I Never Came to You in White

Judith Farr, Author
Judith Farr, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $21.95 (0p) ISBN 978-0-395-78840-0
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-0-395-87442-4
Ebook - 1 pages - 978-0-7867-5581-3
Paperback - 238 pages - 978-0-7867-5580-6
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Sadly inadequate to its ambitious intent, this first novel attempts to bring Emily Dickinson to life via an epistolary format. When she was 17, Dickinson (1830-1886) spent a single year at Miss Lyon's Seminary, later Mount Holyoke College. Though little is known about this period of her life, Dickinson scholar Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) strives for a composite portrait of the poet through a series of letters, some written during that year of 1847, others looking back on the poet's life after her death. The letters are so loaded with the facts of Dickinson's life, so heavy with digressions and so lacking in subtlety that they shriek of artifice. In particular, the correspondence between humorless Margaret Mann, Emily's English teacher at the seminary, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the poet's literary advisor and admirer, smacks of contrivance. The teacher tries to persuade Higginson of Emily's evil nature by relating her former student's ""misdeeds,"" including the girl's blasphemous reference to the Bible as a work of literature and her refusal to ""declare for Christ.'' In Emily's defense are Higginson's replies to Mann and letters the poet is imagined to have written to her brother Austin and childhood friends. Farr's perception of Dickinson is not surprising: she is an intense young woman who dares to question blind obedience to God, is passionate in her devotion to others, playful with language, irreverent and beyond most of her acquaintances' understandings. Most readers, however, will find her as trying as do most of her contemporaries. Farr does better with background detail, conveying the religious and social mores of the time. In an afterword, she sorts fact from fiction, detailing the poet's actual relationships with the novel's characters and specifying which poems are authentic and which she has ""blasphemously but lovingly improvised."" Farr's affection is obvious, but her portrait gives us stock figures who lack the dimensions of reality. Film, audio rights: Thomas D'Evelyn Agency. (Sept.)
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