On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Visiting the home of the master, Ralph Waldo Emerson

During my vacation this week I will be attending the Summer Conversational Series sponsored by Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The theme is “Chaos, Cosmos, and the Oversoul” The Influence of Transcendental Philosophy on the Life and Writing of Louisa May Alcott. Speakers include Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters), Eve LaPlante (author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother), John Matteson (Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father) and many others from around the world.

ralph-waldo-emerson-house-concord-maThe obvious first step if one is to immerse oneself in Transcendentalism is to visit the home of the master, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had that privilege on Saturday.

Elegant Federal Colonial

I do have a day job and it’s in real estate. I work for an independent brokerage, Rutledge Properties in Wellesley, MA. I am not an agent; instead I support agents with marketing materials and advertising. I love my job because I get to see so many beautiful homes.

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The large windows to the left of the carriage entrance belong to the Dining Room and upstairs nursery.

From a realtor’s perspective, “Bush,” the name given to the Emerson home is a pure joy. Originally built as a summer home for the Coolidge family, Emerson purchased the home in July of 1835 after marrying Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, MA. Anxious to make it a central meeting place for philosophers and thinkers, he spent money he had inherited from his first wife Ellen Tucker’s estate and landscaped the grounds which even today are lush, private and inviting.

Light-filled home

I was taken by the high ceilings, well-proportioned rooms and large windows. The house was flooded with light and was adorned with beautiful period details including carved arches, custom bookshelves and molding. In 1872, the house nearly burned to the ground but thanks to the help of neighbors, it was saved, along with his valuable papers and books from the study.

Private museum, family-owned

“Bush” is still privately owned by the Emerson family and was opened as a museum in 1930. Most of the furniture belongs to the family. The study has been recreated since the original furnishings were moved across the street to the Concord Museum. The family, recognizing the worth of Waldo’s study, felt the furnishings would be safer from fire at the brick museum.

Encountering the spirit of Emerson

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Emerson’s study

Upon entering the home, I was greeted by a tall staircase and long hallway. Waldo’s study was to the right which surprised me; I had assumed the parlor would be located there. In the study the tour guide showed us a picture of the room with Emerson in it, taken in the 1870s. Each person, including myself, took a long, lingering look at that photo, imagining Waldo sitting in his rocking chair writing or greeting guests.

Favorite rooms

My favorite rooms in the home were the dining room, the nursery (which was directly above the dining room) and the master bedroom (which contained a gorgeous eighteenth century high boy). Each of those rooms featured enhanced floor to ceiling bay or bow windows, added on to the house when it was repaired after the fire. The perfect half-moon-shaped bow window in the master bedroom overlooked the back yard. Each of us lingered in that part of the room, enjoying the lush, green views of trees and grape arbors planted by then-boarder Henry David Thoreau. I memorized every line and detail of that window and imagined myself thinking wonderful thoughts and writing great things in that setting.

The softer side of Henry David Thoreau

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Grape arbor planted by Henry David Thoreau

The nursery contained an extraordinary artifact, a dollhouse furnished and constructed for Lidian and Waldo’s children by Thoreau who boarded at the house for many years. Henry took a chest of drawers, removed the backs and then created windows with outdoor views fashioned from pictures out of a child’s storybook. He built much of the furniture: perfect chairs, tables, couches and beds. The dollhouse told a compelling story of a softer side to Thoreau, the one that loved children and understood so well what they enjoyed.

Hall of pictures

There were various pictures on the wall, drawings and photographs of children and family friends. The most compelling was a quite modern pose of Edith and Edward Emerson when they were around nine or ten. A beautiful crayon drawing of Ellen and Edith was displayed in the master bedroom. Ellen would not pose for a photograph so this is the only depiction of her as a young girl. A large portrait of her at forty-two can be seen in the parlor and another equally large painting of her in her sixties stands in the “Hall of Pictures” by the stairs.

Backyard paradise

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The backyard

Upon leaving the house my friends and I spent several minutes in the back yard, imagining Waldo walking the two miles to Walden Pond via a direct path from his garden. A very loud Brown Thrasher (who refused to show himself to this frustrated birder!) serenaded us from an ancient and unusual tree. A small rabbit kept us company and I hoped that the formidable cat I had spotted from the dining room window earlier would not trouble this little creature.

I now find my mind wandering back to that peaceful, lovely home time and time again. It was perfect beginning to a week devoted to Transcendentalism.

The New York Times featured a slide show of the interior of the home: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/09/15/garden/0916emerson-slideshow.html

The pictures accompanied an article about a couple who were caretakers of the home for three years: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/garden/16emerson.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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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

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 . . .

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 . . . :-)