- Emily Dickinson: The Novel
In 2007, Rose MacMurray’s Afternoons with Emily was published. In 2006, another novel with Dickinson as the main character appeared: Paolo Kaufmann’s The Sister: A Novel of Emily Dickinson, translated from the original Spanish publication in Cuba in 2003. These are the most recent novels in which Dickinson has a main role, but, in fact, most decades in the twentieth century have seen novels about the famous poet as a fictional heroine.
As a Dickinson scholar, I admit that I have shunned these books. After all, there already exists in the public imagination a fictional Dickinson, the Myth of Amherst—the Queen Recluse in the white dress, driven mad by lost love and scribbling obscure poetry out of her grief and solitude. This character came into being in Dickinson’s own time and still persists in ours, no doubt because of her very mysteriousness, resulting from both her elusive poetry and her elusive life. I always believed that I would see this fiction, repugnant to me, reincarnated again and again in the novels written about her.
But I am happy to report that I was wrong. In twentieth-century novels spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1990s, the fictional character Emily Dickinson seems instead to be the authors’ attempts to rectify the myth—by providing the reader with each writer’s idea of the “real” Emily Dickinson. These fictions are remarkably consistent. In them Emily Dickinson emerges as a young woman whom late twentieth-century feminist critics thought we had discovered: spunky, clever, rebellious, sensitive. To quote from the novels, she is “amusing, spirited” (Come Slowly, Eden), “a rebellious spirit!” (Miss Emily). All of her quirks and queerness are admirable, and she is presented as a true heroine.
In contrast, the two twenty-first century novels offer portraits that, while never questioning her genius, are much more critical of her character. Perhaps this [End Page 86] is because scholarly assessment of the poet—in particular, by feminist critics—has more or less released her from the constraints of the Myth. Certainly, by the twenty-first century (with the exception of some rote retelling of the Myth in grammar and high schools that, I have heard from students, still occurs), Dickinson’s stature as person as well as poet has become the dominant ethos. Still, Kaufmann’s narrator Vinnie Dickinson acknowledges, albeit with love, that her sister might be seen as “disturbed in an essentially irreparable way” (101), while MacMurray highlights the poet’s imperious narcissism along with her wit and brilliance. At this point in time, I think that these assessments do not diminish Dickinson for us; rather they add a necessary complexity to her characterization.
In this essay, I focus on novels in which Emily Dickinson is the protagonist: MacGregor Jenkins’s Emily (1930); Laura Benét’s Come Slowly, Eden, the completion of a book begun by the poet Winifred Welles (1942); Jean Gould’s Miss Emily (1946); Judith Farr’s I Never Came to You in White (1996); Paola Kaufmann’s The Sister (2007) and Rose MacMurray’s Afternoons with Emily (2007).1
The Twentieth Century
Emily, Come Slowly Eden, and Miss Emily create their plucky heroine by way of familiar tales from her biography. As a part of her troubled relationship with her father, for example, Emily wins a clever victory when she takes a chipped plate which he has told her not to place on the table before him and breaks it so that it will indeed, never be given to him again. Emily demonstrates her boldness when, as a student at Mount Holyoke Ladies Academy, she arranges a Christmas trip home to Amherst after the students have been forbidden to celebrate that holiday. She shows her high spirits and vivaciousness when she and her sister Vinnie host a dancing party at the Homestead one evening when their parents are away. Most famously, Emily demonstrates her independence of spirit and strong will by regularly rejecting pressure from the headmistress, Mary Lyon, to accept Christ and join the Church. Indeed, Emily’s characteristic stubbornness about doing things her own way is viewed as the essence...