A magical, and poetic, friendship

This fictional account weaves in Emily Dickinson's poems.

Published May 13, 2007

Rose MacMurray, a poet, turned her lifelong fascination with Emily Dickinson into Afternoons with Emily, a fictionalized account of a young woman, Miranda Chase, who befriends the reclusive Emily. When MacMurray died in 1997, her children saw the manuscript to publication. Unfortunately, this will be her first and only novel, which is a great loss.

When Miranda moves into the sleepy town of Amherst, Mass., at 13, she is befriended by Dickinson, who, despite being 15 years her senior, casts a magnetic influence. Emily's profuse output of poetry works like a magical chant on the girl, and she starts looking upon Emily as her mentor and confidante.

Miranda observes the Dickinson clan in close quarters. Emily's politician father, Edward Dickinson, rules the household with an iron hand. Her mother is a quiet woman who has little say in the running of the home. This family structure breeds a deep contempt within Emily, and she turns to writing to release her anguish. MacMurray is brilliant at constructing scenes where Emily's poetry melds easily with the novel's flow, as when Emily slips a note into Miranda's pinafore that contains a "furious invective toward God and Mr. Dickinson":

I never lost as much but twice,

And that was in the sod.

Twice have I stood a beggar

Before the door of God!

Angels - twice descending

Reimbursed my store -

Burglar! Banker - Father!

I am poor once more!

As she grows up, Miranda finds herself caught up in her mercurial friend's intense affections and sometimes clashes with Emily as she carves out her own career as an educator.

The novel is deeply imagined, and MacMurray's virtuosity with the written word marks every page in this tale of coruscating clarity.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi.


Afternoons With Emily

By Rose MacMurray

Little, Brown, 480 pages, $24.99