Miles away from the real Bronte

Novel mystery: After a year in the basement, has a bookseller found two lost works?
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As brand names go it is hard to beat Bronte. Like Sony, Heinz and BMW, it is short, instantly recognisable and known the world over. And this weekend we have had another example of just how powerful brand names are these days.

First, find a little known Victorian novel, written by a doughty, independent feminist, preferably covered in dust on some shelves in the darkest recesses of an antiquarian book store. Second, claim that textual analysis by computer shows the style to be that of Charlotte Bronte. Third, watch obscure, little-read novel transformed into best-seller by virtue of authorship. Fourth, start leafing through the nearest phone book for the number which most resembles the sum you hope to earn from the discovery.

In the media age, when books go on to become audio cassettes, television serials and films, discovering a lost masterpiece - or a lost mistresspiece - in your attic is like striking oil in your back garden.

Except that Ian King doesn't really look as if he is interested in money. From what one can see of his face, he looks rather pale. That is because the heavily bearded, antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh has just emerged from a year in the basement of his shop engaged in a the literary equivalent of an undercover mission, secretly piecing together clues to prove that Charlotte Bronte was indeed the author of two volumes he had found.

Mr King stumbled over Sad Times, a tract about the Luddites, in a bagful of books brought to his shop by a customer. Miss Miles, a novel dealing with hard times in the Yorkshire woollen industry before the Reform Act of 1832, attributed to the doughty Marty Taylor, was discovered in the National Library of Scotland where it was deposited in 1890.

If his findings are accepted, it will be a publishing sensation, worth perhaps millions of pounds, to literary agents, publishers and, quite possibly, Mr King himself.

Sadly, for Bronte lovers everywhere, it might be too soon to start celebrating. Scholars who have read Miss Miles say attributing it to the author of Jane Eyre would be a grave disservice. The novel could not possibly be her work. Yes, there are references to disagreeables and porridges, nuances characteristic of Bronte. Yes, it might be the feminist novel Bronte yearned but was unable to write.

But, no, the style is not hers. It lacks the emotional power of her four known novels. And the sceptics point out that one does not have to descend into the vaults of the Scottish Library to discover Miss Miles. It was last reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1990 and is well known to Bronte scholars. Lyndall Gordon, whose biography of Bronte, A Passionate Life, was published in 1994, says: "It would never have occurred to me that Miss Miles was by Charlotte Bronte. I think Mr King is deluding himself."

But Ms Gordon, who has studied correspondence between the two women, suggests overlaps are inevitable. "Their close friendship explains everything. Of course they shared ideas and language. But Mary Taylor is more interested in the economic situation of women while Charlotte Bronte explores the hidden lives of women and goes for the deeper portraits."

The heroine, Sarah, is the daughter of a shopkeeper, yearning to discover what it takes to be a lady. She is disgusted by what she sees of bourgeois life. The lives of the other protagonists, Dora and Maria, reveal the constricted options open to 19th century women of all classes. The novel is marked by its uncompromising feminism, not something usually associated with Bronte.

But Mr King claims it is the novel she always wanted to write. "I think that Charlotte Bronte probably knew when she was writing it that it would not be published for some time," he explains. To account for how it came to be wrongly attributed, he speculates that the manuscript was stolen shortly after her death in 1855.

This, too, Ms Gordon, dismisses as pure supposition. "There was an exchange in the 1850s when Mary Taylor told Charlotte Bronte she was writing a novel, the description of which matches the content of Miss Miles. A simple explanation for holding onto it until 1890 was that it was only then that feminist novels were being published."

But whoever wrote Sad Times, the winner from the affair is likely to be a feminist heroine. If it isn't Charlotte then for you, Mary Taylor, hitherto obscure Victorian novelist ... opportunity knocks.