I am so pleased to present this guest post by y Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters.
Sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that are the most inspired. Take, for example, the two female giants of nineteenth century American literature, one all earth and fire, passion and adventure, the other pure air and water, a spirit barely distilled into human form; now imagine stumbling on a cache of letters that reveals an unexpected friendship between the two; and tell me that your spine isn’t already tingling with the sheer deliciousness of it all.
The Bee & The Fly, by Lorraine Tosiello and Jane Cavolina, bills itself, wryly, as “the improbable correspondence between Louisa May Alcott & Emily Dickinson;” and “improbable” is indeed the word here, because surely no two well-bred New England literary spinsters were ever more unalike than these: Alcott, energetic and practical, voracious for life and experience, seeking transcendental inspiration but reaching worldwide fame as the author of a book that touched the all-too-human hearts of young girls everywhere; Dickinson, quiet and withdrawn, a recluse during her life, and only discovered after her death to have produced in secret some of the fiercest and most brilliant poems of the English language. As far as history records, the two women – who were born only two years apart, both lived in Massachusetts and knew many of the same people – never even met; yet it is the delightful fantasy of Tosiello and Cavolina that, through letters, this oddest of odd couples forged and maintained a friendship that sustained them both through most of their adults lives.
The book begins with a discovery. An unnamed narrator is clearing the house of her recently deceased father when she comes across an old writing desk that appears to contain a secret drawer. Within the drawer are two packets of letters, one tied with no-nonsense brown string, the other with a lavender satin ribbon. One set of handwriting is large and slapdash; the other small and given to use dashes as the main punctuation mark. In the narrator’s words: “I know this handwriting. I know these women.”
The correspondence starts in May 1861, with then-30-year-old Emily a little nervously writing to 28-year-old Louisa, whose story she has just read in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, asking for advice on publication. She receives a long and voluble response – cheerfully described by its author as “half advice and half raving” – which kick-starts a friendship that lasts until Emily’s death at 55, just two years before Louisa died too, coincidentally at the same age. (A little eerily, Emily’s life span, 55 years, four months and six days, was exactly one month longer than Louisa’s). Through the years, we read of successes and failures, of families and friendships, illnesses and remedies, Civil War and its aftermath, Louisa’s fame and Emily’s conscious decision, as her life drew on, to maintain her privacy at all costs, until, inevitably, we at last come to the irreversible waning of physical health and the acceptance by both women of the approach of that death of which both had been all too aware throughout their lives. The two never do meet, although Louisa suggests it more than once, and both agree that their correspondence must remain secret, a little private pleasure that only they two must know about. But the affection that blazes from the letters is such that any woman who has had a friend will recognize, and be warmed by, immediately.
Inevitably, there are unanswered questions in the book, and – again, inevitably – more of them about Emily, about whose life so much less is known than Louisa’s. Why did she withdraw from the world? Did she really only wear white (and if so, this reader can hear Louisa wondering, who was in charge of doing the laundry)? Was she really – as Apple TV would have it – in love with her sister-in-law? On Louisa’s side, meanwhile, Emily gets to ask her the question we’ve all been asking since first reading Little Women – did May really burn Louisa’s first book? and if so, how on earth did Louisa manage to forgive her? – but, tantalizingly, we do not get to see Louisa’s reply.
But this is nit-picking – and if nits must be picked, how much more gratifying to be able to pick that of wanting more information than that of wanting less. The book is a delight from beginning to end. Louisa’s wild spirit, and Emily’s quieter, but nevertheless steely sense of self, blaze through the pages in a way that will surely bring joy to fans of either or both; we go to war and come back; we go to the doctor and report back; we meet poets and publishers and scheming social climbers; we grit our teeth over neglectful brothers and irritating sisters and once again fail to make the decision over whether Bronson Alcott is a saint, a prophet, or simply a crashing nitwit; we wander in gardens and visit Europe and read some of Emily’s most sublime poetry; and this reader, for one, will now always carry in her heart an image of tall, untidy, ever-practical Louisa and delicate, nervous little Emily each sitting alone in their bedrooms less than a hundred miles apart, scribbling letters to each other with broad smiles on their faces.
Q & A with authors Lorraine Tosiello and Jane Cavolina
Two very different women leading two very different lives … but what if, unknown to anyone but themselves, Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson had struck up a friendship through correspondence … and what if, more than a hundred years later, those letters were to be brought to light? This is the intriguing question pondered in the forthcoming novel The Bee & The Fly by childhood friends and fellow writers Lorraine Tosiello, author of Only Gossip Prospers: A Novel of Louisa May Alcott in New York and Jane Cavolina, co-author of the best-selling humorous work Growing Up Catholic. We sat down with the amiable pair to ask them some questions of our own …
So how did it all start?
LT: It started about six years ago when my sister and I went to visit Emily Dickinson’s house and then Louisa May Alcott’s house for the first time together. When you’re walking through Dickinson’s house you hear these names – you hear Emerson, you hear Thomas Wentworth Dickinson et cetera – and then you get to the Alcott house and you hear some of the same names, and I said to myself, “These women might have known each other!” So that was the beginning.
And how did it turn into a book?
LT: I decided I wanted to write letters between these two women. I knew a lot about Louisa because she’s my girl, but I knew I couldn’t voice Emily Dickinson because I don’t understand a lot of her poetry: I find it deceptively simple and then you’re like “Whaaat? What did that say?” So I needed somebody to voice Emily. And … Jane, do you remember how after 40 years you and I finally got in contact again?
JC: It was through Facebook. We’d both grown up in Queens, and we’d both attended St. Mary’s Girls’ High School in Manhasset, NY – the boys were locked safely away in a different building across the street! – and we’d been friends there. I still have on my computer to this day a copy of something Lorry wrote in high school that I thought was so funny that I never let it go. It was a conversation between Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift taken of things they’d actually said. But we hadn’t seen each other for years.
LT: We were good friends but just went different ways in college. I was surprised to see on Facebook that Jane was living in New Jersey: I have a place at the Jersey Shore and I called her up and I was like, “Jane? You’re in New Jersey?”
JC: We talked on the phone a few times and then we said, “Let’s meet,” and we went to the shore. Which is what the beach is called in New Jersey.
LT: So we walked on the beach that day, it was the first time I had seen Jane in 40 years. Now, I know that Jane had written books, I knew she was very artsy, I knew she was still working in books, and I said “Who’s your favorite poet?” And first she said “Walt Whitman,” then she said, “No, no, no – Emily Dickinson.” That’s when I said, “Boy, have I got a project for you!”
Just like that?
LT: My daughters said to me afterwards, “Mom! You didn’t ask her that the first time that you got together!” I most certainly did.
JC: I had no idea that it was a trap. And I’d walked straight into it. But, I mean, how could you resist it? It was just too clever an idea.
How did you go about doing the research?
JC: We read a lot on our own. I got out my well-flagged copy of Emily’s poems and a whole lot of other things. I kind of delved in and out of other books about her and just refreshed myself about her – I just wanted to get the skeleton of her life, because I’ve never agreed with anybody else’s interpretation of her, so I didn’t want it to influence how I felt about her. I didn’t watch the TV show for the same reason. And then we just started writing letters. I’d write one as Emily, Lorry would write back as Louisa, I’d write another one. It was slow.
LT: I read everything I could get my hands on to read about Louisa May Alcott, including all of her works. So that my letters are kind of an homage to her style and also use little phrases that she’d have used that I took directly from some of her works. We started way back, five, six years ago.
JC: As you know, there’s very little known about Emily. I just fell in love with her poetry back when I was in high school. I had the book on my bedside and I would read one poem every day and stick stickers in it. What I got from it didn’t jibe with the image I had been given of her that she was housebound, which meant I just pictured her in her little white nightgown sitting in bed all the time, never going anywhere or doing anything. But I felt that somebody who wrote those poems had a very acute appreciation of the world, and loss, and all the things everybody else experiences, but she experienced it at a distance. When she was in her garden she saw all the world. She could see heaven in a grain of sand – to quote another poet! Her life was as full as she wanted it to be.
Were there any surprises in the research?
JC: I discovered how many social connections they two had. The more research we did, the more I discovered – Lorry knew all this stuff already – that they moved in the same world. Emily’s brother Austin moved in the same circles as Louisa, although he never introduced Emily to any of the people he knew, which I find curious. But they knew all the same people, so it’s impossible that they couldn’t have known at least of each other.
LT: One of the most astonishing connections we found between these two women that I don’t think anybody else ever mentioned before was in the Sanitary Commission’s newspaper written for the Brooklyn sanitary fair. It was called “The Drum Beat”. The Sanitary Commission was the forerunner of the Red Cross in the USA – one of the founders was Dorothea Dix, and the fairs were big fund-raising events and quite a big deal. The same year we were starting this entire process, I went to an Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Morgan Library, and there on the wall was the Sanitary Commission’s newspaper: ostensibly it was showing that Emily’s poem was on the page … but on the page across from it was a chapter from Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches. Nobody knows who was the connector between Emily and the Sanitary Commission’s Drum Beat, and I’ve never read it elsewhere, but Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott were published together!
Did you have any arguments during the writing?
LT: Only about the lag time between letters to Louisa from Emily!
JC: I have to be forced to write. It’s like reaching into a part of your brain that you really don’t care to access – it’s hard. I have to be under pressure to go there. And also, Lorry is a doctor and works every day saving lives, and I’m an editor and work every day copy editing books – not quite the same thing but my hours may be somewhat longer at times than hers and that was a really busy time – and that was a perfectly excellent excuse! But when I did sit down to write, the letters would come out very easily.
LT: I also think that, just like Emily, Jane was looking for that perfect turn of phrase, that essential word. More like Louisa May Alcott, I would scribble things off very, very quickly. I’d get an idea, I was confident in the knowledge that I had about her life and her works, so I could just scribble things off as they came.
JC: In many ways, we were both really mimicking the two of them.
LT: I do have a good story, because in the spring of about four years ago, I was talking to Jane on my cell phone: I was in Stuyvesant Park in Manhattan down near 16th Street, it’s a very old park, it has a Quaker Meeting House on one end, and it’s surrounded by red town houses. And Jane – just to get me off her back about “Where are your letters, Jane?” – said, “You know, you know so much about Louisa May Alcott, you should write a book about her.” I stood there and my eyes scanned around, and I realized that at that moment, I was standing in nineteenth century New York City, in a part of New York that Louisa May Alcott would have seen when she visited here! So the idea came to me in a flash, and I wrote Only Gossip Prospers and published it before we’d even finished these letters of The Bee & The Fly.
Thank you, Jane, for inspiring that beautiful novel. Any other arguments?
LT: There was only one actual letter that we disagreed on. I wanted Emily to write to Louisa about this terrible book that Mark Twain had written. And Jane just couldn’t find it in herself to say something that was disparaging about Mark Twain.
You’re talking about Tom Sawyer, of course. Did you know that one of Tom’s schoolfriends in the book is a girl called Amy Lawrence, which seems almost too coincidental?
LT: Really? Oh, my goodness! But he always ripped off Louisa May Alcott. He got all the accolades for being the person to write for adolescents, while she had done it first. I thought a comment on this would be better coming from Emily, the woman who had nieces and nephews who were the right age to be reading that book. But Jane insisted that it had to come from Louisa.
JC: We talked about it and I don’t know if Lorraine agreed with me, but she did change who wrote that letter. I had two reasons for not wanting Emily to write it. The first was that I felt that Emily would not criticize anybody, because it just didn’t seem in her nature to be critical. But I also remember that fifty per cent of my original idea for writing Growing Up Catholic came from reading Mark Twain’s Letters From The Earth when I was a teenager and never forgetting it. Haven’t you read it? You have to – it’s hilarious. It’s about the Devil who comes to Earth before he becomes the Devil, writing back to Heaven about what’s going on here, and it’s very funny. I was 13 or 14 when I read it, and it was just indelible. So I have a very big fondness for Mr. Twain.
LT: In the end, we had the letter written by Louisa – or rather, me writing as Louisa!
You use several of Emily’s poems in the book. Are they in public domain, or did you have to ask permission?
LT: Half of them are in public domain and half are not because they were re-published by Harvard University Press. We had to get permission to use those, which we did. It was surprisingly easy – they have a form online and they came right back within four weeks with an answer. It didn’t cost us that much. People like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones charge a lot of money because they have to enforce their ownership of their songs, but Harvard did not. They gave us a very reasonable price.
Did you have a favorite among the poems?
LT: Not as such, but writing the book made me appreciate Emily more, because, as I said, I always had a hard time reading her poetry. The book made me realize that she just had this huge, huge intellect, she wanted to understand the whole universe, she wanted to explain it. She had a genuine sensibility about things like eternity and death, and she faced them and then went about her everyday life, baking bread and gardening and sending little posies to the neighbors, and leaving behind this immense body of work that was secretive and beautiful and deep and all-encompassing. Her poetry was more than I had at first imagined.
JC: The poem that opened the door to Emily for me was the one that begins, “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.” I think that poem sums up her whole life: if there’s nothing going on you can still see the world. The last line of that poem, “If bees are few,” was originally going to be our title. But then, long after we’d decided on those two images for Louisa and Emily – that Louisa was the bee who would go everywhere and bring things back to Emily, and that Emily was the fly on the wall who never left her home – we found the poem that we had at the very beginning of the book, which begins, “Bee! I’m expecting you!” and ends, “Yours, Fly.” Can’t you just see Emily Dickinson writing this poem to Louisa May Alcott?
They were such very different women in so many ways, and you’ve created a beautiful friendship in the book. Do you think that if they’d met in real life they would have liked each other?
JC: I think they would like each other because Emily was content to be Emily, and that was her world. I think she admired Louisa for being somebody different. I don’t think she held it against her. She’d say “Wow!” the way you do to people who do things that you would never do. I think Emily never would have wanted to trade places with Louisa for five minutes. But she got a whiff of the world through Louisa, because her brother – who was out meeting very interesting people – never came home and said, “Guess who I had dinner with last night? Thoreau and Emerson, and we talked about this and that.” He just left her out entirely.
LT: I think Louisa would have come to understand that Emily was a very pure, kind of transcendental soul, and it helped her to understand her own father and this helped her to understand the purity of Emily’s vision. I think she was happy that there were people like that in the world, who didn’t have to do what she had to do, which was scrounge and work and worry and constantly be fertile in order to produce something else.
JC: What we tried to get across in the letters is that they became friends despite their differences.
What would you like the reader to take from the book?
JC: I’d like readers to have the joy of stepping through a door into another world where their beloved authors are, at least for a few hours. And also, with luck, the authors will be the way readers themselves may see them, unencumbered by the “picklocks of biographers,” just the women we may see in their works. So, in all, I hope readers enjoy a fantasy visit.
LT: I would like to readers to begin to think about the gaps in our knowledge about women’s lives, and fill in that history with plausible possibilities. This friendship is amusingly possible, but also audaciously unlikely. But I hope that readers smile and recognize in it the beauty of women’s solidarity, friendship in odd places, and just the pure joy of keeping in touch with an old friend!
The Bee & The Fly is published on May 10 by Clash Books, a small press who lured the authors away from a powerful literary agent by announcing proudly that they “put the lit in literary.”
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