"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" might be considered a very unauthorized biography of the famed 19th century female American poet. She is a feminist and literary icon about whom we know very little; perhaps as little as we know about those other feminist, female literary icons of the early 19th century, from across the pond: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters. This may well be due to their natural reticence as creative women living in a man's world; to the protection of their families, to the fact that, as creative women, their lives were dominated by their work, and they hadn't much in the way of actual lives. However, for whatever the reasons, it does leave their lives wide open to interpretation, and we have recently seen many, many literary and filmed interpretations of Austen's life. And we have now a daring interpretation of Dickinson's life by Jerome Charyn, a well-known literary figure.
Dickinson, the "Belle of Amherst," her Massachusetts home town, was a well-born girl, the daughter of the attorney who was considered, at that time and place, the earl of the village. She was educated at Mount Holyoke, then, apparently, a restrictive, religiously oriented seminary, she loved her father greatly, lived in his house all her life, never endured serious money worries, and has come down to us through history as a prim and proper cameo of a repressed lady in white. But all sources agree that she did have a few flirtations, and she wrote poetry that is important to many people. As I have said elsewhere before, I'm not a poetry person, and therefore am not familiar with Dickinson's life or poetry: but I surely appreciate the fine deckle-edged book I see before me.
The story begins in the snow, in 1848, at Mt. Holyoke. To begin with, Charyn gives us an excellent picture of Dickinson's environment, a harsh one for man, woman, and beast, with, seemingly, a severe religious climate, and even more severe weather. Her home is as restrictive as is Mount Holyoke; nevertheless, she has her flirtations, and a literary life: it is fun to watch her excitedly discovering the work of Charlotte Bronte, and thinking about Mr. Rochester. (It's also noticeable that the working class women we meet, who are striving for better lives, end up universally pauperized, and generally, in the lunatic asylum, pretty much, therefore, as madwomen in the attic.) Charyn gives us rounded pictures of the village of Amherst at the time, and the nascent Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, and the nearby metropolis of Boston. He does much of this, however, in a voice he's invented for Dickinson, a 19th Century New England vernacular he based on her poetry: I found it impeded my reading and didn't much care for it. But the story was powerful enough to carry me along. He gives us a picture of Dickinson, who is imaginative, brilliant and witty, as we know she was; also mischievous, passionate and sexual, and surrounds her with a colorful gallery of actual people she knew, her brother Austin and sister Lavinia; her sister in law Sue, a rival and close friend, and her father Edward, a controlling Congressman. Charyn has also invented several characters, principally Tom, the Holyoke handyman, and Zilpah Marsh, her schoolmate and maid. As much as anyone ever has, inspired by her letters and poetry, he gets inside her skin.
It's quite an achievement for the Bronx-born Charyn, who now lives in New York and Paris. He has authored 38 other books, has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and has received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Some may think the writer has gone too far and dared too much in this book, but I'm not one of them.