‘As much of a witch as Jane Eyre’ – The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

On the back cover of Ted Hughes’ selection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry her life is summarised by “Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived most of her life as a recluse, seldom leaving the house or receiving visitors.” Hardly promising material for a fictionalisation of Emily Dickinson’s life.

Luckily it’s written by one of the most inventive writers alive, Jerome Charyn. Charyn’s diverse works include his Isaac Sidel crime novels, memoirs about growing up in the Bronx and his remarkable spiritual history of table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins. The choice of table tennis as his favourite sport seems prophetic, in the 1940s table tennis was the sport of choice for hustlers and gangsters, and the book is written with a raconteur’s vibrancy, a love of the quirky and the ability to evoke characters unlike any other writer. These are the qualities he brings to Dickinson’s secret life (secret because her life was of the imagination and the poems grew from the life she invented for herself, her poems allowed the recluse to people her own world).

We first meet the young Emily at Holyoke, a seminary for the daughters of the local gentry, where she is already fiercely independent and becoming aware of her own intelligence, an intelligence that refuses to be bent to the strict religious faith of the school. She is attracted to Tom, the school’s handyman, because he is an orphan and Emily already feels that she “might as well have been shaken out of some orphan’s tree.” Yet, she isn’t an orphan, she is a devoted daughter who makes her father the centre of her life; he even prompts her first writing, letters to him from her school, and she feels that “my life, it seems, was one long letter to Edward Dickinson, Esq.” She has already made the association between life and writing (one can become the other) but both are in the shadow of her father.

In The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Charyn recreates the society (mainly of her family) that Emily knew, vividly drawing their characters and the role each plays in Emily’s imagination. For a recluse, Charyn’s Emily has many adventures, being particularly drawn to criminals, and she brings us into the America she travels through, a nineteenth-century America that feels intensely real. Little is known about Emily Dickinson’s life, the only real evidence Emily Dickinson left behind are the poems, and though he rarely quotes them Charyn evokes a character who could have written these poems, poems that are more like momentary impulses. The novel is written in Emily’s voice, a voice that is not a novelist’s pastiche but an authentic rendering of the experience behind those poems, and which is still the recognisable voice of a young girl. Charyn captures the moods and wilfulness of the young poet, her need to challenge and her pride in her poetry: “she didn’t believe that words could heal; they were dipped in hellfire.” After reading Jane Eyre Emily recognises her calling, feeling herself “as much of a witch as Jane Eyre” who can shape language for women and for the first time women will “have their own grammar and music, the prerequisites of a proper voice”. Common to all of Charyn’s writing is his ability to coin a language that seems conversational but is too well constructed, and dense with meaning, to be such. This could be Charyn’s finest achievement: he has plausibly filled in the imaginary life Emily Dickinson may have led; his novelist’s inventiveness creates a language that would have been coined by a lonely woman in nineteenth-century Massachusetts.

Any Cop?: An inventive, imaginative and convincing portrayal of the interior life of a writer; written with a remarkable attention to language.

James Doyle


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