The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
There can be few challenges more daunting for a writer than attempting to take on the voice of another writer, particularly one known for the distinctiveness of her own voice. In The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Jerome Charyn, aided, as he tells us, by studying Dickinson’s letters, succeeds in the audacious task that he has appointed himself. Using a blend of historical and purely fictional characters, he imagines Dickinson’s life from her short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1848 through her last reclusive days. In doing so, he illuminates the emotional life of a woman whose poetry is much better known to us than her persona.
Beautifully written with some lovely turns of phrases, as befits its subject, this is a clever literary novel by an author who has a palpable respect and admiration for Dickinson and her writing. Though the author’s sheer cleverness at times distanced me emotionally from the heroine and the other characters, I nonetheless found the novel as a whole to be a moving and fascinating depiction of Dickinson’s relationships, the milieu in which she moved, and her rich inner life.