Two literary giants

From now on until the long-list has been published I am going to add to the end of each post any predictions that I have for the Man Booker Long-list 2015 which will be published in July. I will not write them up yet, but if my predictions come up I will probably do my usual post on the Man Booker. Meanwhile these are two novels that I have really enjoyed.

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William Nicholson‘s novel, which is one of six novels loosely based around a singular group of characters, starts with a young woman, Ruth Dickinson who decides to take time off her job as a copywriter to research a project that she would like to follow with a documentary film on Emily Dickinson (no relation) and her circle in Amherst, USA. The Lovers of Amherst follows the progress of Ruth’s research and also at the same time through her experiences in Amherst develops her own emotional journey.

Any one who knows the story of Emily Dickinson, the American poet, knows that she was a complete recluse from an early age. She lived with her sister, Vinnie, and with her brother, Austin, living with his family only a few doors away in Amherst. The house where Emily lived is now a museum, however there is precious little, save the fact that she lived there, that remains of her time. The kitchen is now the Museum shop, the dining room is stripped of most of its furniture and even Emily’s room upstairs has no furniture that she would recognise. The key to this conundrum is likely to be the fact that it took some while for Emily to become famous.

Ruth’s research reveals the intimate details of an extraordinary love affair between a local beauty who arrives in Amherst with her husband, David, and Austin Dickinson. Mabel Dodds was young, intelligent and beautiful. In her, Austin found a kindred spirit and their affair started simply with walks in the countryside discovering their compatible love of nature, meanwhile Mabel became Susan Dickinson’s great friend. Through time all this changed and eventually, with the willing connivance of the Dickinson sisters, a fully consummated affair began. Mabel and David had an open and trusting marriage, Austin and Susan a more conventional one, and what is more, one where conjugal relations had ceased all together. Ruth’s research fills her with excitement and bewilderment, she cannot see how to frame this into a story that will hold up either as a documentary or a short biopic. She stays with a friend of a friend and her own discoveries help her understand better what was happening all that time ago.

Mabel Dodds’ importance to us, however, lies in the fact that on Emily’s death, Vinnie found a drawer full of her poems, at least two thousand sheets, at first she asked Susan Dickinson to help her with them, but Susan neither understood the poems nor had time to transcribe them and finally Vinnie asked Mabel. It is due entirely to Mabel Dodds’ application, her innate understanding of what Emily was writing and her determination that we ever saw any of these poems. Mabel Dodds transcribed each one, took them round various publishers and finally persuaded the editor, Thomas Higginson, through force of will, to produce the first volume of one hundred and fifteen poems which appeared in November 1890.

Those who already love Emily Dickinson will greet this novel with delight, those who have already read other books about Ruth Dickinson and other characters in this novel will also delight in this volume, and I hope that people who come virginally to either Emily Dickinson or William Nicholson will go on to read both, and to enjoy their works.

The second novel Adeline is an entirely different sort of book, it has a serious intent (which is not to say that The Lovers of Amherst is not serious). The author, Norah Vincent, in writing this novel seems to wish us to understand better the life and struggles of Virginia Woolf, the subtitle is A Novel of Virginia Woolf, and so by way of understanding the writer we may be led on to read her books, or if we have already read them, to understand better what it cost Virginia to write. Of course, for that one can go to the more than excellent biography by Hermione Lee, but this novel, being a novel can put words and thoughts into the minds of the characters in a way that serious biography cannot.

Norah Vincent acknowledges her debt to Hermione Lee and obviously to primary sources, but she has a freer hand. This is a painfully difficult subject. Virginia Stephens, as she was, had a really strange and tortured childhood, her parents had eight children all together, though several were the children of her father by his first wife. She and her sister Vanessa were abused, in Virginia’s case definitely sexually, by her half brothers; she was named for a daughter who died in infancy, her baptismal name was Adeline but because of the painful association she was always called Virginia; one of her sisters, Laura, was confined to an asylum and in some ways Virginia herself felt trapped in a childhood that ceased on the death of her father. In this novel, her alter-ego is Adeline, who seems at times to be physically present, sometimes comforting and sometimes malevolent. A highly-strung, nervous and emotional adult, Virginia was aware that it was only the merest chance, and Leonard Woolf, who stood between her and an asylum. She had frequent bouts of depression and debilitating menstrual cycles, an asexual marriage meant that her ‘children’ were her novels, gestation was difficult and ‘post-partum’ painful.

Of course, this being Virginia Woolf we meet other members of the Bloomsbury Group, the intellectuals and misfits that lived in and around Gower Street, Tavistock Square and Bedford Square whose blue plaques enliven the streets of London. Lytton Strachey, Carrington, Vanessa Bell (of course) and Tom Eliot and his wife Vivien. John Lehmann appears briefly by association, and Ottoline Morrell like “a black spider in the middle of her web”. It was a time of heightened emotion, heady with new ideas and old prejudices, strung out between two World Wars, the lives of these men and women remain endlessly convoluted and fascinating, if you love them they can hold your attention for ever, nothing is ever enough – so a book like this is a ‘must read’; if you haven’t read any Virginia Woolf then this is a good way to start because it will give you insight into the tortured mind that produced her marvellous works; if you are bored to death by the whole bunch this novel might reawaken in you a tingle if interest.

I belong to the first category and would urge you to read this book, I would also strongly recommend another biography Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning which presents fairly and tellingly, the other side of that marriage.

Some obvious predictions for the Man Booker:scan0002scan0001

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