The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel
W.W. Norton & Company
Published February 22, 2010
Review by Matt Bondurant
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson? Really? What’s next, Jane Austen’s Titillating Diary? Edith Wharton Bares All? The cover image, if you haven’t seen it, is a silhouette of a slim, attractive woman in an obvious nineteenth century gown that is see-through, as if we are looking at an x-ray, and we see the sexy poet herself in her frilly, saucy knickers. There should be an outcry. There isn’t.
I am not familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn, in fact I’ve never heard of him before. Michael Chabon, a writer I greatly admire, claims he is “one of the most important fiction writers in America today.” The thing is, the guy can write. From the first pages, the first person of voice of Emily is immediately charming. Young Emily is infatuated with the Caliban-like handyman named Tom, and watches him save a small fawn from deep snow: “But Tom the Handyman keeps the stunned little doe above his head & tosses it into the air as you would a sack. And what seems like an act of consummate cruelty isn’t cruel at all. The little doe unlocks its legs and starts to leap. What a silent ballet before my eyes!” It is an elegant and adeptly rendered scene and I am hooked. But the novel never gets better than that moment.
So much time is devoted to Emily’s doomed and comically redundant love affairs. She falls for several rascals, all of them lovable rogues, dangerous and a bit thorny, each with a heart of gold and a deeply sensitive intellect masked by their cavalier manner. They drink, steal, fight, study philosophy, skulk through the woods in the dark, hang about the railroad depot, and seem to turn up every few years just in time to sweep Emily up after she ends up in the gutter or a tavern. They share endless nicknames: Daisy, Domingo, Kangaroo, Mouse, Enobarbus, Currer, Thief, and trade coy Brontë and Shakespeare references. As her eyes begin to fail, Emily has a tendency to stagger around and pass out in various (nefarious) parts of town. Inevitably one of her suitors/protectors/lost loves shows up to rescue her. More witty banter of the nineteenth century sort ensues: “‘Sir, would you consider marrying me? I am tiny, that is true. But I can cook and mend your socks.’ I heard the lilt of his laugh again. I could tell that I had pleased him. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘Marriage is not a mouse.’”
Nobody would expect or demand the bottom of Emily’s poetic cupboard or to see what currents of air moved the fibers of her soul; that is task beyond the skills of the mortals that presently inhabit the world. No, the truly relevant secrets of Emily Dickinson remain shrouded in snow. But in Charyn’s book there is so little mention of her poetry at all that by halfway through it becomes disconcerting. Emily makes passing references to being struck by “lightning,” which is likely an apt metaphor. But in the first one hundred fifty pages, the word poetry, the craft, her writing, all of it is only mentioned in passing a couple times. In the final thirty or so pages, another lovelorn suitor (this one seduced by her published work) speaks to her of poetry and there are mentions of her famous little bound collections. We get one brief scene that suggests the origin of a Dickinson line when Emily with her failing vision spots her darling thief/lover Tom in the street: “I could not mistake the syllables of his blond hair. And for the first time in this metropolis my lightning struck like an earl. The sounds came to me. That blond Assassin in the sunlight.”
But little else. I can understand why Charyn would want to avoid the topic. In a first person work from the perspective of Emily Dickinson, how could you possibly approach the subject of poetry, much less her poetry? Even as a creative exercise it seems to tempt the old gods. I wouldn’t do it, either. But it seems as if the novel is intended to present Emily as a witty, thoughtful old maid with a few romantic dalliances who also happened to write a few poems in her spare time (though we never see any of it). It speaks of a motive that I thought was already tired and clichéd by this point: Emily Dickinson was a real woman! She wasn’t just an icy recluse living in the attic scratching out poems nobody saw! She fell in love and had feelings, too! Doesn’t everybody know this by now? It is the kind of thing you talk about in your undergraduate survey of poetry class when Dickinson’s time comes up.
It is fair to say that Charyn nailed down a fine approximation of her prose voice, a subtle linguistic portrait that never feels forced or too nineteenth-century. I do not doubt that many will fall in love with Emily’s voice as presented by Charyn, and perhaps experience a strong chord of empathy as she endures her love-trials.
Matt Bondurant was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, and attended James Madison University where he recieved a B.A. and M.A., and received his PhD from Florida State University, where he was a Kingsbury Fellow. He is a two-time Bread Loaf waiter and staff member, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. His short fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Gulf Coast Review, The Hawaii Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train, among others. He has also published poems in such journals as The Notre Dame Review and Ninth Letter among others. His two novels are The Third Translation and The Wettest County in the World. He currently teaches at the University of Texas-Dallas. Find him online at mattbondurant.com.