Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .

Highlights from “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown has really caught my imagination. I find myself living it in my head when I’m not reading it and I don’t recall a book having done that to me before. What’s really funny is that there are several things going on in my life that relate in some way to the material I’m reading, so it’s like the Perfect Storm.

Here are some highlights:

1. This is the last paragraph of Chapter 4. How’s this for a great line?

“In that instant I discovered the secret to pleasing Mr. Emerson. He required a discerning admiration. He loved me not for my nobility or intellect but for the man he saw reflected in my eyes.”

If that doesn’t describe perfectly what marriage was all about during that period and throughout history, and perhaps life too: the universe revolves around the man. Is that still true today? Yeah, I think so . . .

2. From Chapter 6: On Lidian’s honeymoon night, an observation:

“I placed them [the comb and pins from her hair] on my bureau, as was my habit, though with a sharp awareness that the furniture was no longer mine. Mr. Emerson owned it now, as he owned everything that belonged to me – as he owned even me, in my own flesh and person.”

Amy  Belding Brown has such a great talent for stating chilling and profound thoughts in a subtle and gentle way, making those thoughts all the more powerful and haunting.

3. Chapter 7 had the most wonderful discourse between Lidian and Bronson Alcott. It was fascinating to ‘see’ Bronson through the eyes of someone else, especially a woman, as his charisma especially attracted them. You’ll just have to read it yourself but trust me, it’s delicious. :-)

4. Chapter 8, another great line:

“It struck me that the most demanding and onerous task required by marriage was the silencing of my tongue.”

That, from a 32 year old woman who had classified herself as an obstinate spinster before marrying. Lidian didn’t give up her independence without much inner struggle.

Apart from the sense that this book is giving me about marriage in 19th century New England, I am also getting a stronger sense of what made Ralph Waldo Emerson tick. Brown maintains that Emerson didn’t handle loss well. He sustained tough losses in his life including the death of his younger brother Charles, and the death of his first wife Ellen after only 18 months of marriage (which was apparently never consummated because of her ill health). Her passing especially devastated him on many levels and moved him away from his traditional belief in the Christian faith (and towards Transcendentalism – his mother declared that he turned from being a believer to a seeker after that loss). He even disturbed the grave of his wife in order to look into the casket (at the suggestion of his mother) to help him come to grips with reality.

What I observed, however, was how he ‘retreated’ from life by spending so much time in his study reading (which, as we readers know, acts as an escape), studying and writing. When the issue of abolition came up (Lidian was passionate about this subject), he sidestepped it as if he were unwilling to confront the ugliness of the issue. He preferred the life he could create in his head, rather than the real life around him. In his case, it produced a body of classic, thought-provoking work but at what cost?

In her subtle way, Brown makes it very plain that as enlightened as Emerson was, the world still revolved around him. Perhaps more so, because he fancied himself  a seeker finding a new way that would benefit the world.

I am enjoying seeing Ralph Waldo  Emerson as a flesh and blood man with his faults and frailties. Brown really helps me get into the heads and hearts of these very real people.

I know a lot of this book is fiction but I’m told the research is impeccable and as such, I can trust what I’m reading. Can’t wait to read more!

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor as Amy

I’m not normally into celebrities but I did shed a tear today when I found out Elizabeth Taylor had passed away. She had suffered a long time from a long list of ailments but she had an incredible spirit. Definitely larger than life. It seemed appropriate today to remember her performance as Amy in the 1949 version of Little Women. Even though I had a hard time getting past the blond wig, Taylor certainly brought plenty of attitude to that performance. :-) Liz could certainly do haughty (and nobody was more gorgeous, for sure!)

There’s a new star in the heavens tonight. RIP, Elizabeth Taylor.

Check out the new “Events” page on this site

I have started a page for Events related to Louisa May Alcott. The page will contain the location, date, brief description of the event and a link to the website where I found the event, for more details.

One exception I am making is that I am not going out of my way to list all the different plays, musicals, operas, etc. because there are just too many. I mainly want to list educational programs.

Click on the EVENTS tab at the top of the site to see what’s happening
near you!

If you have an event you’d like to publicize on this site, send it to me (contact information on the EVENTS page; you can also go to the CONTACT page) with the following information:

1. State
2. Date and Start Time
3. Venue
4. Brief description of event
5. link to website of venue for more information and/or contact information

If you have a picture you can send, that will make your event stand out more on the page.

Learning more about 19th century life for women with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

As a follow-up to American Bloomsbury, and in an effort to continue to build on knowledge of life in New England for women in the 19th century, I’ve started reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown, at the advice of a friend (good advice!). This is a beautifully written book that attempts to fill in the gaps with plausible scenarios regarding the complicated marriage and relationship between Lydia Jackson (aka Lidian Emerson), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. It reads in the first person like a historical novel and I’m enjoying the ride very much.

I’m finding that this reading is having a pragmatic effect on my work as a public speaker in the Catholic church. I’ve been asked (along with my partner) to give a half day retreat musing on the topic, “What defines beauty in the eyes of God for women?” and I am reading a couple of books for research purposes to prepare my portion of the talk we will give. One of those books is called The Authentic Catholic Woman by  Genevieve Kineke (if you want to see more details about this branch of my reading, I invite you to visit my spiritual blog at www.susanbailey.org/blog), and as I read, my immersion in the 19th century and the plight of women came flooding into my mind. Oftentimes I am at personal odds with feminists of today because I think we have gotten off message. It seems like it’s only about power, often at the expense of our unique identity as women. Louisa’s efforts with women’s suffrage reminded me of why I still do want to be active in promoting the dignity and rights of women (especially in educating my own daughter) but I would like to avoid the political nature of groups like NOW.

It’s so wonderful to see the connections, and the value, of studying our history. For one thing, it reminds me that it was not long ago (in fact in my own generation) that women did not enjoy the freedoms they enjoy today. We’ve come a long way! But there is a lifetime of history to undo and much work still needs to be done. The spiritual reading I’m doing points out how the world’s view of men and women is badly distorted, and people have taken great advantage of that in many ways.

I look forward to my research for this half day retreat, especially since it brings in the reading I’m doing for this blog.

Oh and by the way? The woman that hired us is a big Louisa fan! God is good. :-)

So far in Mr. Emerson’s Wife, Waldo has just purposed to Lidian, ironically through a letter. How perfect! As you may know, Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, was his true love and there would be no one to replace her. Lidian strikes me as more of a companion, a functional wife, rather than the true love that was Ellen. According to Brown, Lidian was very reluctant to get married and understood very well the sacrifices women had to make to become wives (in essence, giving up their own individual lives). She was 30 and did not want to marry. Waldo proved to be very persuasive.

I feel the pangs inside as I read this, knowing that their marriage turned out to be far less than she had hoped it would be. But I look forward to getting deeper into this story.

Stay tuned . . . :-)

Photo #4: Beth

 

Beth  “Little Women” (1868) Louisa May Alcott

Photography by Jennifer – re enactment – January 2008

Black and white silver film, hand developed, limited to 100.

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.” Louisa May Alcott “Little Women” (1868)

This is the last in the series. Be sure and visit Jennifer’s website at www.photography-by-jennifer.com to see the entire series. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jennifer over the phone today (she lives near enough that we can actually meet which is very cool) and she mentioned that she has taken many pictures and will continue to take more. I have placed a reference to Jennifer’s site and photo collection on the Audio/Visual page of this site.

Thanks to Jennifer for sharing!


Orchard House will soon be 100 years old

The Boston Globe’s “Globe West” section featured a front page article on Orchard House’s 100th year celebration (see the official Orchard House site for details).

When Louisa May Alcott’s hyacinth bloomed pink one spring day in 1868, she considered the flower a “true prophet’’ of good things to come. That same day she received $100 to write an advice column, and she would soon begin to write “Little Women,’’ a novel that would bring her even more fortune and fame.

This spring, the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association might be looking for its own “pink hyacinth’’ as it plans its 100th year as stewards of the Alcott family’s home in Concord.

Click here to continue reading . . .