Recently, I picked up my copy of Mr. Emerson’s Wife, hoping for a relaxing companion on a lazy, snowy Sunday afternoon. Instead I found a master’s course in using setting to shape your story.
Briefly, Mr. Emerson’s Wife tells the story of Lydia Jackson, who catches the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson when she attends one of his lectures in her hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The two engage in a lively conversation. Three weeks later, Emerson surprises Lydia by proposing marriage. The majority of the book focuses on the consequences of Lydia’s choice to marry Emerson. For example, Emerson changes her name almost immediately after she accepts his proposal to Lidian, on the grounds that Lydia was not suitable.
That conversation aptly captures the power imbalance between the couple. Emerson views his wife proprietarily — as a woman possessed of an unusual mind to be sure, but in the end, still an imperfect human being whom it is his duty to perfect. She views him almost as a god — at least at first.
“Lydian?” I thought suddenly of my baptism. Surely he could not know that in giving me a second name, he so vividly reflected that experience. Perhaps it was another sign of God’s imprint on our bond. “It has a pleasing sound. But why?”
“The name suits you, with its twin connotations of musical harmony and beautiful ancient cities. It’s my notion — a thought that struck me after our first meeting, in fact — that your parents misnamed you. Lydia is a common name, after all. And you are the least common of women.”
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, page 41. Emerson eventually agrees to change the spelling of his wife’s name to Lidian.)
Throughout their marriage, the relationship between Lidian and her husband is cordial, but not particularly affectionate. Brown does portray Lidian loving her husband (at least initially), and by the end of the book I believed Emerson loved Lidian to a degree as well. But in the meantime, Lidian is forced to stay by and watch as Emerson develop intimate, possibly romantic, relationships with at least two women, including Margaret Fuller, who comes to stay with the couple for long periods of time.
The young Mrs. Emerson looks destined to lead a perfectly suitable life free of any untoward husbandly affection until she meets Henry David Thoreau, for whom she feels an almost instinctive attraction. He clearly feels the same for her. The rest of the book focuses on the complications that mutual attraction creates.
Brown uses setting to great effect in this story, as well she ought. After all, she’s writing about two pivotal Transcendentalist writers and the woman who loved them. It would be bizarre if nature didn’t have a starring role.
At the same time, because the setting is so vital to the story, I found myself analyzing the ways in which Brown uses setting to advance her narrative. I’ve been struggling with how much setting description to include in my own novels, so I was curious to see if I could detect a pattern in Brown’s work.
Here’s what I learned. Continue reading