Sunday, May 13, 2007

Afternoons With Emily

Rose MacMurray was born in Chicago and spent her married life in McLean, Virginia. She was an avid writer of poetry and her lifelong fascination with Emily Dickinson led her to research the poet's life. Written over many years, Afternoons with Emily is a fictionalized account of a woman, Miranda Chase, who befriends the reclusive Emily and traces the trajectory their friendship takes as the book develops. When MacMurray passed away unexpectedly in 1997, her children took possession of the manuscript and saw it to publication. Unfortunately, this will be MacMurray's first and only novel, which is a great loss.

When Miranda Chase moves into the sleepy town of Amherst, Massachusetts at 13, little is she aware that the place would provide the setting for a robust association. She is befriended by Emily Dickinson, who despite being 15 years her senior, casts a web of magnetic influence on the intelligent Miranda. Emily's profuse output of poetry works like a magical chant on the little girl, and she starts looking upon Emily as her mentor and confidante.

Miranda comes to observe the Dickinson clan from close quarters. Emily's father Edward Dickinson is a strict disciplinarian who rules the household with an iron hand. He is known in the town as an arrogant and distant man, whose career in politics gives him the standing to behave so. Emily's mother is a feeble and quiet woman who has little say in the running of the Dickinson home. This family structure breeds a deep contempt within Emily and she turns to writing to release her anguish. MacMurray is brilliant at constructing scenes where Emily's poetry melds easily with the novel's flow. One afternoon, for instance, Emily slips a note into Miranda's pinafore, which contains a "furious invective toward God and Mr. Dickinson":

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.

Twice have I stood a beggar

Before the door of God!

Angels — twice descending

Reimbursed my store —

Burglar! Banker — Father!

I am poor once more!


Miranda finds herself getting caught in her mercurial friend's intense affections. There is a scene in the novel where Edward Dickinson, going against his grain, visits the Chase household and cautions Miranda's father on Emily's wayward streak. This sets the stage for what turns out ultimately to be a timely warning about his daughter who can prove menacing and messianic in equal measure.

As Miranda grows up and shows a talent for education reform, she becomes involved in setting up a new kind of schools where education is treated as an exchange of ideas between equals and not something that is handed down from a superior. This is the beginning of a new phase in Miranda's life and she finds herself getting drawn to a co-worker, who happens to be a married man. Emily, not one to take this lying down, retorts, but it is to MacMurray's credit that she never falls for the trap of showcasing her as a vituperative vamp. The reader is given glimpses of Emily's aversion to sex (a common theme among the poet's biographies) by way of a confrontation between Emily and Miranda. So vehement is Emily at her argument that one is forced to concede that the poet may have, in fact, resided in an alternate world of make-believe where the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurred with alarming frequency:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm
Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind—


The novel is deeply imagined and MacMurray's virtuosity with the written word comes though on every page. She has a special talent for enmeshing the plot with details of the changing seasons. It seems that the cosmos have conspired to let actions become one with nature in this tale of coruscating clarity.

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From the St.Petersburg Times.

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