Wednesday 25 May 2022

The Bee and the Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson by Lorraine Tosiello & Jane Cavolina


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Fictional Drama

Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson were contemporaries, but two more different women would be difficult to find. Alcott, brought up in an idealistic, Transcendental home, her father concerned more with philosophy than earning a living, was both independent and pragmatic, a prolific writer with many published works, both under her own name and pseudonyms. 

Dickinson, from a prominent New England family, also wrote prolifically, but only a handful of her poems were published while she was alive. Thought eccentric by her community, Dickinson shunned any publicity or even human contact outside of letters in her later life. The two women never met, although their social circles overlapped.

In The Bee and the Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson, author Lorraine Tosiello has imagined an exchange of letters between the two women that begins in 1861 and continues to Emily’s death in 1886. Bookended by a plausible prologue and epilogue, outlining how the (fictional) correspondence is found, the letters serve both as a glimpse into the lives of both women, and an account of some of the social and political concerns during the American Civil War and the post-war era. 

The contrast between the housebound, timid Emily and the adventurous, strong Louisa begins the relationship, when Emily writes to Louisa for advice and encouragement. But over the course of the letters, similarities begin to appear: their frustrations with the men who act as both mentors and gatekeepers to publishing; the burden of the demands of family; their own declining health.

Misunderstandings, too: Louisa, who pushes herself through her own illnesses to live an active, socially useful life, occasionally expresses irritation at Emily’s withdrawal from any public interaction, but over the years the two women accept their differences and find solace and sisterhood in their commonalities.

Detailed research and strong writing make The Bee and the Fly entirely convincing. The authors have captured both Alcott’s and Dickinson’s distinctive and disparate written voices, a significant achievement. As most of Dickinson’s correspondence was destroyed on her death, her prose style in her letters matches the style of her poetry, with many incomplete sentences punctuated by dashes, expressive but comprehensible. Alcott’s letters and journals were preserved and have been published; her voice here may be the stronger, or perhaps only more familiar to this reviewer.

As with most epistolary novels, I began by reading pairs of letters, then leaving the book for a while, but as the correspondence progressed, I was more and more engrossed, and read continuously. For anyone interested in the lives of these two women whose work has had a profound influence on American literature, I strongly recommend The Bee and the Fly

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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