Four years ago, novelist Clare Boylan innocently asked a question at a literary festival in England that led to, of all things, her co-authoring a book with Charlotte Bronte.
Yes, that Charlotte Bronte, the one who wrote "Jane Eyre" and died 149 years ago.
What Boylan, 55, asked was whether Bronte would have continued writing after her 1854 marriage if she hadn't died only nine months into it, at age 38.
In response, Bronte biographers Lyndall Gordon and Juliet Barker told her about a two-chapter manuscript Bronte wrote just before her marriage and might have completed had she lived longer.
"I was completely captivated," says Boylan, speaking by phone from her home in Ireland. Because of chemotherapy for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, Boylan says, her doctor advised her not to travel for this month's U.S. release of "Emma Brown" (Viking, $25.95).
Boylan tracked down the novel fragment, which Bronte called "Emma," soon after the conference, she says.
"I was more than fascinated. Here was a plain girl again.... It's my belief that she wanted a theme similar to 'Jane Eyre.' She was 30 when she wrote 'Jane Eyre.' Now she was 37, and she wanted a more multilayered story, a more mature viewpoint, as well as a passionate, youthful one."
Bronte was herself "small and plain," says Boylan, who is also under 5 feet, "and wanted to emphasize that there was more than met the eye to a small, plain, poor woman" in both this novel and in "Jane Eyre," which follows the orphaned Jane through boarding school and a troubled relationship with her employer, Mr. Rochester.
"Everything in those days depended on money and looks. It still does. There was nobody small and plain and poor in 'Sex and the City,' was there?" asks Boylan, who discovered that, in addition to sharing initials with Bronte, she also shares a birthday, April 21.
Then there was the page "that seemed to write itself" and the time Boylan "awoke in the night with the sense of somebody looking down on me." But she doesn't want to get "fanciful," as she puts it. "It was more a metaphorical presence," she says. "This is the only book I ever wrote that didn't feel lonely to write. This one had a sense of intimacy."
It seemed as though Bronte would "rap me on the knuckles if I indulged in a simile. Charlotte never used them. I think she wanted this book finished. I felt her as a slightly edgy presence, saying, 'Get on with it,' or 'No, don't do that.'
"I couldn't be Charlotte Bronte," says Boylan, but she did try to "go along with" her "Shakespearean rhythms," her blend of melodrama and irony, and what she calls Bronte's "maternal storytelling," as though sharing nursery stories. Boylan has written other period novels, though most of her books have contemporary settings.
For "Emma Brown," she visited libraries, museums and the sites where the novel is set, including hiring a historian to take her on what turned out to be a 10-mile, 10-hour walking tour of London. "I gave her a step-by-step list and asked her to describe things as they were then," says Boylan of the historian, named Jean Haynes, who is in her 70s. "My feet were actually bleeding" at the end, says Boylan. "She was fine."
The new "Emma Brown" focuses on a girl called Matilda who is dropped off at a provincial girls' school by a seemingly wealthy father who soon vanishes. Her background is mysterious; she later finds she is named Emma.
The book starts with the two chapters Bronte wrote, which were published in a literary magazine after her death. The story continues, seamlessly, with Boylan's inventions.
Boylan says she is "very sorry not to go to America, because Charlotte would have loved to go. But perhaps it's fitting that since the person who started the book couldn't go, the person who completed it couldn't go, either."