The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel is Jerome Charyn’s love letter to the poet. He admits as much in his author’s note. His attachment is not unusual. Others have attempted first person, fictionalized accounts of Dickinson’s life. What is astonishing is the skill with which he assumes the voice of the poet, completely capturing the ferocity of her attachments and the violence in her language. He picks out (and sometimes overuses) all the idiosyncratic phrasing and touch-words that we associate with her work. There is no question that this is the Emily whose letters and poems have been handed down to us. She is Austin Dickinson’s “wild sister”, who would never be confused with the meek, timid spinster of legend. Charyn has done his research thoroughly, presenting a vibrant, red-head who burns and crackles off every page.
But having perfected the voice, Charyn seems to have trouble deciding what to do with it. The novel has no real trajectory. Told chronologically, it opens at Mt. Holyoke where Emily becomes infatuated with the school’s blond handyman. It is the first of many infatuations that make up the meat of the narrative. (At one point Sister Sue accuses Emily of having “a craziness for men”). And while the book also has a string of lovely, dreamlike images – Emily becoming a pickpocket’s ‘mouse’, a pair of yellow gloves, a circus elephant in mourning and Little Sister Lavinia dancing around the room after discovering the handmade booklets of Emily’s poetry – they are poorly woven together. Perhaps a more accurate title would have been The Secret Inner Life of Emily Dickinson… which is where the real action of the story takes place. All indications are that Dickinson had a rich and complicated mental life. I think it is a shame that Charyn made the choice of focusing on romantic fantasy rather than the real poetry.
Stream of conscious is tricky and can quickly get away from a writer if structure isn’t imposed. Charyn must have realized this, because at intervals (roughly coordinating with chapter headings) he inserts third person narration to help establish what point we have reached in Emily’s life. And the book spans her entire life from that first paragraph at Mt. Holyoke to her death. Many of the characters are complete fabrications, which didn’t bother me at all. But if I had a chance to question the author I would ask about where he drew his fiction/non-fiction line in the sand. There were several places where it felt like a fictional over-arcing plot was being developed, only to be dropped as another beau exited (if only temporarily) Emily’s life. Early chapters had all the makings of a good mystery. Obviously, Charyn did not intend to write a mystery. So what are we left with?
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson went on a little long for my tastes. (No lie – Once Dickinson reached her late 40’s I refreshed each page hoping she’d be dead on the next). I would have preferred more of a plot. But the writing in this novel is glorious. Charyn takes us into Emily Dickinson’s head – a woman whose poetry is still considered revolutionary and cutting-edge 125+ years after her death. That is a tremendous accomplishment. And for some readers it will be enough.
(And in case you disagree, you can follow the blog tour from here and read what some other bloggers think).
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2010).
ISBN: 978 0 3933 3917 8