Currer Bell, Emily Dickinson, Jane Eyrë & Jerome CharynSunday, March 20, 2011
Until but a few days ago the name Emily Dickinson would have lead to little synapse activity in my brain. I might have retrieved that fact that Dickinson was an American poet from the 19th century who was some sort of proto- feminist. I also knew that she was from a New England state. Another synapse would have led to the botanical information section of my brain to the following:
H. ‘Emily Dickinson’ Lachman IRA/1987
Plant 32 in. (81.5c,) dia., 20 in. (51cm) high. Leaf 7 by 4 in. (18 by 10cm), veins 6, medium green, light yellowish white margin, ovate, flat. Scape 28 in.(71cm), foliated, straight. Flower medium, funnel-shaped, lavender, fragrant flowers during average period. Fertile.
[H. ‘Neat Splash’ hybrid x H. plantaginea]
The Genus Hosta- Giboshi Zoku, W. George Schmid, Timber Press, 1991
Among the thousands of species and cultivar hostas there are only two “literary” ones. One is Emily Dickinson and the other Hosta ‘Robert Frost’ which I happen to have and it is a very beautiful. Except for the name H. ‘Emily Dickinson’ is not a standout. Now I realize that not only should I have known better but that H. ‘Emily Dickinson’ is just about perfect.
|Currer Bell circa 2010|
My adventure into the life and poems of Emily Dickinson began a few months ago when I found out that one of my favourite American novelists, Jerome Charyn had written a novel (which reads like an autobiography) called The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. In many of the reviews Charyn was lambasted for daring to write in the “voice” of a woman, and famous American woman at that. There was a vigorous defense of the novel in the April 2010 New York Review of Books by no less a reviewer than Joyce Carol Oates (on a momentary sabbatical from her novel writing).
I was finally able to find the book at the Vancouver Public Library and I brought it home to my nightly delight. From the first pages Charyn nailed down the New England state to Massachusetts and Dickinson’s town to Amherst.
A couple of days later when I went to the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library with my wife and granddaughter Lauren I spotted Turning Point Co-Artistic Director and trombonist Jeremy Berkman sitting outside the Blenz coffee shop with a homespun-looking elderly couple and a young boy. The young boy was Berkman’s son and the couple was Berkman’s parents. They asked me what I was reading. I told them I was returning a wonderful thriller called The Vaults by Toby Ball and that I had begun to read Jerome Charyn’s novel a famous American female poet. Berkman’s mother asked me,” Would that be Emily Dickinson? We are from Amherst, Mass and we know Dickinson’s house well.” She then began to give me the details of the house and the name of the street. I then told them of the controversy behind the novel and that that American woman who writes novels all of the time had written a spirited review. Mrs. Berkman enquired, “Would that be Joyce Carol Oates?” I answered yes and pointed out that Oates is supposed to give a lecture at the library in the next few months.
Roy the intrepid reader (he is to reading books what Joyce Carol Oates is to writing them) who haunts the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library was sitting nearby. After I introduced him to the Berkman’s he said, “I am reading Russian magic realism but that book you have there (The Vaults) sounds interesting. Let me see it.” He read the first page and was as hooked to The Vaults as I had been. In the end I gave the book to him with the promise that he would return it the next day. Roy would never disappoint.
Saturday morning Rosemary told me we were going to a special advance screening of the new Jane Eyre at the Park on Sunday morning. That struck a bell.In Charyn’s novel I had already read this:
“I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale pale and had features so irregular and so marked.” So said Jane Eyre, who was as plain and little as a certain Emily Dickinson. I wondered if she had a scalp as red as mine. No matter. There was a controversy that raged around the book. Was its author, Currer Bell, a woman or a man? Not a soul could say.
Currer Bell? Who would that be?
On this day, August 24, 1847 Charlotte Brontë sent her manuscript of Jane Eyre to her eventual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co., in London. Her accompanying note shows her maintaining her pseudonym, though perhaps just barely:
I now send you per rail a MS entitled Jane Eyre, a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left. If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS, you would have the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps. It is better in future to address Mr Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Bronté, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present.... Today In Literature
In Charyn's novel Emily Dickinson befriends a visiting scholar from Princeton, Brainard Rowe:
He [Brainard Rowe] discovers my Newfoundland sitting with that ferocious loyalty of his near the door of Johnson Chapel.
“Carlo, my dog.”
Brainard laughs as I knew he would. Rochester had a Newfoundland like mine, a huge blur of black and white hair, but his name was Pilot. Carlo was a pointer in Jayne Eyre; he belonged to that monkish minister, St. John Rivers, who rescued Jayne from starvation and wanted her to accompany him to India as his missionary wife in a loveless marriage.
And Brainard addresses me in a language that went way beyond Brother [Austin Dickinson] and Gould [a scholar friend of Austin’s and would-be suitor of Emily’s who wanted to make her his missionary wife].
“Miss Emily Eyre,” says he. “Why didn’t you name your dog Pilot, after Rochester’s faithful Newfoundland?”
“Because, Rivers is much closer to my own temperament, Sir, willing to sacrifice himself to some abstract religion that could be about God or the Devil disguised as art.”
“Are you a sacrificer, too?’
“Much more so, than St. John Rivers.”
By the time I saw Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska is superb as Jane as is Michael Fassbender as Rochester) I was seeing Eyre as not only Jane, but as a feisty Currer Bell and equally feisty Emily Dickinson.
Then my daughter Ale called from Lillooet to tell Rosemary that she had spotted at least 30 robins on her property. We used to have robins in our garden but every time they would establish a nest in our Hawthorn, crows would destroy it and eat the eggs. Rosemary was sad to admit that we no longer have robins. And there is this:
Part II: Nature
The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.
The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun.
The robin is the one
That speechless from her nest
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.
And further there is this:
Charlotte Bronte's Grave
All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of 'Currer Bell,'
In quiet Haworth laid.
This bird, observing others,
When frosts too sharp became,
Retire to other latitudes,
Quietly did the same,
But differed in returning;
Since Yorkshire hills are green,
Yet not in all the nests I meet
Can nightingale be seen.
Gathered from many wanderings,
Gethsemane can tell
Through what transporting anguish
She reached the asphodel!
Soft fall the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear;
Oh, what an afternoon for heaven,
When 'Bronte' entered there.