On Emily Dickinson

The Sister, by Paola Kaufmann, is a swift-paced and deceptively easy to read novel that ends up lingering a long time in the mind. It is a delicate reconstruction of the life of Emily Dickinson, and of her afterlife as a controversial, famous poet, told through the eyes of her younger sister, Lavinia. Vinnie’s first person account begins with the discovery of Dickinson’s poems, almost two thousand of them, after her death, but slips quickly back into childhood, to follow a chronological account from that point on. She describes the Dickinsons as a close-knit family, admiring of their stern father and their older brother, Austin; and even if their mother is somewhat distant and cool they move through life in steady union, bonded by love, duty and a strict adherence to routine. The first half of the book depicts a quiet and mostly peaceful early life, broken into only by romances that never came to anything much. Emily Dickinson’s loves by correspondence are beautifully handled in the novel, tied up together neatly in the one chapter so that the emerging pattern of her admiration – intense, distant, literary – can clearly be seen. Equally well done is their comparison to Lavinia’s own romantic disappointments. Lavinia fell in love with Joseph Lyman, was courted by him and promised to him, only when Joseph left on a get-rich trip to the South, he never came back. Eventually, he married someone else instead. Lavinia’s grinding twelve year wait for him starts to open up unexpected light on our narrator. From that point on we begin to understand that spinsterhood is the condition she desires for Emily, as well as for herself, and that the years of quiet isolation together have formed a bond that is unhealthy as well as profoundly loving. Lavinia, the pretty, dramatic, outgoing sister, was owed a life of greater import, of a more startling and eventful narrative, and so as time goes on we watch her shrinking hopes start to transform into a need to live vicariously.

In the second part of the novel drama comes, but in a series of terrible events that the Dickinsons would never have wished for. The clean-cut family allegiances turn complex, resentful, and problematic, and Emily’s strange but fierce desire for isolation starts to provoke repercussions. As the narrative picks up pace and power, so we become aware of Lavinia’s unreliability as a narrator, and this is never more evident that in the final sections where her motivation for publishing her sister’s works is put literally on trial.

I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. The narrative is written with what I can only describe as a very light hand – there is such delicacy in the early stages of the representation; a cobwebby string of language brings the Dickinsons together in a life that looks so patterned and regular but which turns out to be utterly fragile and insecure. As the novel progresses and Lavinia heads towards her own nemesis, so Kaufmann lets go of the restraint and a very different kind of narrator bursts through at the end. But what I felt was so clever about this book is the way that Emily Dickinson is its prime concern and its best kept secret. By the time the story ends, we have lived alongside her, witnessed her daily life, shared her tragedies and wondered at her fate. And yet, as Lavinia herself declares, it feels like we don’t really know her, she remains a shadowy figure whose brilliant poetry sprung bounteous and startling from her death. How could someone as close as a loving sister, even, feel she still knew the woman who turned out to have produced a verse that was different to any before seen in America? And how could that same sister, sadly disappointed in her own uneventful life, not wish to appropriate the glory of Emily for herself by any means available? The clever title points to the ambiguity as to which sister is the focus of the narrative here, and in this way, Emily remains potent but veiled. The enigma of Emily Dickinson is both the frustration of the narrative and its sharpest, most authentic insight.


23 thoughts on “On Emily Dickinson

  1. I’ve always wondered how Emily Dickenson’s depth of feeling could be the fruit of a life lived so totally within her own head. Excellent review; so well written.

  2. This sounds like a terrific book. I think Dickinson’s life is very interesting (all those tiny books sewed up by hand, the upstairs room, the weird relationship with Mr. Higgins-whatsit), but have never read a biography or a piece of fiction about her. And now here is one that sounds wonderful. I particularly like the idea of telling the story through her sister’s unreliable narrative. Last year, I read Clare Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen. Reading your review, I was struck by how many women were thwarted in a serious way by their failure to marry when expected to and how both Dickinson and Austen managed to subvert this expectation — both that they would marry and that their lives would be somehow diminished by their failure to marry. Thanks for this review!

  3. This sounds good. I have always struggled with ED’s poems and know little about her private life. Definitely one to look out for. Thanks.

  4. Emily – I’d love to know what you think if you get hold of a copy. I’m certainly going to look out for Dickinson’s poems now – I’ve only ever read the odd one here and there before. Grad – you put your finger right on the crux of the enigma. The novel is intriguingly silent itself about that transformation, given that the narrative stems from Lavinia. And thank you for the kind words – they are much appreciated. 🙂 Lilian – thank you so much! For a quiet book, it was a curiously gripping read for me. Bloglily – what a very interesting thought about the thwarting or otherwise of expectations. That’s played out in the novel by Lavinia being the most acutely thwarted in that way, and then trying to ensure that Emily keeps her company in spinsterhood. But you can sense Emily moving beyond that traditional destiny. I’ve been wanting to read Tomalin on Austen for ages and your comment makes me think I should do so NOW. Becky – I was in exactly the same position, and I’m really intrigued to read more of her poetry now. Each chapter has a little taste of her poetry as an epigraph and they were wonderful. Steve – Oops. Yoo-hoo, everyone, Steve’s right, as I see you are all aware! Harriet – I’d love to know what you think if you get hold of it.

  5. Oh this sounds like a wonderful book. I hope my husband gets it for me for my birthday and if he doesn’t, well then, I will have to acquire it myself. I love Dickinson’s poem. I have a book of her complete works and spent a summer years agao reading it cover to cover. What an amazing experience that was. I plan on doing it again sometime.

  6. I remember studying Emily Dickinson’s poetry in high school and while I struggle with poetry I have always appreciated her poems. Last night at the library I was looking at another fictional account of her life, but by different author, but I knew you would be writing about this book so waited to check it out. I will have to find the Kaufmann book now, as it sounds wonderful.

  7. Stefanie – I am definitely going to find myself an edition of her poetry now. I do hope you get this book (and that it does indeed languish in the Bookman’s Cave) and that I hear what you make of it!

    Danielle – I’m not that much of a poetry person myself, but I like poets who sound like they are talking in intriguing ways, if you know what I mean. I’d love to know who wrote that second account – I’d certainly read it, now my appetite has been whetted for more Dickinsonian-abilia!

  8. I like the sound of this book. I love Dickinson’s poems but don’t know a whole lot about her life, and I like the idea of learning about Emily through the lense of her sister. And an unreliable narrator? I like that too.

    Oh, you can also sing Dickinson’s poems to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. If you want to, that is.

  9. Sold! I love Dickinson’s poetry. Any book that has her as its “prime concern and its best kept secret” moves to the top of the wishlist. Fascinating perspective, the frustrated sister needing to keep her sibling close. Wonder how much of that tension came out in the poems…

  10. Dorothy – It has a strong 19th century feel to the prose, which is rather nice, too. I knew nothing whatsoever about Dickinson before I read it, and it did send me rushing off to good old wikipedia to find out how accurate it was (accurate, as far as I can tell). And I had no idea her poetry was so musically adept! 😉

    ds – what an interesting question. I have just ordered a collection of her poetry, having never read it, but this novel did spark my interest. I’ll be looking out for all the complicated family relationships that the novel touches on. But it does represent her as living in her own bubble, so it will be interesting to see how porous she allowed her poetry to be.

  11. Dickinson is another of those women whose lives intrique me almost as much as their work. I’ll definitely be reading this book ~ thank you for calling it to my attention, and for the superb review.

  12. Courtney – what a lovely thing to say, thank you so much! I’d love to know what you think of the novel if you do get hold of it.

    Becca – I’ll be looking forward very much to hearing what you make of the novel. And thank you for the kind words – very much appreciated. 🙂

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  15. I used to pass over Emily Dickinson’s poetry thinking it a little trite. Then I read Lives Like Loaded Guns – a fantastic biography by Lyndall Gordon, and I went back and devoured her poetry and even wrote one of my own in reaction to hers. I totally reappraised. This book sounds very interesting. I’ve read many collections of her letters too now.

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