Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel Paperback – February 14, 2011
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
From Publishers Weekly
The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin. From the first page, witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town's preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as a waste of money & a waste of time, and it's easy to see how Emily's poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine. Emily's growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate woman with a ferocious will and finally to that notorious recluse. However, while this vivid impersonation is a stylistic achievement, it's also confining and limits higher revelations. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Charyn carefully adheres to the known facts of Dickinson's life, and he has a thorough knowledge of her poems and letters, the strains of which echo through his clever and elegant prose. Despite these qualities, the critics' reactions were tepid and unenthusiastic. They collectively took issue with his characterization of Emily as fickle, unstable, and promiscuous--hardly the makings of a perceptive and profound writer. The Washington Post denounced Charyn's choice to exclude Dickinson's poems from the narrative as a "damnable omission," and the San Francisco Chronicle derisively labeled the novel a "bodice-ripper." Readers who cherish Dickinson and her astonishing legacy may find the heroine of Secret Life supremely unsettling; those unacquainted with her should perhaps start with a biography like Brenda Wineapple's White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higgins (HHHH Nov/Dec 2008). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support?
Top Customer Reviews
Charyn captures both Dickinson's language and her complexities. He freely intertwines fact with fiction, which is why I think reading this book as some kind of strict historical fiction/quasi-biography is a huge mistake. This isn't a biography or even a biographical novel. It's more akin to what Shakespeare's great Roman tragedies were: dramatic reworkings of sources that were themselves somewhat embellished (the layering of Shakespeare's Coriolanus to Plutarch's Caius Martius to the "real" Caius Martius, for example). A more contemporary example might be Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, which is largely autobiographical but (as I understand it) interpolates some fictive situations or twists--new layers to a real story. Like The House on Mango Street, Charyn's Secret Life is also told in a loose vignette style.
Out of the raw material of Dickinson's tempestuous life in the Amherst teapot, Charyn casts her as a somewhat reclusive spinster whose bottled-up passions are always at a boil and ready to burst. The story is relatively straightforward, and usually centers on Dickinson's interaction with one or two people at a time. Like Dickinson, Charyn has a mastery of the small, pithy sarcasm: "There was never a show-off like Emily Lavinia Norcross," she says to us in the first-person, "But I'd start a war between our families if I bludgeoned her."
Charyn's Dickinson is also a warm, acutely human observer: "I find Mother in the kitchen, reading a recipe. There is a delight on her face I seldom see. Perhaps the clarity of measuring cups soothes her. She looks up in wonder, her mind still caught in a world of ingredients." My own mother has a deep and abiding love of cooking and recipes--so perhaps that is why this passage struck me powerfully, but a world of meaning is crammed into this brief set of sentences. Charyn, like Dickinson, has the gift of packing mountains of meaning into molehills of sentences.
The ending (mild spoiler: Dickinson dies at the book's end) is an immensely moving fugue, as Dickinson walks almost like a ghost through a maelstrom of faces, voices, and memories that have filled the book from literally its first page. As the final chapters unfold, Charyn's Dickinson speaks with consistently powerful, forceful images (a dancing cow, for example), but it is clear the division between her lively imagination and reality is blurring and collapsing. The result is some of the most moving prose I've read in a work of modern fiction.
Coming off of a reading of Alfred Habegger's magnificent My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, I found this book to be a satisfying, intriguing, and even emotional read for anyone who loves the work of one of the greatest poetic voices in the history of American literature.
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.