Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

Literary historians have lamented the fact that many of the most personal letters of Emily Dickinson were destroyed by her family after her death, so we don't really know much about her personal life.

Jerome Charyn, the author of the recently published novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, says he was inspired by her work early in his own writing career. This novel is his imaginative depiction of the inner life of the famous poet and recluse. Most of her personal letters were destroyed after her death by her family, so literary historians do not have much information about her personal life with which to compare Charyn's speculative version. I agreed to read and review this book as part of a book blog tour for Tribute Books.

This fictionalized account does follow the outlines of Dickinson's real life but focuses on her emotional attachment to several fictional men, none of whom are suitable matches for the Belle of Amhurst. 

Charyn writes in the voice of Emily Dickinson, with a few narrative exceptions, and has taken much care to echo her poetic conceits. For example, in the book Emily refers on multiple occasions to her "feathers" and "plumage", an obvious reference to her well known poem "Hope is a Thing With Feathers." While Charyn does an excellent job of making Emily's dialogue authentic to her time and place, I found the style hard to read and not engaging.

I read a couple of brief biographies on the internet to check the accuracy of Charyn's work and found that it is quite true to what we know about Dickinson's life, her family relationships, and her growing isolation from the world as she becomes the "Queen Recluse" of the last chapter of the book. The "secret life" is of course the work of the author's imagination and  is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes overwrought and improbable.

The ideal reader for this book would be someone like the delightful English professor my husband and I met on a group tour last summer who was not just a scholar of poetry, but also a lover of it--which I am not. I am sure she would be fascinated with Charyn's use of his subject's poetry in the fictional narrative. I appreciated it more when I finished reading it than when I was struggling through it, if that makes any sense.

One more observation: the book could have been better titled. "The Secret Life Of" sounds more like something from a tabloid like the National Enquirer or the Star than a work of literary fiction, which this is.