Review

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

by Jerome Charyn

In an outstanding tribute to one of the greats, author Jerome Charyn brings Emily Dickinson back to her full living form, challenging perceptions we've been left with. The withered spinster with the blank stare is obliterated, and in her place is an intelligent, lonely woman who seems more sensual goddess than recluse. This account is by no means a flat history of her life but a tale of her obsessions and her loves. In all she did, Emily was driven by her gift for language and by an intense fervor that drove her to push the limits. This poet of Charyn's book is a rebel: one of America's earliest feminists, trapped in her own female form.

The writing here has been patterned after 19th-century literature (except in the convention that content be cloaked in propriety). And what writing it is! Polished, graceful and energetic --- language with the power to sway readers as Emily herself could. The six-part novel is written in Emily's voice with her speaking as she would to one of her admirers. Never does Charyn break from this style, so that soon Emily herself seems to be recounting her life to a trusted confidante. The scope is limited to events that mark her psyche, and in all, Charyn shows what makes Emily Emily. Many of her thoughts revolve around potential lovers; others rest on her passion for verse and her enduring affections for cherished family members.

The first stage of Emily's life opens with her early years at Mt. Holyoke, a seminary of cooperative young girls being molded into "Brides of Christ." Emily is trying to be docile and accommodating, but is seen early on as the most wicked kind of radical. One glimpse at Tom the handyman in his private quarters with his shirt off finds Emily in trouble with her frightening headmistress. Though she wants more to happen with him, the interruption stops that, ending in a scandal that sees Tom dismissed and Emily sent home.

The next stage takes Emily back to her family and then to Amherst College, where she makes quite an impression upon the scholars. Emily's early years here are full of conquest, with no shortage of suitors lined up to woo her. But to her, they are dull, the wrong sort of men to even hope to spark her interest. Emily has set her sights on only forbidden paramours outside of her social class, while her father holds off on all formal proposals as he's not ready to give her away.

Emily is a member of the upper class, her father being a Whig and a lawyer by occupation; he's also a famous Congressman and the Earl of Amherst College. She adores him and describes him as a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, he's very much like her and the only man who stands a chance at keeping her attention. His love for her is unconditional, but he is so well known and revered that it's something Emily cannot escape from. She wants to marry for love and at first seems to be dying to do so, but any path to acceptable matrimony has already been laid before her. And in Emily's mind, there is always the question of whether Pa-Pa ever intends to let her go.

After a number of "perverse" scandals, all involving Emily, her time at Amherst ends and she returns home to her family. Emily's years at Amherst have made her a bit of a hellion, but her family takes that with a grain of salt and she's glad to be back among them. She is dying now to have some sort of excitement at The Homestead, and is becoming more and more willing to take on any lover who will have her. These latter sections of the book all focus on Emily's years at home, a place that she never does leave in the end. Poetry and romantic conquests are ever-present in her mind during these years, yet her affections for her family really take precedence (and always have). Emily develops quite a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan, a woman with almost as fiery a disposition as Emily herself. But the sudden death of Emily's father eventually does break her; she becomes consumed by the guilt she feels at denying him her full devotion.

THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON has such a marvelous synergy about it, carrying a love for language in every breath and in every thought. Charyn is clever in the ways he takes you from one feverish pitch to another as he covers all the highs and lows of Emily's life. By no means is it a prerequisite that readers must be steadfast lovers of poetry in order to enjoy this, but you should at least be able to appreciate beauty in the best writing out there. Filled with Emily's wit, her excitement and all the passions of her youth, the book ends on a sweetly sad note, with Emily being haunted by her guilt until her own death. More than her never marrying, the loss of her father was what snuffed out her spirit. But never was it completely destroyed, and it's clear that Emily was always truly loved. Though this story is finally tragic, the triumphs of Emily's life do take precedence.

Jerome Charyn has created a lovely tribute here to a glorious, bold-hearted woman who also happened to be a great poet.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on April 28, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
by Jerome Charyn

  • Publication Date: February 14, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393339173
  • ISBN-13: 9780393339178