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!

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9 thoughts on “Highlights from “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

  1. drbethnolan says:

    LOVED this book!
    Amy does a great job with it.
    Glad you are enjoying it. I’ve always found Lydian Emerson to be a compelling, yet somewhat shadowy, figure — eclipsed by her husband’s status – always somewhat second in line to Ellen (wife #1 who died young). Yet, she’s so intelligent and such an individual in her own right.

    BTW — have you ever read some of the books about the Peabody sisters of Salem? They, too, are so interesting…contemporaries and friends of the Concord group, too.

    • susanwbailey says:

      No I haven’t, I will add that to my list.

      I was really glad to find actual pictures of Lidian when she was young – she wasn’t unattractive at all. In fact, she looked quite good in that picture considering the fact she was middle aged at the time.

      I forgot to mention in my post that it bothers me how Waldo presumed to change her name, and every time I see her name as “Lidian,” it bugs me. He said in the book it was because she was “uncommon” but perhaps that also showed that he couldn’t accept her totally as she was, and yet he mentions later in the book that she shouldn’t try to change him. She took the name change in a religious sense, much like when someone is consecrated to the religious life and they change their name to show the change to the new life. With him it seemed more like a control issue . . . or am I being hyper-sensitive? :-)

  2. Gina says:

    I dont remember him being controlling…but its been a long long time since I read the book. Even the smartest men of the time or the most revolutionary still had trouble with women being equals. From what I remember she was a pretty sharp cookie and had to sacrifice a great deal to marry a man. She had to give herself up to him and marriage like many women did. So despite his views his marriage was the typical Victorian marriage. Man in charge. Women the angel of the household.

    The author does an outstanding job of showing how a Victorian marriage was.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Emerson was controlling but in an indirect and quiet way according to the book. He didn’t have to do anything more than have a certain expression on his face for Lidian to get it – she does appear to be quite sharp. I could really feel her ambivalence as she struggled to see herself married to Waldo (it sounded so much like Louisa!).

      I have a feeling this marriage was pretty easy going in comparison to most Victorian marriages (for one thing Brown maintains that Lidian enjoyed marital relations as much as Waldo did until Waldo Jr. came along and she was lost in love with him – boy could I relate to that – when I had my first baby, a boy, it was as if the whole world disappeared for the first several weeks I was in such bliss! My poor husband, he didn’t even exist! Fortunately I knew enough to fight that and include him. But in those days, the idea that the milk curdled if a woman had relations – geez, let’s set the stage for trouble, why don’t we??).

      Curious too how it was apparently ‘common’ for Victorian men to ‘seek it elsewhere.’

      I maintain that not too much has changed in some circles. The world still revolves around a man’s ‘needs.’ It just plays out differently now. Boy could I go on a rant about that subject, not from my own experience, but just what I see around me, especially with women in their 20s!

  3. Jillian ♣ says:

    I really need to read this. I love that passage about seeing his life reflected in her eyes.

    I think I want to read his essays/etc first…

    • susanwbailey says:

      I’m told that Nature is the best thing to start with. I also think his speech to the Harvard Divinity School that got him banned for so many years from the school would be good to read. Both are available online for free.

      Emerson doesn’t come off so well in this book but Thoreau . . . oh my goodness, I would have been SO in love with that man!

  4. Emerson spoke of Bronson Alcott as a man in whose presence he did his best thinking. Do you think that’s a variation on what Brown describes as his attitude toward his wife? What a profound symbolic act it is for a woman to change her name and accept her husband’s! Lydia Jackson is a specific individual; Mrs. Emerson could be anybody. The convention is so powerful to this day that a woman’s choice not to follow it never stops being challenged – or ignored.

    • susanwbailey says:

      The thing that gets me is that she not only agreed to change her last name, but her first as well! I would hope that Waldo appreciated the fact that most likely Lidian brought out the best in him.

      Speaking of Bronson, I just started reading (finally) Richard Francis’ book on Fruitlands. Yikes, it’s a dense book (as I suspected) but totally fascinating. Taking notes on this book will take forever. When I saw Francis in person, I was struck by his intellect and his cute sense of humor. That comes through in the book, but what really gets me is how he makes all these connections. Really cool. He actually makes me want to know more about Bronson, and that’s a feat. And I’m finally finding out some of the things I wanted to know about Transcendentalism and how the Calvinism and Unitarianism, so prevalent at the time, played a role. Can’t wait to get in deeper.

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