In this novel about Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife, Lidian, Amy Belding Brown examines the emotional landscape of love and marriage. Living in the shadow of one of the most famous men of her time, Lidian becomes deeply disappointed by marriage, but consigned to public silence by social conventions and concern for her children and her husband's reputation. Drawn to the erotic energy and intellect of close family friend Henry David Thoreau, she struggles to negotiate the confusing territory between love and friendship while maintaining her moral authority and inner strength. In the course of the book, she deals with overwhelming social demands, faces devastating personal loss, and discovers the deepest meaning of love. Lidian eventually discovers the truth of her own character and learns that even our faults can lead us to independence.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
Amy Belding Brown, a graduate of Bates College, received her master of fine arts degree from Vermont College. Her publication credits include Yankee, Good Housekeeping, and American Way, among others. The wife of a United Church of Christ minister and mother of four, she is on the staff of the Orchard House museum in Concord, Massachusetts.
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Mr. Emerson's Wife
By Amy Belding Brown
St. Martin's GriffinCopyright © 2006 Amy Belding Brown
All right reserved.
Mr. Emerson's Wife
PART IJanuary 1835 - April 1839LidianA woman of well-regulated feelings and an active mind may be very happy in single life--far happier than she could be made by a marriage of expediency.
--LYDIA MARIA CHILD1MannersGrace, Beauty, and Caprice Build this golden portal; Graceful women, chosen men, Dazzle every mortal.--RALPH WALDO EMERSONHad I known how momentous the evening would be, I would not have tarried at my chamber window that afternoon but busied myself in preparation. As it was, three o'clock found me lifting the curtain to watch a red sleigh drawn by two black chargers skim down the hill to the harbor. The morning's clouds had long since streamed out to sea, leaving blue sky and four inches of new, wet snow blanketing all of Plymouth. The horses cast vaporous balloons to the air and flung up their heads as if intoxicated by the change in weather. Of the storm, only an ashen streak remained on the horizon, lying over the water like a bitter dream. That and the combers breaking in chalky ribbons against the wharf pilings. I let the curtain fall and turned in time to see Sophia bolt past my door in her chemise, dark hair flying."Sophia!" Fourteen, nearly grown, yet still wild as a colt, my niece was as much a trial to my sister, Lucy, as I'd been to our mother. With her long,sharp nose and gray eyes, she even resembled me. "Sophia, what sort of behavior is this?" I crossed to the doorway and regarded her with elaborate solemnity, though I had to master a smile to do so.Sophia stopped beneath the portrait of my father, which had hung in the same spot since it was painted ten years before his death. Her cheeks were a frenzy of red splotches. She dipped her chin and brought her index fingers together at her waist in a posture that she likely hoped I'd perceive as properly demure."Aunt Lydia?" She smiled up at me through long lashes. Practicing, no doubt. Before long, some young man would be the recipient of that look.I glanced at my father's likeness, to derive strength from the stern line of his mouth, his judging gaze. "If you expect to attend Mr. Emerson's lecture this afternoon, you must comport yourself as a lady," I said. "You are not a wild animal."Sophia bowed her head, yet I caught the pucker of agitation--of mischief even--upon her young brow.I stepped into the hall and said after her, "Ladies do not run down hallways half-dressed. Ladies walk with elegance and grace. Even when they're in a hurry.""Yes, Aunt Lydia.""Show me."Sophia closed her eyes and took four prim steps."No, no. That's not it at all. Look." I walked the length of the hall. My hem sighed over the carpet, my arms swung quietly against my skirts. I knew how it looked--it was plain in Sophia's admiring glance--I was gliding rather than walking. It appeared as if my slippers never touched the floor. It was an effect I'd spent years perfecting. I turned and walked back to her."Now you. Lengthen your neck--feel it stretch--and let your body hang from your shoulders. Look, imagine it as a bolt of fabric draped across your bones.""My bones?" My niece made a face."Your flesh is a kind of fabric, is it not?" I adjusted my sleeves at the wrist, and saw that a thread had come loose and the hem must soon be mended, a task I did not relish. "It ought to be cared for and worn with grace," I said. "Now you show me you've learned what I taught."Droplets of perspiration had dampened the tiny curls in front of her ears. I touched one and it wound instantly around my finger. "Show me," I said,dropping my hand to her shoulder and turning her so that I could observe her back as she walked obediently to the head of the stairs, where she turned and came back to me.I nodded. "Much better. You must practice every day. Do you still stand in the dancing stocks?""Sometimes.""Every day, Sophia. For thirty minutes every day."She nodded again but would not look at me and I knew her habits would not change. The only thing that could make a girl stand in the stocks was a lively and determined will."Surely you won't forbid me the lecture?" Her voice was anxious, ready to plummet toward despair should I deny her. "All Plymouth will be there! Everyone I know is going!""We do not attend lectures that we might be seen, Sophia," I admonished. "We go to hear. I've heard Mr. Emerson speak and I know he's a man of wisdom and intellect. His ideas are forward-thinking, and it behooves us to hear and understand them. But it is not a fashion show." My ears caught the scolding tone of my father's voice in mine, and I stopped. Hadn't I sworn that I would never speak to a child that way? Hadn't I cringed every time my father had bridled me with his hard tongue?Sophia bent her head again in a posture of penitent resignation, yet I saw that her toes were nearly dancing upon the floor, as if she could not control their expectancy.I instantly relented, for she reminded me so much of myself. "You may attend as long as you behave like a lady," I said. "Now go and get dressed. We must be at the meetinghouse in an hour."
I HAD CHOSEN my gray silk for the occasion, and had already laid it out on the bed. Though Lucy declared it out of fashion, with its pleated bodice and plain collar, it suited my taste as well as my principles. I'd long since abandoned interest in the whims of society, and settled on a simple and comfortable style without corsets or stays. I regarded simplicity as a virtue, one that encouraged clarity of thought and action.I took the pins from my hair and let it fall in heavy brown waves to my knees. Even at the age of thirty-three, I enjoyed letting it down, for it never failed to make me feel girlish and unencumbered. As I combed my hair, mygaze drifted around the room, lingering on my bookshelf. Goethe was my current favorite; the cover was already worn from the many times I'd read it since summer, when George Bradford gave it to me in appreciation for my contributions to his philosophy class. I had also read extensively in Swedenborg, the French philosopher on whose work Mr. Emerson was scheduled to speak that afternoon. I was eager to hear what he would say. My aunt Priscilla had lately charged me with Swedenborgian leanings, though I'd retorted smartly that I would never fall under the influence of any one philosopher.When I heard Mr. Emerson in Boston, I knew he was as great a philosopher as any I'd read. Yet it was not merely his thoughts that impressed me, but his mannerisms, which suggested a distinctive refinement education alone could not produce. He did not move his hands and arms in the great sweeping gestures so common to orators, but stood quite still, allowing his clear voice to persuade the audience. On the few occasions when he did lift his hand for emphasis, the effect was startling and forceful.The clock on the landing struck four and I came to myself, wondering what Mother would think of me, staring at a pile of books when I had so little time to prepare for the lecture. I could hear her voice in my ear, reminding me that punctuality was a courtesy that married trustworthiness to respect. I gathered my hair, rolled it up onto my head, secured it with combs, and studied the effect in the mirror.The face I saw there was unmistakably sad. My long chin and milky skin, my deep-set eyes, all hinted at some unnamed sorrow. I'd always believed my features too plain to attract notice, but now I considered that the fault might lie more in this melancholy gaze. I resolved to look more cheerful that evening.I removed my day gown and took my dress from the bed. The skirt swirled around me with a soft, gray hiss, like the sea upon the shore. Mother had insisted I wear such a dress to my first dance lesson when I was seven. It had been a blue silk gown with a white lace collar. I'd relished the sensation of the cool, slippery fabric against my arms and shoulders, though I did not want to attend the lessons. I believed dancing was one more severe restraint imposed on proper adult ladies. I'd been used to climbing trees and swinging on branches. Yet it was Mother's wish that both Lucy and I master all the womanly arts, and so once each week we walked up North Street to the Town Square. This duty soon became a privilege when my French dance master revealed that he was a distant cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte. I was immediately won over, for Napoleon was my hero.Monsieur Remy was a small man, only a few inches taller than I, with long, slender hands and auburn hair that fell to his shoulders. He favored bright colors and fine embroidery--though worn at the cuffs and collar, his waistcoats were always the latest fashion. Yet he never smiled. He regarded dancing with the same solemnity that my aunts viewed their Calvinist faith.I adored him.He taught me to carry myself like a princess. Each Wednesday morning Lucy and I appeared at his door, where we lifted the knocker shyly and waited for his white-haired housekeeper to grant us entrance. She never spoke to us, never once said our names, but smiled as she nodded us in and led us through the smoky kitchen. My heart never failed to race as I stepped into the cold room where Monsieur Remy waited.Though it was an empty bedchamber, to me it was a hall. The floorboards gleamed from the scouring of slippered feet. There were no drapes covering the room's three windows, so morning light drenched the walls and floor and expanded the empty room to grand proportions.Monsieur Remy was always there, standing at the window and looking out to sea, hands tucked neatly into the small of his back. On the first day he looked at me and, in an accent that melted the ends of his words, said, "You must submit each day to the discipline of the stocks. As soon as you start to dance, I will know if you've been faithful."The stocks were a single block of wood with back-to-back slots for the feet, so that when a dancer stood in them, her legs turned out and the backs of her heels touched. Lucy complained, but I stood in them every day for more than an hour. The pain always began slowly, deep inside my hips--from there it slid down to my knees, which began to throb after ten minutes. Then my calves protested and moments later my ankles as well, until I was encased in pain from the waist down. Yet I never avoided them. I bent my will to their iron discipline, for I loved dancing with all my heart.I practiced my steps for hours, urging my feet into the complex patterns, positioning my body with the regimen of a military officer, heel just so, toe pointing at that particular angle. Exactly as I was taught. I turned and bent and took small, exquisite leaps. I forced my body into positions it did not want to assume, for dancing required pitting myself against the forces of gravity and air. It was a sort of levitation, a defiance of the laws of nature. Though not--I was certain--the laws of God. No matter what my stern aunts told me, no matter how many times they warned me that I waspirouetting directly over the fires of hell, I knew God wanted me to dance. Why else would I feel so like an angel, as if I'd sprouted strong, white wings lifting me toward heaven?
AT FOUR-THIRTY, Sophia and I stepped over the threshold into the crystalline air of late afternoon. For a moment I stood looking down the hill to the harbor. It was a view that always affected me because it so starkly symbolized the convergence of man and nature in the orderly march of buildings along the various wharves and the unbridled tumult of the ocean beyond. At the moment, the sea was calm, but I knew that the merest flick of God's finger could transform it into a tempest. Mrs. Brig's house had lost a shutter in the morning's storm, and the linden tree at the foot of the hill was leaning precipitously across the road. The brief sun of late afternoon had begun to melt the snow along the roadside, and I heard the trickle of water close by.Behind me loomed the reassuring bulk of Winslow House, like a mother's skirts protecting and enfolding me. It was where I'd been born and raised, where I'd lived most of my life, save the few years after my parents' death when I boarded with my aunt and uncle. A square-built, wooden house, covered in salt-grayed clapboards, it was handsome in its simple elegance, rising two-and-a-half stories at the end of North Street, on the broad promontory overlooking Plymouth Harbor. Its most notable feature was its double chimneys, which could be seen from Burial Hill, the high ridge where the Pilgrim forefathers lay.Sophia broke my reverie by taking my arm and begging me to hurry, lest we be late. We walked up North Street and beyond, to Town Square, where we found people streaming into the meetinghouse of the First Parish Church. The building, only recently completed, was made of wood and painted gray to resemble stone. Its centerpiece was the great circular stained-glass window that surmounted the doorway. The Gothic style seemed to be all the rage now, yet I wondered at the impulse that prompted this imitation of the cathedrals of Europe. Were we not a new and democratic nation? Should we not invent our own fashions?The pews were already crowded--the only available seats being the second-rate ones to the far right of the pulpit. I grasped Sophia's arm and pulled her smoothly past the round knees of Thomas Batchelder, then settled myself quickly on the wooden bench. I was relieved to note that Mr. Emerson hadnot yet entered the pulpit. I smoothed my skirts and straightened my bonnet, then discreetly signaled Sophia to straighten hers.A ripple of voices at the back of the room drew my attention, and I turned to see Mr. Emerson walk down the aisle. His brown hair glinted in the lamplight, his face serene and composed. He climbed the steps, his arms at his sides. He was a tall man with an unusually long neck and sloping shoulders, a feature of his anatomy that gave him an air of cultivation and congeniality. I noticed that his dark suit betrayed a genteel poverty in the sheen at the elbows and the fraying threads at his cuffs.I sat at an unfortunate angle to the pulpit and there were three tall men seated in front of me. I could not see properly without stretching sideways and craning my neck. Mr. Emerson took some folded papers from the pocket of his jacket and laid them on the lectern. In profile, his nose was beaklike and reminded me of an eagle, an image that somehow matched the sharp blue of his eyes. He turned and his gaze swept over the audience and I imagined that they rested momentarily on me. The sensation unsettled me, but left in its wake a not-unpleasant tingle at the nape of my neck.I refolded my hands--when had they separated and clenched the bench?--and pressed them deep into my lap, then glanced at Sophia, who was again playing with her bonnet strings. I had no time to correct her, for at that moment Mr. Emerson began to speak.As I listened to his words--and not merely his words, but the music of his voice--I felt a strange constriction of my mind and heart. His voice was melodious and oddly calming--its lyric quality made me think of a summer sea. It was as if his tone exerted a physical pressure in my brain, changing its shape and opening it to new ideas.His lecture lasted nearly two hours, but I was unaware of the passage of time until he stepped back from the lectern. Then I turned to smile at Sophia and the sudden ache in my neck and shoulders informed me that I'd been frozen in a forward lean throughout the event.Applause filled the meetinghouse. I clapped until my hands were sore. Mr. Emerson bowed and descended the steps. People rose, preparing to leave, some still applauding as they fastened themselves into their cloaks. There was a great sizzle of skirts and shawls. I saw that Mr. Emerson had been detained by a knot of men, all of whom appeared to be addressing him at once. He listened closely, yet his gaze strayed past their shoulders and, for an instant, met mine.He smiled and my heart fluttered like a curtain at a newly opened window.Sophia caught my sleeve. "How does it feel to hear your own words from Mr. Emerson's mouth, Aunt Lydia?""My own words?" I turned."You've spoken those very thoughts a hundred times!"I stared at her, and for a moment the sounds around me ceased, or seemed to, as if cotton or water had stoppered my ears."I have read and admired Swedenborg," I murmured."So has Mama, but she doesn't talk the way you do! You and Mr. Emerson are of one mind!"Suddenly, I was desperate to be outside where I could draw cold air into my lungs, for they were aching with fiery pressure. I turned toward the door and saw Mary Russell pushing her way through the crowd toward us. Mary, with her elegant neck and fluttering hands, wrapped in her black mourning cloak, had been my friend for twenty years."You are planning to attend Father's reception for Mr. Emerson tonight, aren't you, Lydia?" Mary touched my sleeve, her hand a clutch of bone and nail sheathed in ivory gloves."Of course," I said, though I dreaded the small, hot rooms of the Russell home."We are so honored to have Mr. Emerson as our guest!" She leaned toward me, so close the brims of our bonnets rustled. "I believe he may be in the market for a wife," she whispered. "You should have seen the longing on his face at breakfast this morning when he spoke of seeing his newborn nephew!"I had to smile. Mary was always setting her cap for a husband."I cannot believe a man like Mr. Emerson would have difficulty finding a wife should he want one. I suspect he is more intrigued by ideas than by female wiles." I patted Mary's arm, detaching her hand from mine. "Get some rest before the reception. You look weary." I pried Sophia's hands once more from her bonnet strings and quickly made my way out.
AT THE RUSSELL HOUSE, gaslight sconces flanked the door and light swirled from the front windows to pool on the snowy lawn fronting Court Square. Mary's mother welcomed me at the door. I was surprised to find her up; she had spent the past month in bed, daily purged and bled by Dr. Roberts. Her pallor had yellowed alarmingly since her illness and her hand on mine was cold as death. She wore black crepe, in mourning for her youngestdaughter, Mercy. As I stepped across the threshold, a suffocating wave of heat assaulted me, caused by the fires and close press of people. Ever since Mercy's death, the house had been kept overwarm, as if the scorching temperatures might discourage further dying.Mr. Emerson sat in the front parlor, surrounded by admirers. I occasionally glimpsed the crown of his head and heard the gentle timbre of his voice, but could not imagine pushing my way through the tight-pressed bodies to meet him. Instead, I moved freely through the downstairs rooms, enjoying the warm sociability of the event. It was nearly ten and I was on the point of retrieving my cloak when George Bradford detached himself from Mr. Emerson's side and approached me."Don't leave. Our guest of honor wants to meet you." He held a glass of port in his right hand. "He asked particularly to be introduced.""To me?" I searched his face to see if he spoke in jest, but his gaze was direct."Have you no desire to meet him? Weren't you impressed with his lecture? I thought certainly his words would move you.""They did. Most assuredly. But I fail to understand why he would ask for me.""Lydia, your reputation precedes you. I wrote him weeks ago of the woman in Plymouth whose brilliance of mind challenges his own.""Surely not."George bowed so that his face came near mine. "He seeks a woman's companionship and conversation. You'd not deny him those simple pleasures, would you?""He does not appear to be lacking them." I smiled at the circle of women who sat attendance on Mr. Emerson. "From what I've observed, he's been enjoying those very pleasures all evening."George drained the last of his port. "He does not like superficiality. He wants substance in his social discourse.""As do I.""You make my point." He placed the glass on a nearby table and took my arm. "Come. The hour grows late and Waldo is waiting."
I SAT IN the yellow wing chair that Mercy had embroidered in flowers and butterflies the summer before she died. I must have looked singular in myunfashionable gown. Singular and no doubt apprehensive, for the smile Mr. Emerson directed at me was so warm it seemed to heat my face. Beneath its force, all my thoughts immediately took wing and left my mind as empty as my drained teacup--an effect that intensified when the other guests mysteriously left the room and I found myself alone with Mr. Emerson."George has spoken of you with great admiration," Mr. Emerson said. "My determination to meet the woman whose mind is Plymouth's shining light is in part what brought me here."I was surprised to find myself blushing. It was not my habit to respond to flattery. "George has misled you," I said. "I'm but a student of his. And a poor one at that."His expression grew solemn and he inclined his shoulders toward me. "You ought not to succumb to false modesty, Miss Jackson. Not when there are so many who follow the habit of false pride." His smile returned. "Tell me. Do you keep a journal?""I do." I thought of the small volume in which I'd jotted my thoughts for three years. "I have for some time. At George's suggestion, in fact. He believes one must examine one's life closely if any mental expansion is to be achieved. I've found it a profitable exercise.""And satisfying as well, I hope?"I smiled over my teacup. "There is always satisfaction when the mind is stimulated to higher thoughts. Yet we must look beyond ourselves for instruction. It's our duty to admit our deficiencies and seek the help of friends, is it not?"He was silent for a moment, and I did not know whether he were pondering my thoughts or composing his own. He studied me intently, as if his eyes could penetrate my skull and read my mind."I used to think so," he said finally. "I was convinced I needed instructors, but now I'm wary of attaching too much importance to the counsel of friends. The highest wisdom can only be attained by each soul for itself. Don't you agree that the best teacher is solitude?"I placed my empty cup on the small marble table beside my chair before I answered. "If by solitude, one means reflection and prayer. An empty solitude confers no wisdom but emptiness itself.""Well said!" He shifted forward in his chair and I felt a responsive clutch at my throat. It was gratifying to be the recipient of Mr. Emerson's close attention. "Contemplation and inspired meditation teaches each soul its own highestwisdom. And 'tis the truest act of piety to do so. You must trust yourself undividedly. Who but God gives you the faculties of reason and intuition?"I'd never heard such ideas expressed aloud, though I had thought them myself in secret. This convergence of mind with Mr. Emerson seemed of great consequence. I wanted to hear more."But when counting God's gifts, one should not omit friendship," I said. "Is it not our friends who give us spiritual aid in times of doubt and confusion?""Exactly!" Again he moved forward so that he sat upon the very rim of his seat. "Spiritual aid is the most precious assistance anyone can offer. Yet how many friends settle for a common round of domestic hospitality and meaningless gifts?" He began to tap his knee with his right hand, though I sensed he was unaware of the gesture. "I hope you will not take offense if I tell you that your ability to express my own thoughts is uncanny. It's as if you had been reading my journals." He paused a moment, his head tipped slightly to one side as he studied me.The effect was disconcerting. Though his words were laudatory, I nonetheless felt that I was being measured against some impossibly high standard. I tried to compose my mind, to think of an appropriate response, yet he spoke again before I had the chance. "I would like you to read them sometime. Would you consider doing me that honor?"Some adversarial mischief was in me, for instead of acknowledging the elation that coursed through me at his words, I said saucily, "I'm not in the habit of reading men's journals."His smile disappeared. "I assure you, it's not my custom to share them. I merely thought you might find an interesting association of our thoughts."Instantly, I regretted my words. "Forgive me. In truth, I cannot think of a greater honor." I touched his hand where it rested on his knee. It was the slightest contact, a mere brushing of the back of his knuckles with my fingertips, yet a shock raced through me--an electrical current that made the skin on my neck prickle. The expression on his face suggested that he, too, had felt it.I contrived to change the subject. "How long will you remain with us in Plymouth?""I'm bound for Boston in the morning. But"--his smile reappeared--"I return here in a fortnight to lecture again. Perhaps you will attend.""You may be sure of it," I said. "Have you settled on a topic?""Not yet. I've considered sharing some thoughts on marriage." He signaleda passing servant for more tea, a discreet raising of his index and second fingers, and before I could protest, my cup was refilled. "What is your philosophy on the subject?"I nearly dropped my cup into my lap. It rattled noisily on its saucer."I've discomfited you," he said. "Forgive me. I long ago abandoned the custom of dissembling."I picked up my cup. "Marriage is a complex subject, Mr. Emerson. One that should not be discussed lightly.""I don't ask the question lightly," he assured me. "Swedenborg, as I'm sure you know, addresses the matter in great detail."I looked straight into his eyes, to discern if he mocked me, but his gaze was direct. "I'm not a Swedenborgian," I said."I didn't imagine that you were, Miss Jackson. The truth is, I sense myself to be in the presence of a singular soul. A woman who is not afraid to follow her own mind wherever it leads. I would enjoy accompanying her." His smile had returned and his gaze seemed to concentrate a strange heat that suffused my face. "Please," he said, lowering his voice and leaning toward me once again. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. I'm genuinely eager for your thoughts."I glanced into my cup, and felt a dim surprise to find it still filled with tea. For want of something to do while I composed my mind, I raised it and took a small sip."I believe marriage is most happily rooted in the principle of balance," I began. "The strength of one party should correspond to the weakness of the other. It's God's design that our closest associations should perfect us."He regarded me with a curious intensity and, though the effect unsettled me, I went on, for I'd embarked on a subject to which I'd given much thought in the wake of my sister's marital misfortune."Each soul has its own relation to the universe," I said. "And the task of discovering that relation is the burden of the individual. Yet in the best relations, another person of a dissimilar nature is present for counsel and correction."I paused, for Mr. Emerson had begun to frown. "I find your argument paradoxical," he said. "Don't such dissimilarities create conflicts in a marriage? How can discord reflect Divine Will?""It's not God's fault if a man and wife abuse his blessings. The true purpose of their dissimilarity is to strengthen and perfect each other, and so they must seek a higher law of marital harmony than is common.""An intriguing theory," Mr. Emerson said. "If I understand correctly, youpropose that the marriage of opposites is an ideal condition--one to be embraced rather than opposed."I nodded. "It's a practical doctrine. It teaches humility, respect, charity, and patience.""Yet you must surely admit that, while many people marry their opposites, the quality of relation you suggest is rare." He was smiling again and his eyes seemed very bright, despite the low light."Many couples are not truly united," I said. "There is as much misery as happiness to be found in marriage. The union will be strong and happy only as long as love is balanced by principle." I took another sip of tea, but it had gone cold. I placed the cup on the table."Then you acknowledge the value of affection," Mr. Emerson said. I thought I detected a hint of mischief in his eye, as if he meant to catch me out in some false or foolish doctrine, but I had seen that look before in the glances of men, and was undaunted."Of course I do. Affection is wine to the bread of duty. It's our duty to respect the distinctions of our own natures."His beneficent smile assured me that I was not caught in any trap of his devising and I felt a pang of remorse for imagining that he meant to lay one. Before me sat--I was now convinced--the most direct and earnest of men. He was unlike any man I'd ever met--worlds away from Lucy's husband, Charles Brown, who had so recently deserted her and his two children, Sophia and Frank, leaving them penniless and unsupported.Mary appeared suddenly at my elbow and offered another cup of tea. I came to myself, appalled at tarrying so long. I rose, scattering biscuit crumbs from my skirts onto the rose-embroidered carpet. "Mr. Emerson, I apologize for the late hour. I have taken too much of your time.""On the contrary." He had risen with me and was reaching for my hand. "I feel as if we've just begun our conversation.""Yes!" I took his hand, or rather let him take mine, which felt small and warm when clasped in his long fingers. "Yes, that is exactly my own feeling!" And then--startled by my reckless confession--I left. No, I fled, for there is no better metaphor than flight for the sensation that overwhelmed me as I stepped out the Russells' door and into the sea-charmed night. I felt as weightless and graceful as a bird.
SOPHIA WAS WAITING up for me in the parlor. The fire had died to embers, but she was wrapped in a heavy blanket and perched on the sofa with her legs tucked under her, reminding me of the winter nights I'd endured in Uncle Rossiter's house after Mother died. I'd been determined to model myself after Napoleon, who allowed himself only four hours of sleep each night."Why aren't you asleep?" I asked, though I knew it was a foolish question--the answer was written in her eager curiosity."Tell me what happened! Did you speak with Mr. Emerson?""For a considerable length of time. And stayed too late as a consequence." I removed my cloak and laid it over a chair. "I meant to be in bed early so that I would be fresh to greet your mother and brother when they return tomorrow."Mama will understand. You must tell me what Mr. Emerson said. Every word!"I laughed. "Would you deny me the chance to order my thoughts? Go to bed, Sophia, and I'll tell you all my adventures tomorrow."I took her hand and together we climbed the stairs to our sleeping chambers. I felt as if I were in a dream, one that delighted and surprised me, one from which I did not want to wake. Despite the cold, I found myself lingering at the window after I took down my hair and put on my nightgown. The half-moon hung over the harbor, casting a silver path across the water. I stood there a long time, watching the frost print leafy fronds on the glass. Thinking of Mr. Emerson's smile.MR. EMERSON'S WIFE. Copyright © 2005 by Amy Belding Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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Reading Group Guide
In this novel about Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife, Lidian, Amy Belding Brown examines the emotional landscape of love and marriage. Living in the shadow of one of the most famous men of her time, Lidian becomes deeply disappointed by marriage, but consigned to public silence by social conventions and concern for her family's reputation. Drawn to the erotic energy and intellect of close family friend Henry David Thoreau, she struggles to negotiate the confusing territory between love and friendship while maintaining her moral authority and inner strength. In the course of the book, she deals with overwhelming social demands, faces devastating personal loss, and discovers the deepest meaning of love. Lidian eventually encounters the truth of her own character and learns that even our faults can lead us to independence.
1. What is the significance of the fact that Lidian always addresses her husband as "Mr. Emerson?" When and why does she finally address him as "Waldo?"
2. In their first encounter, Lidian and Mr. Emerson discuss their views of marriage. Lidian asserts that a "marriage of opposites" is a good thing because it perfects an individual by balancing strengths and weaknesses. In what ways do you think Lidian and Mr. Emerson balance each other? Do you think Lidian's marriage proved or disproved her theory?
3. The novel is in Lidian's voice and filtered through her view of things. How do you think Lidian contributes, directly and indirectly, to the strains in her marriage? What was she looking for in her marriage? Was marriage itself important to Lidian – or only marriage to Emerson?
4. How did Lidian's experiences with her parents shape her later outlook and decisions?
5. What role does guilt play in this novel? What actions does Lidian take that she regrets? What does she do to find forgiveness? Does she ever forgive herself for her imperfections? Does forgiveness in her life and her world have any meanings no longer relevant today?
6. In what ways does death overshadow the Emersons' marriage? Is marriage a symbol of life or death in this novel?
7. How do the Emersons succeed in achieving their dream of making their home a gathering place for philosophers? In what ways do they fail? What does this dream cost them?
8. The "double" motif of the noveltwo baptisms, two names, two lovespoints to Lidian's deep inner conflicts. How does her religious faith complicate those conflicts? How does it help her to resolve those conflicts?
9. In Chapter 20, Lidian reflects on how strange it is that "the love of another man was the very glue that bound me to my husband." How did Lidian's relationship with Henry bind her to Mr. Emerson?
10. What do Henry's letters represent for Lidian, and how does her burning of them make her free?
11. Lidian lives in the shadow of Ellen Tucker throughout her married life. In the course of the book, she moves from jealousy to resigned acceptance of her husband's undying love for his first wife. In chapter 28, after reading Ellen's letters, Lidian states that she has "fallen in love" with Ellen. What does she mean by this? What in Lidian's character makes this possible?
12. What are some of the losses that Lidian suffers, both human and psychological? How do those losses impact her relationship with her husband? How does she try to recover from some of these losses, or doesn't she?
13. In what ways does Lidian retain her moral authority throughout the novel, in spite of her transgressions?