The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jerome Charyn, like many of us, is in love with Emily Dickinson. And if there is one thing we know about unrequited love, it’s that the flame burns stronger in inverse proportion to access. What more can a lover do—having studied his absent beloved’s scribblings, fingered the pale stitches of her forgotten dress, and lurked in the shadows of her cold threshold—than console himself by conjuring her innermost thoughts and negotiating the mysteries of her motives? Who hasn’t carried on such a passionate, imaginary conversation with a loved one? But rarely does a lover’s portrait demonstrate such artistry that an observer might be forgiven for assuming it is the beloved’s own self-portrait.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is the fictional inner monologue of the great poet, beginning with her short tenure as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and continuing through later events of her life. Emily’s real father, brother, and sister-in-law are major characters, as are the fictional Tom, a handyman at the seminary, and a fellow student and rival named Zilpah. The interactions between these characters reveal how this famously-reclusive woman in a patriarchal society could write like a modern dervish.
The novel is remarkable, first, for resurrecting the feverish imagination that is one of the poet’s hallmarks. Rather than lifting lines from her poetry to convince us that we are hearing her voice, Charyn masterfully inhabits her style. The few quotes blend so seamlessly with the phrases he attributes to her that the reader may have to look up all of them to tell them apart.
But further, and what really makes this novel worthy of in-depth discussion, is the inner life Charyn has created. All is told from Emily’s perspective; her relationships, her reactions, her desires. Character Emily’s reflections, whether dark or playful or passionate, ring authentic to what we know of Historical Emily even as they present a glimpse of her life that is at once broader and more intimate than we have seen her before. We experience the fierce and limiting affection of her father that held her so close to home. We see her walking in the fields with her dog and her brother’s fraternity, and giddy over a bottle of rum in a tavern, rather than peering at the world solely from her bedroom window. We meet the missed opportunities for marriage hinted at in her letters and poems, as well as the romantic leading men of sensual dreams she never would have committed to paper. The narrative moves less by chronology or scene than by consciousness, Emily’s imagination dancing ahead and then flickering back, inviting the reader to catch up.
It is this stream-of-consciousness quality that leads Mark Traphagen, friend and fellow blogger, to call the novel primarily a “dreamscape.” When he posted this in his review—which first turned me on to the book—he was rewarded with an affirmative comment from Charyn, who noted that other reviewers seem to have missed this significance. Mark has since re-read the novel and is now writing an essay series on the dreamscape aspects of the novel. Though his essays contain some spoilers and will best be appreciated by those who have already read the book, a little taste of these is sure to send you looking for a copy posthaste.
This is a highly unusual novel, and one with the literary quality worthy of its heroine.