The Emily Dickinson Museum

During my vacation back in the good ol’ USA, on May 10th, as a one day late Mother’s Day gift, I treated my sister by having her drive me to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

Located at 280 Main Street, the museum includes tours of both Emily’s house (The Homestead)

and her brother, Austin’s house (The Evergreens).

My sister acted quite delighted to go even though the only thing she knew of Dickinson was that, “she was a hermit who wrote strange poetry.”  Of course,  this might also have been her way of apologising for her demonic cat attacking me the night before.  I kid not.  Warning: if that cat purrs at you it is not a sign that it is a loving, warm animal who wishes for you to pet it.  It is a sign that it is about to leap into the air cartoon-style and  claw at your face if you don’t jump out of its way in the nick of time.

But I digress.

Our tour group (led by a vey lovely and informative woman) began inside the Homestead.   Emily’s grandfather built the Federal style home circa 1813.

After being shown Emily’s portrait, we were told that Emily’s family and Emily, herself, hated it because it didn’t resemble her at all.  Evidently, the artist had dressed her in a style similar to that of her mother, so that the two portraits could appear almost twin-like. 

Instead of the studious pose this picture suggests, Emily preferred wearing her hair loose and free.

Later in life, Emily preferred wearing all-white.  It is unknown whether this was due to spiritual convictions or if she had been influenced by one of her favorite novels, The Woman in White.   In the upstairs hallway, her white daydress is showcased behind glass.  Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the museum.   The simple, elegant dress indicates that she stood about 5’4 or under, and was extremely slender.

Inside Emily’s bedroom is a 17 inch writing desk at which Emily penned her thousands of poems.  Our tour guide informed us that these tiny desks were designed so the writer wouldn’t have space to put things on it, and thus be distracted by them.   (yes, I did make a mental note to myself at that point)

Emily’s austere bedroom:

 (thanks to pbs. org)

On the walls, hang pictures of two of Emily’s favorite writers:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot.  Our guide asked us if we could identify the two ladies.  She was surprised when I immediately recognized Mrs. Browning, as evidently most don’t.  I would have assumed Eliot would be more difficult.  (another woman in our group guessed her correctly)

After reading some of Emily’s poems, we walked along the path to The Evergeens.   Emily’s father built the Italianite style house for her brother Austin and his wife, Susan Gilbert.

The socially-inclined Susan Gilbert, entertained such notable figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Webster, and Thoreau.  Some speculate that these parties may have been part of the reason that the already private Emily withdrew herself completely from society.

After Emily’s death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, brought a bunch of Emily’s poems to Mabel Loomis Todd and asked her help in getting them published.   Mrs. Todd (who had been conducting a quiet, yet very well-known love-affair with Austin) had never met Emily in person.  Instead, they had corresponded for a few years through letters.   Mabel spent several years organizing and editing Emily’s poems.  The resulting volumes were published in 1890, 1891, and 1896.

Mrs. Todd went on tours in which she played up Emily’s mystical, secluded nature and eventually sealed her reputation as the mysterious poet from Amherst.

In Emily’s own words:

“I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”

Writing: Physical Character Description

An oft asked question by writers is, “How much character description do you like?”

Here’s a bit of advice:  Don’t bother asking it.  Save yourself a migraine.  For every person who replies, “I love a very detailed description.  I want to see the character as painted by the author.”  You’ll get another person who says,  “Ugh.  Give me little-to-none.  I like to envision the character the way I want.”

Some readers prefer none, others medium, others love a full Rembrandt.

You can’t please everybody.

Decide how much character description you like.   Then, study how to handle it with a deft touch.

First, let’s look at things to avoid:

1. The “laundry list” :  Mary Sue was really beautiful.  She was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds.  She had long blond hair and cornflower blue eyes.  Her lashes were long and thick.  Her brows were thin and arched.  She had peaches and cream complexion, a small perky nose, and pouty lips.    Zzzz………….

2. Purple prose: “long raven hair that fell down her back in silken ripples”, “azure eyes that sparkled like glittering stars- blue as the shiniest sea.”

3. mirror technique- This refers to protagonist sitting down in front of their mirror and studying their reflection as though they’ve never seen themselves before.  In fact, the paragraph usually begins that very way:  “I sat down in front of the mirror and studied my reflection.  My eyes were large and soft brown.  My curly brown hair was horribly frizzy….”

4. waiting too long to describe a character.  If Sarah Collins first appears on page 5- don’t wait until page 40 to describe her.  By then, readers will have imagined her appearance by themselves.  If one has envisioned her as small, petite with red hair it will jar them to discover she is a tall brunette.

So how does one use a deft hand?

Here are some examples from different novels that utilize different techniques:

1. James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain was master of spare prose.  This is Frank’s first sighting of Cora:  “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” -This not only gives the reader a pencil drawing of Cora, it adds insight to Frank’s character.  The mashing them in part indicates roughness and brutality.

2. From Wilkie Collin’s, The Woman in White. Here is a very detailed description:  “The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache.  She had a large firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing resolute brown eyes, and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.  Her expression- bright, frank, and intelligent, appeared- while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.”  If Cain’s sketch was a line drawing, here we have an oil painting.

3. Anne Bronte’s, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. “Mrs. Graham darted upon me- her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

“Give me the child!” she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vhemence, and seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if in some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous, dark eyes- pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.”

Here, Anne Bronte breaks up the physical description of Mrs. Graham througout the action.   Anne actually reveals very little regarding Mrs. Graham’s appearance.  We don’t know her height, body type, etc..  Anne instead pinpoints on specific elements.  Mrs.  Graham has dark hair and eyes, and pale skin.    From her behavior, one clearly pictures Mrs. Graham with a strong, intense look about her.

What are some of your favorite physical character descriptions from books?  Whether they be raw, medium, or well-done.  Serious or humorous.  What authors brought their characters’ appearance alive to you? Please give examples!

Writing: Sinful Adverbs

In recent years, adverbs (words used to modify verbs) have fallen into great disfavor.  Adverb opponents insist they indicate weak writing.  Go to any writing forum critique board and you’ll see any and all adverbs swatted away like mosquitoes.

I’m going to be heretical and declare,  “There’s not a darn thing wrong with adverbs.”

If adverbs in themselves indicate weak writing than many of our most critically acclaimed and beloved authors including Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Steinbeck, and Austen sure fooled a lot of people.

It is the overuse of them that indicates weak writing.

It often takes a writer a long time to learn less is more.  Precision is key.

A sure-sign of an amateur writer are pages cluttered with adverbs.   Uncertain of their writing ability,  they fear they must spell out everything.   None of their characters simply speak, stand, walk, cry, or laugh.

“He ran quickly”

“She screamed loudly”

“She whispered softly”

“John noticeably cringed as the woman on stage sang horribly.”

Avoid adverbs that are redundant and clutter the sentence at all costs.

Imagine a little girl receiving a toy doll.   She smiles.  That is it. You would not write, “She smiled, happily.”  The fact she smiled already showed she was happy.

So when is it okay to use adverbs?

Here is a quote from John Gardner: “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously—a startling word that makes the scene spring to life (adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox).”

And here is an example from Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White : “I wound my way down slowly over the Heath, enjoying the divine stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every side of me.”

One may argue the word, “slowly” is not necessary.   Yes, the sentence is clear without it.  However, it also does not clutter the sentence.   Rather than being redundant, it adds a certain nuance.   So in this example, the choice of whether or not to use, “slowly” is a stylistic one.

Think of adverbs as spice.   Carefully placed they add a certain tone and color.   Too much and they overtake the main flavor of the dish.

Those Innovative, Fun-loving Victorians

When people hear the word, “Victorian”, a myriad of images and thoughts often come to mind: quaint, old-fashioned, gaslights, lace, crinoline, velvet,  severe husbands and prudish wives.

Oh, and let’s not forget: “stodgy”.

For anyone who has studied the 19th century- the image  of Victorians as stodgy is laughable.

Brilliant minds invented the steam locomotive, batteries, photography, Coca-Cola, soda fountain, stethoscope, microphone, typewriter, braille printing,  sewing machine, telegraph, Morse code, bicycles, facsimile, pasteurisation, antiseptics,   washing machines, elevators, telephone, phonographs,  motorcyles,  mechanical cash registers, and the first motion pictures.

Intellectual debates sprung from Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species”.   The Suffrage Movement and Abolitionism began.   Health movements by Sylvester Graham and J.H. Kellog advocated vegeterianism.  Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion’s deciphering of The Rosetta Stone issued in Egyptology.  New ideas sprang up: Spiritualism, Free Love, American Transcendentalism, and Theosophy.

The Victorians were dazzled by the world around them.   Poor and rich alike visited cabinets of curiosities to view collections  pertaining to  natural history, archeology,  arts and antiquities.  These encyclopedic  collections included fossils, plants, sealife specimens, to human skulls and torture devices, to fabricated wonders such as feejee mermaids and shrunken heads.

But what did they do for entertainment when they weren’t studying shrunken heads?

When they weren’t inventing amusement parks and riding the first rollercoasters- they enjoyed magic lantern shows, waxwork shows, and freak shows.  Hypnotists,  fortune tellers, acrobats, magicians, and pantomimes.

Daredevils such as Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet), performed stunts which have never been equalled.   In June 1859, Blondin, armed with only a balancing pole, walked across Niagra Falls from the American side to Canada on a two-inch rope.  Two weeks later he performed the stunt walking backwards and returned pushing a wheelbarrow.  He would later repeat the stunt on stilts, blindfolded, and riding a bicycle.  Twenty thousand spectators watched  Selina Young (the “female Blondin”)  complete a daring highrope walk across the Thames from Battersea Bridge to the Cremorne Gardens.  Tragically, in 1862, she was left permanently disabled after a fall.

Those stodgy Victorians devoured Sensation novels of murder and sex by William Black, Mary Braddon, Ellen Price, and the unforgettable Wilkie Collins.  His Woman in White inspired perfume, cloaks, bonnets, and waltzes.

Prudes?  Statistics regarding the number of babies born very, very quickly after marriage indicate people were as lusty as ever in the 19th century.  A group of moralists (mostly belonging to the middle class) did wish to portray a false image of perfection.  (or what they deemed to be perfection)  But what polite society discussed in public and what went on in the privacy of peoples’ homes was quite different.   Wives may have been advised to “lie back and think of England” during sex- but it is comical to suppose they actually did.

All the same -it is too easy to romanticize the past.   For all its many wonders, the 19th century was rife with poverty and crime.   Sanitation was almost non-existant in many places.  City streets were strewn with manure and garbage.  Without modern conveniences- cooking, cleaning, and laundry were laborous, backbreaking ordeals. It is not surprising the Victorians sought pleasure wherever they could.

Who wouldn’t want to watch Blondin sit down on that two-inch rope in the middle of Niagra Falls and cook an omelette with a portable stove he’d secured to his back?

Blondin walking across Niagra Falls on June 30, 1859