Review: Mr. Emerson's Wife: A Novel
Amy Belding Brown. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2005.
This historical novel, with an emphasis on the historical, gives voice to a key member of the transcendental circle who rarely could express her own fully. Such a work must be fiction, to fill crucial gaps and bring the reader into the mind and feelings of the subject. The trick for the author is to fill these gaps plausibly, based on what can be known about the time and the person. Even though a reader might disagree with some of the directions taken by the author, it must be clear that "yes, it could have been this way" or "surely this is what she thought." The language of the book and the characters must also be tuned to its time and place. Amy Belding Brown, well versed in all that is known about the transcendentalists, has that well-tuned ear.
The transcendentalists were extremely verbal, keeping journals and writing letters voluminously in addition to their more formal writings and lectures, indulging in hours of high-flying "conversations." Yet they reported little about their private lives, their longings, frustrations or conflicts, even jealousies, in their personal relationships, at least not directly. The careful reader can find faint traces of these emotions, hiding under the discourse on friendship and marriage in particular. Brown is one of these readers, and her focus is Lydia(n) Emerson, the true center of one of the most interesting households in American thought.
The Emerson household was a kind of experiment in communal living from the beginning, based on Emerson's desire (one shared to a degree by his wife) to make their home in Concord an intellectual center, a "country haven for scholars and philosophers....a center of refinement and transcendent thought." (as Brown interprets Emerson's proposal) So the house was frequently filled with like-minded residents as well as Waldo's mother--young women such as Elizabeth Hoar, the "widowed" fiance of Charles Emerson, Lucy Brown, Lydian's sister, and "master worshippers" such as Margaret Fuller, and for months at a time, Henry David Thoreau, handyman, disciple, and very close friend to Mrs. Emerson.
In The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about another transcendental community, modeled on Brook Farm, where romantic impulses and jealousy soon bubbled to the top of the close associations of young people. And so it seems to have been in this household, according to Brown's novel, but with less tragic results.
The marriage did not begin auspiciously, as Emerson asked Lydia Jackson to become Lydian Emerson, wishing a less common name. The author describes her reaction: "Your words are flattering. Yet the fact remains that you wish to take my given name and make it into a modifier." Very likely she did not use these precise words, and perhaps she did not react verbally at all, but the truth of the observation becomes clear quite soon--she was to "modify" this already distinguished man, and the true partnership she dreamed of would be a difficult one. Also, she would never hold the place in his heart deserted by his young, tubercular first (and virgin) wife, Ellen Tucker.
Amy Belding Brown offers a full portrait of Lydian Emerson, with her loyalties, powerful mixed feelings, conflicted independence of thought, from just before her marriage until soon after the deaths of Fuller and Thoreau, the two most problematical elements of this marriage. Less developed, but still ringing true, are the other characters in this drama, and for once, Emerson is not the focal center.
Historical novels often bring people from the past to life, but Brown has done more than that-- her writing is exceptional. For example, in the beginning, a friend urges her to attend a reception to meet Mr. Emerson. "Mary touched my sleeve, her hand a clutch of bone and nail sheathed in ivory gloves." Or later, during their brief courtship, Lydian mentions her hope that they might be able to live in Plymouth as she prunes dead blossoms from her beloved roses. Waldo's response is, "Fortunately that matter has already been decided." The next paragraph says simply, "The blossom suddenly came away from its stem and fell into my hand." Throughout the book are multiple unobtrusive reminders that this author is a poet as well as a novelist and biographer.
Lydian Emerson may never have been quite a transcendentalist--she was too conventionally religious and strong minded for that, and she quickly discovered Emerson's "clay feet." Her perspective was not without humor, as in the "transcendental Bible" she wrote for her family that ends (with tongue in cheek) "Let us all aspire after this Perfection! So be it." But this distance is exactly what makes her perspective on Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Alcott in particular, so valuable.
Mr. Emerson's Wife has given us a thoroughly human woman, not a cardboard cutout, and Brown could have done this as a biographer. But we are fortunate that she chose the freedom of fiction, so that readers might consider "what might have been" as well as "what was," and appreciate how she has brought her poetic gifts to the understandings of scholars.
Perhaps this book is not the first place someone should begin in exploring the lives of Emerson and Thoreau, but it should be an early one, bringing life to those journals, lectures, and essays.
Ann M. Woodlief, Reviewer