by Judith Farr ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 11, 1996
Poet and Dickinson scholar Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, not reviewed) observes her favorite, elusive subject at a crucial stage in her adolescence--her unhappy ten-month stint at Mount Holyoke Seminary--in this well-intended debut. Although the letters comprising this narrative span 85 years, the primary focus is on 1847-48, when young Emily left home to board at the school run by Mary Lyon. The patchwork of perspectives, offering a view of events as they occurred as well as reflections and distortions decades later, reveals a young woman already far along on her brilliant path of isolation. Sharing a room with her most conventional cousin Emily Norcross, she quickly runs afoul of her English teacher, a stern Quaker who believes her new pupil's comparison of the Bible to Shakespeare's plays, as good literature, to be at best wrongheaded, at worst blasphemous, and so undertakes to correct her using measures of increasing severity and unfairness. Emily also suffers for not participating in the current religious revival, rejecting Miss Lyon's persistent calls for her to be saved. She bucks the tide in other ways, sending forbidden, uncensored letters to friends and family--and to one friend in particular. This Amherst pal, Sue Gilbert, to whom Emily has sworn undying love, brings a hint of scandal to the school when they are discovered by the English teacher behind the closed door of Emily's room, but the various interpretations placed on the visit, both at the time and more than 40 years later, when the teacher writes savagely to Dickinson's unbelieving editor of what she saw, remain conjecture. No one would fault the many liberties taken with the historical record, since by bold invention an otherwise unimaginable portrait of Emily D. emerges. But more problematic here is the sameness of tone suffusing the work and its characters, creating only monochromes where full-color images would be infinitely preferable.
Pub Date: Sept. 11, 1996
Page Count: 240
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996
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