- "A Piercing Virtue":Emily Dickinson in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall
The sense of working within a tradition is part of what the woman writer must have to establish that sense of individuality and autonomy that is necessary to create art. If, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar tell us, "the creative 'I AM' cannot be uttered if the 'I' knows not what it is" (17), then part of the way the "I" defines itself is through its identification with other, similar "I"s. Understanding women's influence on women, Elaine Showalter tells us, "shows how the female tradition can be a positive source of strength and solidarity as well as a negative source of powerlessness; it can generate its own experiences and symbols which are not simply the obverse of the male tradition" (11).
The experiences and the symbols of women's literature have been shared by women authors across centuries. Emily Dickinson only listened in on this conversation among the women authors of her century; although she read George Eliot, the Brontës, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, they knew nothing of her. In the twentieth century, however, her importance is [End Page 181] thoroughly acknowledged. The narrative strategies embodied in the tiny plots of her poems, her thematic concerns of love, death, renunciation and redemption, and her control of language are examined, shared, and rewritten by Margaret Drabble in The Waterfall, a novel in which Dickinson seems almost as much incarnation as she is influence.
Margaret Drabble's novels often seem to spin around themes clearly announced by their tides: The Needle's Eye is about the divestiture of riches; Realms of Gold is about the discovery of hidden treasure, personal and public. Allusive and literate, each Drabble text has as its donnée a previous text, a book of the Bible or a piece of poetry that it rewrites. The Waterfall takes its theme from a poem by Emily Dickinson that appears as its epigraph:
Drowning is not so pitifulAs the attempt to rise.Three times, 'tis said, a sinking manComes up to face the skies,And then declines foreverTo that abhorred abode,Where hope and he part company—For he is grasped of God.The Maker's cordial visage,However good to see,Is shunned, we must admit it,Like an adversity.
The poem speaks of the supposed three times that a drowning man attempts to save himself before going under and comments ironically that although we are supposed to want to go to God by dying, in fact we make every effort not to do so. The twentieth-century novel that follows this nineteenth-century epigraph is structured by water imagery and includes several important images of waterfalls, literal and figurative, but the Dickinson poem provides more than simply a clue to theme and image in the novel. It provides us with a way to understand the novel's heroine-narrator, who bears a striking similarity to the persona of Emily Dickinson's poetry. More important, it tells us much about the novel's mode of narration and about its language.
Jane Gray, the heroine of The Waterfall, is self-consciously the author of her own text, and it is as an author that she refers to those she recognizes as predecessors. Like Charlotte Brontë, she tells us, she has created a lover made of prose, living in "a Brussels of the mind" (99); like George Eliot, she has created a heroine (who is also her self) who "had a cousin called Lucy, as I have, and like me she fell in love with her cousin's man" (84). She compares her status-conscious family to families in Jane Austen's novels, although Jane Gray deplores some of Austen's solutions—"What can it have been like," she demands, "in bed with Mr. Knightly?" (66) At the end of her novel, she contemplates having [End Page 182] her lover suffer permanent injury so that she can keep him "as Jane Eyre had her blinded Rochester" (80). The novelists she mentions have indeed created plots not unlike hers, but Jane, we find out, is a poet, and there is...