Review: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn


An astonishing novel that removes Emily Dickinson’s own mysterious mask and reveals the passions and heartbreak of America’s greatest poet.

What if the old maid of Amherst wasn’t an old maid at all? Her older brother, Austin, spoke of Emily as his “wild sister.” Jerome Charyn, continuing his exploration of American history through fiction, has written a startling novel about Emily Dickinson in her own voice, with all its characteristic modulations that he learned from her letters and poems. The poet dons a hundred veils, alternately playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil. We meet the significant characters of her life, including her tempestuous sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert; her brooding father, Edward; and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, who may have inspired some of her greatest letters and poems. Charyn has also invented characters, including an impoverished fellow student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, who will betray her; and a handyman named Tom, who will obsess Emily throughout her life. Charyn has written an extraordinary adventure that will disturb and delight. (via Goodreads)

My Review:

First of all, I have to admit some things up front.  I have never been the world’s biggest poetry fan, and I know next to nothing about Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I know absolutely nothing about her life. So, I definitely did not open this book with the POV that I would in any way critique or chime in on whether or not the details of the story (or even the overall picture) are historically accurate.

The one thing I do know about her life is that as she aged, she grew increasingly eccentric without proper outlets to express herself. The prose of the book deteriorated along with Emily and I thought that was awesome. I’m not in any way saying the writing was ever bad (because it was gorgeous), but that the writing evolved along with the story.

Like I said, the writing was gorgeous. I think it was my favorite part of the book. One of my favorite things were the descriptions. I bookmarked a few examples:

Tom does not belong to the population of readers.

…Satan sings. Foul, with sulfur as his perfume, Satan is still a Poet.

I’m in too much of a tempest to taste a morsel. I haven’t relinquished all the poison in my well. The venom courses through my veins.

I just love the lyrical voice of the language, fitting of a poet. Instead of simply stating “Tom couldn’t read” or “I was still mad,” the language paints a picture.

There were several points that I thought the story was dragging, but again, if I’d been more of an Emily fan I don’t think I’d have ever been bored. Overall, I enjoyed seeing her from an angle I’d never have experienced from a study at school. Another thing I enjoyed was the historical context that I was literate enough to appreciate…the piece that sticks out the most being a debate on whether Currer Bell was a woman or a man.  I loved seeing Jane Eyre discussed, especially since it was new at the time – I’ve never seen it discussed as anything but a classic.

Anyway, overall I recommend reading this as a solid historical novel with beautifully written language. Even though it was slow at times, it was never enough to make me want to set it aside. If you’re at all a fan of Emily Dickinson and her poetry, I definitely think you’ll enjoy seeing her from a new perspective.

The book has a tour site, check it out here. You can also learn more about it on Twitter and Facebook.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Tribute Books February 1, 2011, 4:48 pm

    Allison, thanks for helping us kick off the blog tour for "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" by hosting the first stop. We appreciate your support of Jerome's book and for sharing the book with the wonderful readers of The Allure of Books.

  • Mrs. DeRaps February 1, 2011, 10:22 pm

    I'm going to put this right on my wishlist. Dickinson is one of my all-time favorite poets. Love her and would love to learn more about her life…even if it is supposed to be *secret*!


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge