I thought I'd read all there was to know about Emily Dickinson. But upon reading Jerome Charyn's historical, largely biographical novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON, I considered her in a whole new light. Could the famous recluse of Amherst, an obsessively private woman, who secretly stashed 1700 poems that were discovered in a dresser drawer after her death, have had a passionate, wild side?
My view of Emily Dickinson has largely been one of a great poet whose work reflects a life spent railing against a God she could not understand, nor fully accept, and a religious faith that was imposed upon her. Charyn has whittled away that view and has instead emphasized a flesh and blood human being who shares more universal baseline dreams, obsessions and longings. Drawing characters from Emily Dickinson's real life (and interspersing some fictionalized characters), Charyn shatters the image of Emily Dickinson as a repressed, timid spinster and portrays her as a willful, rebellious woman with great desires and ultimately, great disappointments in love. At one point, she even wanders alone into a disreputable "rum resort" and boldly sits on the lap of a man who is void of all manners. Could this really be the same Emily Dickinson whom history has cast as a prim, passive-aggressive-type?
The plot evolves around the great loves in Emily's life - and this part of the story (the real and the imagined) is what entices the reader most. These loves include a host of male figures, including her father and even her beloved dog, Carlo. Her brother, sister, sister-in-law and even a fictionalized best girlfriend from school, Zilpah - who becomes Emily's nemesis - also figure prominently. Charyn has a full grasp on the artistic temperament of his protagonist, a woman who displays dramatic fervor and intense devotion to the people and aims of her life. However, the author leaves admirers of Dickinson's work to speculate how these great loves might have influenced her poetry.
The book is told in the first-person point-of-view of Emily, whose voice is forthright and, at times, wickedly insightful. Charyn intersperses italicized, omniscient narrative chapters to segue scenes and offer back story. The novel opens at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Emily, a reluctant 17 year-old student, is enthralled by Tom, the campus handyman (an illiterate pick-pocket), complete with a racy tattoo on his arm. When Tom becomes ill, Emily secretly goes to help him and their attraction solidifies. When the headmistress gets wind of this, she expels Emily, and Emily is forced to return home. By then, Emily is completely smitten with Tom, who continues to make cameos over the course of Emily's life and the trajectory of the story.
Once Emily returns to "The Homestead," her story becomes rather episodic, entrenched in the relationships Emily has with her controlling father, the rest of her family, and Zilpah, who comes to work as a housekeeper for the Dickinsons and wins the favor of Emily's father (in addition to Emily's resentment). Zilpah and her connection to Tom serve to keep continuity to the plot as a host of men (potential suitors) cross Emily's path - each with his own unique connection to Emily, and vice-versa.
THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON is a well-told tale as a novel unto itself. It seems as though the author, in writing such a provocative story, has tried to imagine possible reasons why America's most alluring poetess lived such a mysterious, obscured life.
NOTE: This book was reviewed via an electronic ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of the novel as provided by Tribute Books.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn
(W. W. Norton & Company, Paperback, 9780393339178, 352pp.)
Publication Date: February 2011
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