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!