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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

The Secret Life of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Carlo and Currer Bell

By on September 14, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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This essay is part of a series on the dreamscape aspects of Jerome Charyn’s novel, the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Read the introduction to this series.

* * * * * * *

To shut our eyes is Travel.” – Emily Dickinson, 1870.

“…if memory serves, & if it does not, then I will let Imagination run to folly.” The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (17).

(numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the novel)

* * * * * * *

Carlo and Currer Bell

In “Holyoke,” the first section of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, we saw Emily taking the first steps outside the tight confines of Squire Dickinson’s West Street home. There she does things she never would have dared to attempt while under her Father’s ever-vigilant eye, including the pursuit of a forbidden man, her “burglar” Tom. She also has an up-close-and-personal encounter with the revivalist religion of her day, and says, “No, thank you.”

In this second section, Emily comes home, but she will never again be satisfied with just being her Father’s “sweet Dolly.” She begins to explore the wilder side of the Amherst beyond her dooryard, and we are increasingly unsure how much of this happens in “reality” and how much in her fantasies and dreams.

Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst, Massachusetts

As the section opens, the novel Jane Eyre sweeps through Amherst with a storm of scandal. Emily immediately identifies with “Currer Bell,” the pseudonymous author, whom she is certain is a woman. The character Jayne Eyre describes herself as “so little, so pale, and [with] features so irregular and so marked,” a description Emily readily applies to herself. She even begins to refer to herself as Currer Bell, and she names her dog, her constant companion and co-conspirator on her adventures, after the Carlo in Jayne Eyre. Nonetheless, “little Currer Bell doesn’t count, being part flesh and part fantasy” (92).

After a satirical valentine penned by Emily shows up in a local literary magazine, embarrassing Emily’s father, she sighs, “there I was, like Jane herself, hovering between ‘absolute submission and determined revolt'” (77). This is the stage of her life where she must decide how far she will go with “determined revolt,” and what form it will take. “Men would shove us into a box where we make puddings and knit stockings,” she complains, “while I long to taste Domingo in a rum resort, with Carlo at my side” (81). (Domingo becomes her code word for both rum and the illicit lover she will later pursue in Amherst’s “rum resorts.”) Here again we have the tension between Emily, a woman ahead of her time (like Charlotte Bronte, the real Currer Bell), and Emily, a woman of her time, who dares not go too far against the conventions about women. Still, in her poetry and her dreams, she can fly far.

Just when Emily thinks she has escaped forever the shame and religious guilt-mongering of Mt. Holyoke Seminary, who should show up on her doorstep but her old nemesis Zilpah Marsh, hired by Squire Dickinson as housekeeper. Zilpah brings with her the infamous yellow gloves of the “assassin-poet” of Holyoke, Rebecca Winslow. Emily can escape to her dreams, but she cannot escape her nightmares.

As Valentines season comes around, Emily has a new beaux, a dashing tutor from Yale named Brainard Rowe, her “Domingo.” Still, she is out of place. “I have to depend on suitors and their silly Valentines, when I’d love to wear a hawk’s wings and pursue my own prey” (94). She is jealous of the freedoms enjoyed by her brother, Austin, yet at the same time realizes he dwells in prison cells of his own, the obligation to fulfill his father’s ambitions for him.

Emily finally musters up the courage, though, to invade the one place in Amherst most forbidden to her sex and place in society: a “rum resort” (tavern). There she runs into none other than her “Domingo,” Brainard Rowe, and soon ends up in his lap. Later, she describes her wild Domingo as “the housebreaker of College Hill who stole the President’s clock.” He is another burglar in her life, stealing her affections, but from whom she also steals some of what she wants. Ironically, we learn later that it is her first burglar, Tom, who actually stole the President’s clock.

Amherst College

Amherst College

Brother Austin and his fraternity pals get wind that Emily has been in the tavern with Brainard, and they begin a campaign to oust him from the college and the town. Emily is once again imprisoned, confined to “headquarters.” It is during this confinement that we have the first of two dreams identified as such by Emily herself. In this first one, she sees herself lying in a grave next to her beloved sister, Lavinia, yet the two are separated by an impenetrable wall of earth. Shortly after she awakes from that nightmare, a hunted Brainard appears at her kitchen door, and she is “suddenly…as awake as a warrior. Miss Emily is no longer underground” (112). Her dream-burglars come (all too temporarily) to whisk her away from her nightmares.

Brainard is lost to her forever, and so she turns to a new fancy to soften her pain: Emily, the private detective of Amherst. When an epidemic of burglaries breaks out across Amherst, Emily becomes convinced that Zilpah is the frontlines spy for the ring of thieves. She decides to investigate the slum where Zilpah lives, “this cul-de-sac of housebreakers and handymen who are the fodder and foodstuff of dreams” (127). To her great surprise, she finds there none other than Tom from Holyoke. But this seems to be a very different Tom, dashingly dressed and quite articulate. Worst of all for Emily, he seems to have no recollection of her. “Perhaps my own past with Tom is part fairy tale,” she laments, “and he a player in a dream of mine” (127). Perhaps so, Emily, perhaps so.

There is a problem with phantom lovers: the creator of the phantom is herself a phantom to her creation. “How could I ever survive if I was so invisible to Tom?” Emily worries(130). Her pain brings to her mind a recollection of a visit to Evelyn, the former Dickinson housekeeper who is now recovering in an insane asylum. Though Emily is overjoyed to be reunited with Evelyn, they are never given a moment’s peace together, and all too soon Evelyn must return to her tasks, leaving Emily with a hurried blessing. “I lost Evelyn the moment I was blessed,” Emily says. Blessing lost; lost blessings. Phantoms beyond the dooryard gate.

In turn, Evelyn is a reminder of the new housekeeper, Zilpah Marsh. In a rage, Emily orders Zilpah to leave the house and never return. But once again, her anger and jealousy are turned back on herself. “I have scratched under my own skin, while Zilpah is unscathed. She will go off with Tom…” (133-4). “What is all my breeding worth? I might as well live in a root cellar,” she complains. “But I do have one small consolation–Miss Rebecca’s gloves. I would never wear them. but perhaps they can serve as my talisman, and lend me the privilege of becoming a poet” (134). Finally Emily has set the course for her life. She will pursue in poetry what she can never have in this world.

In a second self-identified dream, closing this section. Emily dreams of Tom whisking her away in a stagecoach to Boston. Here we have a prescient foreshadowing, as it will be in Boston that she next encounters Burglar Tom. Tom is driving the coach, and he sends his whip down like a snake (shades of the Garden temptation) into the coach to entice Emily to come up to his seat. But then his arm becomes a gentle elephant’s trunk that Emily rides up to be beside him. Here she finds peace at last. “I’ve talked enough for a lifetime. I don’t have to badger Tom. The carriage makes its own weather, and we ride into the wind” (135).

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