A cool, restrained meditation on love, poetry and meaning
Although I haven’t read any of Nicholson’s novels before, I am aware of him as a writer of refinement in dealing with a certain kind of English emotional restraint , where `still waters run deep’ . This writerly strength, not to mention this strength in writing the lives of writers, was clearly shown in his stage play, Shadowlands, previously a TV play, later a film, exploring the life of C.S.Lewis, and particularly, his relationship with Joy Davidman/Joy Gresham.
I was therefore attracted to this book, which explores the life and work of another writer, the American poet Emily Dickinson, and also that of her brother, Austin Dickinson, and of Mabel Loomis Todd, who was the principal champion and driving force behind getting Dickinson’s poems published after her death.
Mabel, a young and vibrant woman, and the reclusive middle aged Emily never met, though Emily communicated with Mabel through sending her poems. Mabel, a married woman, and Austin, a married man (though not to each other) had a relationship which began its flowering in the dining room of Emily Dickinson’s house, the only place they could conceivably meet to consummate their affair. Austin was in his 50s at the time of his relationship with Mabel, who was in her 20s.
Mabel was in a remarkably open marriage for 1880’s Amherst, Massachusetts society – her husband, David, had relationships with other women, which Mabel knew about, and sanctioned, and David too, sanctioned and approved of Mabel’s relationship with Austin. Indeed, the two became close friends, and eventually the Todds found land which they could build on, (they had been renting short leases before) and where Mabel could meet with her lover. She and David continued to have a physical relationship. Austin, meanwhile, was in an unhappy marriage with Sue, who had initially been great friends with the remarkable Mabel, until the close emotional, spiritual and intellectual friendship between Mabel and Austin became more than platonic. Sue disliked sex, and Austin and she had been husband and wife without any sexual connection for many years. Emily, meanwhile, wrote poetry of huge passion and spiritual content, which seethes with the possibility that the spiritual, soulful intensity of her writing about love and connection may have been sublimated sexuality – or, possibly that she had had some earlier romantic experience to draw on, in her poetry. Emily never married, and lived withdrawn completely from society, looked after by her sister Vinnie.
I’ve none to tell me to but thee So, when Thou failest, nobody. It was a little tie – It held just Two, nor those it held Since somewhere thy sweet Face has spilled Beyond my Boundary –
What a hotbed mixture of both openness and secrecy, emotional expressiveness and emotional repression, co-existing within the strangle-hold of the morality of the place and the times.
Nicholson structures his book with a further twist – Alice, a British writer, who herself has a rather complex relationship with loneliness, connection and intimacy, is preparing a film script in which she will explore Emily, her poetry, and that complex relationship between Mabel, Austin, and herself. The theme of watching, watchfulness and a kind of distance which in inherent in the idea of Mabel and Austin’s initial use of Emily’s house in which to carry out their tryst – with Emily, perhaps, as voyeur – is echoed by sections in the book where scenes from the screenplay are written from the point of view of Emily, as the eye of the camera, the watcher. And of course, the audience/the reader becomes an even more distanced eye, and thinks of the voyeuristic nature of fiction and film, perhaps
That’s what we do with love. Create a story to overlay the passing events of our lives so that a pattern emerges. What was random develops meaning. Love as story-telling
The real letters between Austin and Mabel are full of philosophical questioning and discussion about the nature of love, its purpose, and the search for meaning. Alice herself is obsessed with these questions, and her two week stay in Amherst academia brings her into contact with a much older man, Nick Crocker, an academic, who is charismatic but also someone searching for meaning, and questioning the nature of love. So there are various prisms through which ideas can be examined.
So what about love? Is that just one of the little pleasures that fills our dwindling store of days?
The Emily, Mabel, Austin story (not to mention the Alice story) is further illuminated by Emily’s poems, which Alice is working into her script, and which she discusses with Crocker.
It also turns out that Nicholson in writing a loosely linked series of novels (this, I think, is title six, and there are various connections between the invented characters on the periphery of this novel, who have been more central in earlier novels, and also, there are characters and events in this which are, in Nicholson’s words, `more seeds which I’ve planted, waiting for their turn to flower’
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK