Amy Belding Brown Mr. Emerson's Wife

ISBN 13: 9780312336370

Mr. Emerson's Wife

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9780312336370: Mr. Emerson's Wife
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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.

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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, American Way and other national and regional magazines. The wife of a United Church of Christ minister and mother of four, she works as an educator and historical interpreter at the Orchard House museum in Concord, Massachusetts.

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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 hour...

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9780312336387: Mr. Emerson's Wife: A Novel

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ISBN 10:  0312336381 ISBN 13:  9780312336387
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2006
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