Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye
Much sense the starkest madness.
…Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you’re straightaway dangerous
And handled with a chain.
Mad poets fascinate me. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – modern American women whose emotional travails fueled powerful poetry and were splashed across the lexicon of mad poets. Nearly a century earlier Emily Dickinson lay claim to her own quiet madness. Closeted in her attic room in Amherst, Massachusetts, she scribbled furiously for years, creating a legacy of more than 1000 poems of whose existence no one was even aware until her death.
Like any good Dickinson fan, I’ve studied the poetry and even memorized a few simply by virtue of reading them over and over. Her distinctive poetic voice and rhythm are refreshingly unique, her expressions quick witted, poignant, and sometimes elegantly cynical. I’ve also read all the definitive biographies…The Belle of Amherst, by William Luce; Emily Dickinson, Face to Face, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. But The Sister, a novel by Paola Kaufman, tells yet another story – and tells it “slant,” as Emily herself would say, as the novel is written from the viewpoint of Lavinia “Vinnie” Dickinson, Emily’s younger sister.
The novel, which is immensefly readable, begins in 1896, not long after Emilie’s (for this is the spelling used by her family in intimate reference) death, and with Vinnie’s discovery of the body of work her sister has left behind. She then takes the reader back in time, exposing interesting bits about this (mildly dysfunctional) family dynamic.
We had, how do I say, the certainty of being loved, but never the feeling of being loved. Father’s love, and also Mother’s, was something that passed over one quickly, like the wind passes over the dry branches of trees in winter, unaffected by them, passing on and leaving as the only proof of its affection a few small piles of snow on the ground.
We knew in our hearts of Father’s love, but we could never rejoice in it, never allow this wind to sweeten into a breeze to ruffle and caress us.
While Vinnie seems clear about her own feelings toward her parents, she is surprised and somewhat shocked to overhear her sister reveal an even more devastating observation. “I never had a mother,” Emily tells Colonel Higginson, her literary advisor. “I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are in trouble, is that not so?”
And so Emilie begins that process of retreat, the process which will eventually result in the creation of hundreds of stunning small poems, written out in her cramped handwriting, which she bound together in “vesicles” and tied with string. But was she “mad” or simply eccentric? Was her penchant for wearing white, her incessant baking, her habit of hiding stealthily in the stairwell listening to visitors conversations but never participating – could that be considered madness of any sort?
I may have considered on more than one occasion that Emilie was disturbed in an essentially irreparable way. Austin may have thought the same, although he had too much respect for her intellect, as did Sue (Austin’s wife) to consider this seriously. In any case, and I stand by what I say, Austin and Sue would only think of her eccentricities as “poses.”
Was Emilie really different? Well, to tell the truth, all of us Dickinson’s are, and remain so to this day. Each one of us, in our own way, has always felt more comfortable amongst ourselves than among others…
The soul, Emilie would say, chooses its own company, and closes the door behind itself.
The Sister reveals much about Emily Dickinson, but even more so, as you would expect, about Lavinia, the somewhat “left behind” member of this family, to whom it fell to protect the Dickinson legacy – both literary and material. The second half of the book delves into a rather nasty legal battle that sees Lavinia pitted against her brother’s mistress, and finds her forced to stoop to rather unsavory tactics to preserve justice for her family.
Interestingly, Paola Kaufman, an Argentinian biologist and scientific researcher as well as a writer, published this book first in Spanish (La Hermana). The English edition, translated to perfection by William Rowlandson, was published in a beautiful paperback edition by The Rookery Press in 2007. Kaufman published five novels within five years, several of which were awarded prizes in her native country. Sadly, she died suddenly in September of 2006 as a result of a brain tumor, making her delicate description of Emily’s death all the more poignant:
One May morning the reaping angels of the soul returned. Now the fruit was ready to be harvested, about to fall from the branch. The angels danced their white dance stirring up the air around them, until he wind of death came and plucked the fruit from its weakened stem. Ever so carefully the angels gathered it in their wings and flew off with it.
The mad poet was at rest.