed. When Charlotte died in 1855, she left behind a 20-page manuscript, a fragment, really, for a novel called Emma.
Melissa: Imagine: A cold winter evening in Yorkshire. It’s 1854. Charlotte has only been married to her husband Arthur Bell Nichols since the summer. Their courtship was not the breathless swoon of Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre, but in a letter to a friend, Charlotte wrote, ‘he is certainly my dear boy, and he is dearer to me today than he was six months ago.’
Melissa: Prior to getting married, Charlotte had spent her evenings writing. And now, as she sat by the fire with her new husband, she felt restless. So she ran up the stairs and fetched the novel she’d been working on. Then she read the first pages of her work-in-progress aloud to her husband. And his response was… less enthusiastic than she’d hoped. She put it away. And sadly, five months later, she was dead.
Melissa: By all accounts, Arthur Bell Nichols was kind. His lackluster response wasn’t meant to be cruel. He was worried about the plot.
Melissa: Because like her smash hit Jane Eyre, this new novel Emma centered around a young girl going away to school. But unlike our orphaned Jane, this girl — Matilda — is wealthy. Her father, Conway Fitzgibbon, Esquire, is the master of May Park, an estate in Midland County. The sisters Wilcox who run the school are delighted at the prospect of the girl’s annual tuition and her fine silk dresses. They dote on her, much to the chagrin of the other girls at the school. When the Christmas holidays arrive, Matilda’s father can’t be reached. Letters to him return unopened. No trace of him or his manor house can be found. Miss Wilcox angrily confronts Matilda, and the little girl falls into a swoon.
Melissa: And… that’s it. That’s all we have. A mysterious, abandoned child. A struggling school. Class issues. I weep for where Charlotte Brontë might have taken that story.
Melissa: I’m not the only one. Two authors have taken Charlotte’s 20 pages and run with them. In 1980, an author named Constance Savery wrote her version. But not even deep, deep Google dives could surface anything about that book beyond the fact that it once existed.
Melissa: In 2003, a writer named Emma Boylan wrote her own version and called it Emma Brown. It was pretty well-received. The New York Times said, ‘Boylan succeeds in creating a book that is convincing in voice even while it tells a vivid, dramatic, and richly absorbing story. Her sense of the period is both precise and evocative; the characters Brontë had briefly but confidently sparked into life are plausibly developed, while their histories are artfully entwined.’
Melissa: If you’re as curious as I am about this whole endeavor, the Internet Archive has a Librovox recording of those 20 tantalizing pages Charlotte wrote. Emma Brown by Emma Boylan is also there, so you can read along while listening to the audio. That book is also available in paperback.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more links to all of this plus more about the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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