Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance – by John J. Healey – independent book review – Historical Fiction (England)

Promising premise. The author recounts at the start that he discovered this discarded manuscript among his late grandfather’s papers and published it. It is the fictional telling of an otherwise unknown romance between future-poet Emily Dickinson and Novelist Herman Melville, just before Melville’s masterwork MOBY DICK was published. Unfortunately, I simply didn’t buy it. Awarded two stars on Goodreads.

emily_hermanThe book revolves around a spontaneous “road trip” through New England in 1851, undertaken by Dickinson, Melville, Dickinson’s older brother Austin, and Melville’s close friend — author Nathaniel Hawthorne (of THE SCARLET LETTER fame). Interesting group, right?

Melville is in his early thirties, married, with one child and another on the way. He is happily settled but bored in his marriage. Hawthorne is his friend (and literary rival), also married with children, and somewhat older. Dickinson, still unknown as a writer, is only about 20, living in Amherst, MA with her parents.

While traveling, Melville and Dickinson fall in love, despite all the obstacles and both understanding the hopelessness of their relationship.

The Pluses. The actual writing of the novel often felt true to the time period and, at times, transported me back to the 19th century novel. Beautiful descriptions, flowery language, lots of deep philosophical discussions about the nature of love. And the inclusion of written letters to further the story. All of this, I loved.

The Minuses. Abruptly, in what felt like MUCH more of a contemporary literature style, there were these digressions related to sexual activity. And always from the male perspective. For example, Melville contemplating how sex with his wife had changed over the course of their marriage. Or worse yet, his description of fantasizing himself with Dickinson and another woman (aka: a threesome), while masturbating in a barn. Does this feel like it fits into literature from this time period?

There are a couple other more minor story lines:

• Dickinson’s brother Austin is struggling to decide whether he should marry the “good” girl, with the advantageous family background, who leaves him cold OR the poor Irish peasant, with whom he’s having an affair, who really turns him on.

• There’s also a thread about a runaway slave trying to make it to a safer Northern haven. This added some dimension to the time period, until the man begins recounting his gay sexual encounters with his former master, and later, during this novel, his affair with Poet Walt Whitman (yes, he’s there too).

Author John J. Healey

Overall, though this is a relatively short novel (about 250 pages), it was slow going and kind of dull. And I found myself making up all sorts of excuses NOT to sit down and read it. I finally finished, but I can’t say I recommend it.

More about the author, John J. Healey.