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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel

by Jerome Charyn

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12314162,799 (3.59)4
What if the old maid of Amherst wasn't an old maid at all? The poet dons a hundred veils, alternately playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil in this extraordinary adventure that will disturb and delight.



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The intriguing title and image (or, should I say the provocative title and image) caught my eye before I had read my first Jerome Charyn novel. I knew I had to read it as I developed my Emily Dickinson quilt.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is the culmination of Chrayn's life-long love of the poet. "I never quite recovered from reading her," he writes in the "Author's Note".

His portrayal of the poet will shatter your received image of Emily Dickinson. Narrated by Emily herself, the novel imagines the men and women who rocked her world and inspired her explosive output of secret love poetry.

Emily's voice is singular and alive, studded with images from her poems. The poems themselves do not appear, but are clandescently scribbled off-screen, although some were secreted into the public's hands against her wishes. We don't need them much; Emily's voice speaks her poetry.

Solving the mystery of Emily's love life has long baffled her readers. Was she lesbian, her sister-in-law Sue or their friend Kate Scott Turner Anthon her great love? Or was she enthralled by 'her Philadelphia', the Rev. Charles Wadsworth of Arch Street Presbyterian Church? She heard him preach while passing through Philly and corresponded with him. Or was it her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was a rare chosen recipient of her poetry? Or local newspaperman Sam Bowles?

Or someone lost to history? Like a handsome handyman at Mount Holyoke seminary?

She falls for the lowly orphaned handyman (later turned thief and circus clown). She would have eloped with the Amherst College tutor. She wants to hold the Rev. Wadsworth's hands, scarred from the manual labor that paid his way through school. Society--and the Dickinson patriarch--deem these men unfit for Emily's hand.

In the novel, Emily stalks the objects of her desire. She arranges secret meetings and roams the streets. She is wracked with unfulfilled desire, willing to cross Victorian lines of propriety.

The novel is an amazing marriage of fact and poetry and imagination that might just blow the top of your head off. ( )
  nancyadair | Mar 7, 2020 |
The truth can be hard to discern from fiction in this well written novel as it is apparent when taking a look at Ms. Dickinson’s life. Great care was taken to incorporate accurate details regarding places, times, people, and the like, making it almost an extension of those accounts we deem biographic in nature instead of a work of mere fancy. I for one am not usually for history laden stories; this time around I found the accuracy refreshing as I took a walk through a short history of the author’s life afterward via the net as a friend rather than an acquaintance. The author’s imagination was far from liberal except where liberties needed taking...such as her chance encounters with love and what may or may not have transpired.

Speaking of which, there seems to be many occurrences of late in works of a classic nature in which I am finding rather blush worthy situations. Here, Ms. Dickinson kindly refrains from being too brash choosing instead to make mention of ‘Vesuvius’ in scenes where the meaning can not help but be understand, though it is not always the same. It is easy to identify with Ms. Emily even through the trials of her fictitious life; her concerns are not so foreign, nor her passions and desires. The author did a wonderful job of creating a tangible life for this esteemed poetess.

When all is said and done, a truly enjoyable read with cover art that gets a raised eyebrow or two at times, but one certainly not to be missed. Whether you are a fan of the poetesses works or merely a rabid reader of fiction, this book combines a bit of both worlds so well in fact that they blend seamlessly (to my eye at least) together and may just leave you wishing to explore her life, times, and published works further upon reaching the final page. Recommended for older teens and adult readers. Happy reading! ( )
  GRgenius | Sep 15, 2019 |
Often a true reader emerges from a beloved book and writes her review in the rhythms and diction of the author. If she has a good ear, her review may echo her beloved accurately. Jerome Charyn has read Emily Dickinson, loved her, and now echoes her with uncanny accuracy, for his ear is impeccable.
[The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson] is a book-long echo.
Charyn’s Emily is a carnal woman trapped in the body of the spinster or old maid that she names herself. Charyn does not engage with the poetry but instead shapes his book around three characters of his own invention who allow Emily to reveal her true self.
This Emily meets Tom, the handy-man, at Mt. Holyoke. He is the only male on campus, so Emily is always aware of him. At the same time she has a relationship with Zilpah Marsh, a scholarship girl, beloved of the vice-principal, who is also attracted to Tom. (“Scholarship” and “vice-principal” are my words, not Emily’s of Charyn’s.) Emily scribbles and longs for a man who will allow her to escape the domination of her father, whom she also loves devotedly. This is actually not quite right. Charyn’s Emily is not a person who can be caught in a few words, but this is my best. She does emerge as a flesh-and-blood person, totally believable and, I suspect, totally true to the writer of her verses. ( )
  LizzieD | Aug 28, 2018 |
Oh dear. My husband won this book and was asked to review it. He passed it on to me. It was torture to read. I just could not get interested in the characters at all. The beginning showed a bit of promise, but Emily (as imagined by Charyn) was emotionally stunted and never matured. She was constantly pining for men she barely knew. I was just bored. I do not understand the great reviews this is getting. ( )
  BookConcierge | Feb 13, 2016 |
If you want to get to know Emily Dickinson then this is the novel for you. However mainly due to the title I thought that this book would be more scandalous with some hidden truths that Emily Dickinson would not want the world to know. However this wasn’t the case we are given the picture that Emily Dickinson is a ‘timid old maid’ and this wasn’t what I was expecting.

This novel is told from the point of view of Emily Dickinson and the language and the text is true to what Emily Dickinson would of used. The inclusion of her poetry was done well and was integrated into the novel.

Overall this was an enjoyable read and it’s only downfall was that I thought there would be more scandal within the novel.

This review was first published on http://everybookhasasoul.wordpress.com ( )
  everybookhasasoul | Feb 28, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Charyn has had a long and respected career as a novelist, and he notes in his introduction that he was inspired by Dickinson early in his writing life. “She was a country girl, and I was a boy from the Bronx,” he says. “I was hooked and hypnotized from the start.” Yet that odd-couple ardor has resulted in a novel that, like its arch but generic title, misses Dickinson’s fireworks.
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Tom the handyman is wading in the snow outside my window in boots a buglar might wear.
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What if the old maid of Amherst wasn't an old maid at all? The poet dons a hundred veils, alternately playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil in this extraordinary adventure that will disturb and delight.

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393068560, 0393339173

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