I admit that I approached John J. Healey’s Emily and Herman: a Literary Romance with mixture of anticipation and doubt. On the one hand, I love historical fiction, particular when it is set in the nineteenth century. Romances can also be tremendously pleasing when they are done well. On the other hand, I worried about the author’s choice to use such prominent and beloved figures whose love lives are already the subject of historical and literary investigation. Don’t we know too much about Emily Dickenson (a recluse) and Herman Melville (married) to fully immerse ourselves in Healey’s re-imagining? Then there is the issue of the title: Emily and Herman? No matter how you cut it, Herman is not a romantic name. Once I started reading however, Healey’s book allayed my fears.
The preface and prologue obfuscate the manuscript’s origins successfully enough to throw some mystery about the story’s genre and possibility, certainly enough to allow me to slip into Healey’s world. And what a world it is! Mid-nineteenth-century Amherst and New York City appear fully-fleshed out with details of oyster bars, boarding houses, and ferry routes. It satisfied my appetite for atmosphere deliciously.
Within these settings, Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickenson act and speak as round and appealing characters. Healey shows us not only what they do, but what they think and feel as it all happens. Being granted access to the private internal monologues of these characters made me feel for them and desire their happiness. Emily Dickenson vacillates between the brightness of her curiosity and intellect and the shadows that prefigure her future of chosen isolation. Herman Melville shows his bravado and sensitivity to ideas, to people and to nature in a truly compelling portrait. What makes the novel even more charming is that the secondary character as handled as deftly and respectfully as our romantic leads. Healey does not require fame of his characters in order to breathe life into them. Austin Dickenson, for example, goes through his personal crossroads as complex as any in the novel in order to decide what kind of a man he wants to become. He feels strongly towards three very different women and each of them would like to pull him into radically different futures.
The friendship, attraction and love that grown between Herman Melville and Emily Dickenson shows warmth and tenderness. Not only that, it takes all of their differences and obstacles fully into account as they grow more passionate about one another. This pulled me in completely as a reader, even knowing what history and time would do to them both. The emphasis remains on their realistic relationship rather than sex, though the novel does include a moments of sensuality. Perhaps it is all the more titillating for some readers this way. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
By the end, I was not ready to let go of the story or these characters John J. Healey made me see them in a new light, and I am grateful.
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