A novelist who takes Dickinson as a subject treads a path between capturing "the line of Emily's life," as Jerome Charyn says, and taking liberties with it. Charyn's Dickinson "dances like a Bomb abroad," in taverns, back alleys, dodgy neighborhoods. His Dickinson, "no recluse or saint," is "bitchy, petulant, and seductive, and also a mournful masochistic mouse …" (12).
Charyn knows Dickinson's biography, her poetry, her letters, and the history of a New England populated by religious zealots, crazy college guys, mental patients, immigrant workers, scofflaws, drunks, circus performers, and Men of Law. To this diverse company he introduces both fictional and semi-fictional people, such as Miss Rebecca Winslow (somewhat based on Maria Whitman, Mary Lyon's vice-principal at Mount Holyoke Seminary); Zilpah Marsh, a seminarian and Emily's rival; Brainerd Rowe, an Amherst College Tutor; and Tom, a handyman who arouses Emily's ardor by capturing a baby deer in the snow and releasing it. These characters occupy a plot that sometimes resembles a maelstrom, stirred by Emily's love of playing roles both mouse-like and royal.
Charyn's treatment of Dickinson's early romantic adventures displays a wacky humor. Of her romance with six-foot eight-inch George Gould, Dickinson says, "I have a difficult time looking up into his eyes, since I'm no higher than his navel" (82). At the local Tardy Tavern, Emily is given rum by Tutor Brainerd Rowe, her "Domingo," who also kisses her: "he burgled my mouth while gnawing at my face, and I burgled back" (99). Sitting in his lap, "I could feel Brainard's manliness against my flanks like some curious harpoon that swelled and did not sting" (102).
If we sometimes want more of the Emily Dickinson who writes hundreds of poems, and less of the Emily Dickinson who hankers for Valentines of both paper and flesh, Charyn nevertheless pays homage to Dickinson by taking her [End Page 124] poems into his own narrative. Sampling from their riches rather than inserting them whole is a risky choice, but he skillfully makes use of the poet's extravagant geography, her love of Shakespeare, her fascination with violence, her hunger, her two-faced God, her freaks, gnomes, giants, devils, mazes, palaces, storms, flies, lions, elephants, and witches.
Charles Wadsworth, the Philadelphia minister and the poet's "closest earthly friend," receives a bold (and credible) treatment as a Man of Sorrows who makes melodramatic appearances in the pulpit through a trapdoor and employs his "cavernous voice like a rifle shot in her ear" (139). Charyn's description of the poet's long wait for the minister to arrive at her door—"She was in constant readiness, like a live torpedo" (190)—nicely fits poems like "You taught me Waiting with Myself -" (Fr774).
Through the fictional Wadsworth, Charyn sketches another variation on the numbing pain of masks suffered by Austin Dickinson, portrayed as "an appendage to [his wife] Susie's salon" and Sue Dickinson, who "has a passion hidden somewhere beneath the volcanic ash" for the handsome editor Sam Bowles (202). Sue, who sneaks Emily's poems to Bowles for anonymous publication in the Springfield Republican, has a fine confrontation with her reclusive sister-in-law: "Pardon me, but you should have kept a trowel in your pocket if you wanted to bury your poems in the graveyard" (293). Sue as Preceptor out-classes Sue as knife-throwing harridan or stumbling tippler.
If Hell boils beneath the surface of The Secret Life in anger, pyromania, the Civil War, domestic strife, street gangs, and madness, its red center is the Northampton lunatic asylum. Here Zilpah Marsh acts out the fury that maddens many women in the book, especially those without Emily's privileges. Yet Zilpah arouses a compassion in Edward Dickinson that frees him from his public roles as "lawyer or squire or congressman." The lunatic asylum episodes puncture the surface of a culture...