The Sister: A Novel of Emily Dickinson

Written by Paola Kaufmann (trans. William Rowlandson)
Review by Tess Allegra

So little is known about Emily Dickinson that studies of her poetry provide the major insight into the recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts. Such interpretation is often subjective, but Kaufmann’s notable novel, written from the perspective of Emily’s sister, brings valuable information to the puzzle, drawing from authentic documents, papers and journals of the Dickinson family. Lavinia, a devoted yet conflicted admirer of her sister and her work, lived in Emily’s shadow and that of her brother, Austin, who was educated and out in the world; he even provoked a scandal. As Emily grew more detached, her poetry being her world, Lavinia was the more outgoing sister, wearing nice clothes and even falling in love—until she was betrayed by the lover of her youth. When Emily loved, it was from afar, with much more impossible suitors, and in longing rather than through personal encounters.

Emily’s energy was spent, purple pencil in hand, scribbling on bits of paper well into the night, while “Vinnie” took care of running the house. Visitors invited to tea were treated to Emily’s gingerbread, but not Emily herself. Personal encounters terrified her; she even avoided Ralph Waldo Emerson on his single visit to Amherst. He never returned. Writing as the sole family survivor, Lavinia winds many long threads into the Dickinson story, weaving one strand of time with another and back again. Though at times resentful of the burden of being “the sister,” overall there can be no doubt of her love for Emily and her legacy.