An interview with Amy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife

1. What inspired you to write a fictional account of Lidian and Waldo Emerson?

It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo.  At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity.  Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes.  When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.

2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?

Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980′s when my children were young.  (They’re out of print now.)  Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it.  I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page.  I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows.  It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?

Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does.  One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me.  And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record.  There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified.   I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.

4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?

I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly.  :-) Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out.  I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing.  For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving.  So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances.  In other words,  putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.  (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?

Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage.  A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time.  One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time.  So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives.  And I believe the same was true of the  Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades.  But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850.  In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.

The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict.  It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart.  I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today.  I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination.   (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.)  But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.”  Brenda Ueland, in the 1930′s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”  But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub?  We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?

6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?

I have written a new novel.  It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against.  It turned out to be fascinating.  The manuscript is currently with my agent.

Visit Amy’s website at http://amybeldingbrown.com

Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .

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!

Come and visit a village in Louisa’s time

My husband and I spent a lovely day at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA. Old Sturbridge Village is an authentic recreation of a New England village in the 1830s. Louisa was born in 1832 and lived most of her life in New England so I thought you’d like to see pictures I took of our day at the village on a perfect autumn day.

Here’s some teasers . . .

And here’s the link to where the photos are on Facebook.

I feel so lucky to live here in New England, near all this history that I love. Enjoy!