Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: "I Never Came to You in White," by Judith Farr

       I have had a policy that I was not going to post book reviews here, but I'm changing my mind.  It's a way to make this blog more literary and give it variety.  I recently posted this review on Amazon and Goodreads.  The author is a Professor Emerita from Georgetown and an authority on the life and works of Emily Dickinson.  When I was doing the "permissions grind," one of the poems I wanted to use was by Léonie Adams and I traced the holder of the copyright to Prof. Farr.  She graciously allowed me to use the poem at no charge, and we struck up an email acquaintance.  I bought her novel on the youthful Emily Dickinson, and here is my review of it.

A Beautifully Conceived Epistolary Novel about Emily Dickinson

        This is a novel – a piece of fiction.  I want to stress that fact because some people seem offended (or confused) that a noted scholarly authority on the subject of the poet Emily Dickinson would have fictionalized her life.  Yet I doubt if many readers object to fictionalized renditions of the lives of Shakespeare or Byron or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Sometimes the dry facts of scholarship and perfectly edited scholarly editions of letters don’t bring the subject to life as a novel can.  And bringing Emily to life, to say nothing of her era (which is becoming more and more remote by the day to modern young people), is just what Prof. Farr has done.
       First, let me say that the epistolary form is perfect for this story; it allows the same events to be viewed from differing perspectives and keeps the author’s POV invisible.
       The symbolism of wearing white pervades the story.  At Mary Lyon’s repressive seminary for young girls in puritan-dominated New England of the 1840s, emphasis is placed on “declaring for Christ” and ensuring one’s place in heaven as part of the Chosen.  (Ironically, cramming love-starved young girls together in one place encourages lesbian tendencies to flower, and it is even more ironic that the Headmistress herself is revealed to have “sinned” in this way herself as a young woman.)  Mention is made of the white robes donned in Revelations after they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Emily chooses to wear white even though she has not “declared for Christ”; it’s a symbol of her faith, but her god is not Christ the Lamb but the “Master” – Poetry, Inspiration, Imagination, the Muse.  The nature of the “Master” seems perfectly clear to me, especially at the very end of the book.
       One of her letters to Sue (for whom she has a lesbian passion as a 17-year-old) contains one of the most important passages in the book: “I would declare for Christ if I could feel his presence in my heart as you do, and Abiah does.  What I feel in my heart is a speaking Silence that is holy enough.  But hush! tell no one of it.  I have heeded beautiful tempters.  The Angel of my Annunciation the Testament does not speak of.  I never came to you in white.  Therefore, you really do not know me yet, Sue.”  When Emily goes to the entity that is her personal god, she does go in white – her poetic gifts automatically make her one of the Chosen.  Sue is not yet fully Emily’s object of worship and unfortunately turns out to be unworthy of Emily’s love.  And ultimately who can say which god is more real – Christ or the Muse?  Perhaps one could view the two as one thing.
       It is the inner life of Emily Dickinson that we glimpse here, and that is what really matters with a poet of her stature.  Recommended for anyone who loves good poetry and has an interest in poets and what makes them the special creatures that they are.


  1. Nice review. I remember reading about this novel years ago (1996 or thereabouts?) and thinking then that it sounded interesting. You've reminded me anew to search it out. I expect many a Dickinson fan will appreciate the memory jog.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jack! I think you'd appreciate the book! It's out-of-print, apparently, but Amazon has numerous used and new copies from other dealers, including a couple for a penny or two(not in the best of condition, obviously!) It's not on Kindle.