Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Front, man

"Some people are easily offended", offered Paul Henry in the first hours after his calculated race-baiting stunt went a bit Evel Knievel at Caesar's Palace, with overtones of Fonzie-on-water-skis. Funnily enough, Henry sounded a smidge offended himself. As if he'd been aiming a bit higher, hoping to offend the people it's really, really hard to offend, instead of the usual right-thinking fish in a barrel.

"I am sincerely sorry if I seemed disrespectful to [Sir Anand Satyanand]," he hazarded in his official "apology", introducing a wistful note of conditionality into the brew, as if hoping it would all just go away.

Sir Anand, to his credit, brushed the offense off, Obama-like. Water off a duck's back. A model of dignity, as befitting a dignitary. And as for the other 4 million New Zealanders who were explicitly included in the offense, well, if some people are easily offended, that's their problem, right? After all, we're all grown-ups here.

Except we're not. A significant proportion of "us" are children. And another way of saying "easily offended" is "impressionable." For them, in this case, there is no meta-cognitive "if." There is only the brute fact of divisive, demeaning racist thinking, in just one of its many slippery verbal guises.

One of the cool things for me about having a brother who reviews nifty gadgets on TV is that this makes him a cool uncle. Also, of course, a cool Dad. And also, for his son's mates, a cool "my friend's Dad who is on the telly." On the telly with that funny man Mr Henry.

Children are watching and listening, all the time. Even as the Wii generation abandons television for the more immediate delights of on-demand entertainment, they still pay attention to what's on the screen, especially if it sometimes involves remote-control helicopters. Even if they have to sit through the bit with the Prime Minister.

But as someone once put it, children are insanely good observers and slightly crap interpreters. For all that they have powerful bullshit detectors, they can also be very literal thinkers. Just this week I had to talk a four year old down from the ceiling after he freaked out over a casual reference to Wall*E's "motherboard" getting "fried."

Likewise, just this week, a friend of mine is trying to avoid explaining to her Pakeha-Chinese-New Zealander kids why mummy is grumpy with a man who thinks they don't "look like" future governors-general. Because how do you explain that to your kids without saying that the man on the telly thinks they shouldn't be in charge of the country when they grow up because of what they look like?

In this case, I think the punishment should fit the crime. No need for a public flogging, no heads on spikes, no scalping, no pound of flesh. Nothing too medieval, just a spot of good old restorative justice.

Which is why I propose that Paul Henry undertake an apology road trip, in the course of which he visits every kindy, every play centre, every kohanga, and every school in the country, where he will look every single child in the eye and say:

"You know what? I said a really dumb thing. You totally look like a future Governor General."

I think it's important for it to be one-on-one, and out loud, and in person. More effective that way than from behind a camera. Otherwise kids might confuse it with the cartoons, and wait for the ACME one-ton weight to fall on him as a punchline.

Also, as my going-on-nine-year-old just pointed out over my shoulder, it's not nearly as much fun to throw eggs at a TV screen.

The other nice thing about kids is that they're usually more than happy to "say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud" (to borrow TVNZ's spokeswoman Andi Brotherston's regretful phrase). I'm quite looking forward to that bit.

And as I type, I hope someone somewhere is, as @johubris suggested on twitter, making T-shirts that say, "This Is What a New Zealander Looks Like." In several colours, and all sizes: XL, large, medium, and small.


Reading Room

Even if it’s true that this photo of the University of Canterbury library shelves tumbled like dominos was by far the worst of the library damage, it’s an image that has stuck in my head these past weeks. Imagine -- as with so much else about the quake -- if it had happened in daylight, on a working day! How many students would have been flattened like so many pressed flowers in a Victorian album?

OK, probably not many. But -- if it’s permissible to indulge in black humour at this stage -- they would have been the diligent ones, yes? A generation of future scholars wiped out at a stroke! What a blow for New Zealand’s intellectual life that would have been.

(I suppose we would need to know the call numbers of those particular shelves to be able to figure out the true intensity of the blow.)


When I saw the pictures of what the earthquake had done to the library and to Homebush, I thought of Brancepeth, a historic house in the Wairarapa that was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1917.

“It was the worst I have ever felt,” said Mr H.H. Beetham, of Brancepeth, in reply to a query. Mr Beetham stated that out of about fifteen chimneys at the homestead only three remained intact. The whole of the chimneys in the homes of the station hands were also down. Mr Beetham states that his loss in plate glass, ornaments, etc., was fairly heavy.

Evening Post, XCIV: 32, 7 August 1917, p8 (via Papers Past)

The funny thing was, the grand old house had already been partly demolished and elaborately rebuilt in 1904-1905 (due to its rotting sapwood frame; an elementary mistake on the part of the original builders), and would eventually lose its
restored chimneys to another earthquake in 1942.

Happily, the homestead still stands. And what also survived those various disasters -- and why I was thinking of Brancepeth at all -- was its magnificent lending library, which was established by the Beetham family over the course of several decades from the late 19th C into the early 20th C.

The only reason I know about Brancepeth is from Lydia Wevers’ fascinating new book on the subject: Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World, which (full disclosure) I was lucky enough to help edit.

The two thousand volumes of the Brancepeth lending library, still wrapped in their now-faded red linenette covers, were donated to the Victoria University Library in 1966, where they sit quietly in the original glass cases that were built to hold them. Lydia originally set out to write an essay on the collection as a literary-historical curiosity, and in the course of settling down to work, wrote to the current generation of Beethams to enquire whether the family had any related material lying around.

Did they what! Diaries and letters, yes, but also -- the farm office standing virtually intact from the way it was at the turn of the last century, with the ledgers and account books still sitting dusty and undisturbed on the shelves.

It was a treasure trove for the devoted researcher – which, fortunately for us, is exactly what Lydia is. Anyone else might have glanced at the spidery, minuscule handwriting of the clerk, and put it away as job for some other scholar. Lydia patiently deciphered over a dozen years’ worth of notes about farm business, and in the process discovered, as her book puts it, the “next best thing” to a great New Zealand 19th C novel of manners.

She also discovered a complex, brilliant, and troubled character, in the melancholic person of John Vaughan Miller. He was an educated gent who washed up in the slightly déclassé job of Station Clerk and worked almost without stopping for the 14 years he held the post. Lydia patiently and expertly traces Miller’s story not just via the station diaries, but also through his anonymous annotations in the library books, and his various letters, articles, and other fulminations in the local newspaper, in which he undertook to educate the local populace about crucial matters of the day.

The gap between Miller’s ambitions and his daily life is painfully apparent; likewise the gap between his hard-won learning and the happy leisure of his masters and employers. There are also various feuds and debates and affairs and squabbles and scandals, as well as shopping lists and gardening and visitors and dinners and clothes. The result (and I think it’s all right for me to say this, even though I worked on the book) is a superb example of non-fiction that is almost fictional in its quality and quantity of character and event.

My favourite character, besides Miller, is Willie, the young scion of the Beetham family, whom we meet in Surrey in the early 1850s. Poor self-conscious Willie applies himself with energy but little success to his studies while the family figures out where best to emigrate to. In his diary, Willie laments how pathetic he is at everything; utterly useless at Latin and Greek, too clumsy even to get an apprenticeship with the local blacksmith -- and a really crap diarist, to boot.

But as soon as he boards the sailing ship for New Zealand, something about the salt air invigorates his brain, just as in the best adventure fiction of the day. Within his first couple of years in the new country, Willie goes on to perform feats of engineering to make a blacksmith cry, while also becoming proficient in a language that he never expected to master, and generally advancing the family fortunes. He’s like a walking advertisement for colonialism.

Lydia is careful to remind us just what a pyramid scheme the whole colonial business was, particularly once the early land-grabs were over. The irony is that, like John Vaughan Miller himself, most of the readers on the farm -- the shearers and daggers and shepherds and gardeners and passing homeless swaggers who devoured the colonial romances of patience and pluck rewarded -- would never enjoy the success or wealth of their employers in the big house, who had simply capitalized on their initial luck, good timing, and investments.

That didn’t stop the working men (and likely their wives) from reading and fantasizing about tales of material good fortune, though. One of the delights of Reading on the Farm is how it brings to life those readers and their avid consumption of the best and trashiest fiction of the day. Readers paid the equivalent of a week's wages for an annual membership of the library, and colour plates in the book show some of the best-loved (which is to say, tattered and torn) volumes, their worn covers and their annotations in various hands. But even more affecting is the way Lydia has managed to conjure up a lost world, by patiently and intuitively reading between the lines and in the margins of the station ledgers and the hundreds of long-forgotten Victorian pot-boilers. It’s marvellous stuff.

See also Denis Welch’s feature in the Listener, this story in the local paper, and from a couple of years ago, an audio tour of the station, featuring Lydia Wevers and current station owner Ed Beetham, with interlocutor Jack Perkins. Also, Helen Heath’s lovely pics of the launch, which took place at Brancepeth itself.


Speaking of the earth rumbling, and books toppling: the old Trowenna Sea discussion thread has sprung to life again, in the wake of Penguin’s admission that there is to be no revised version of Witi Ihimaera's novel. Hardly surprising; everyone who is prepared to pay for a copy has already got one; there is clearly still plenty of stock to drip-feed to the bookshops; the author, recently bereaved, may not wish to revisit the material. Still, as BookieMonster forthrightly points out, it makes last year’s representations about preserving the “mana and integrity” of Te Umuroa’s story ring a little hollow.


Never mind. There are better books out there to spend your money and time on. This week I have been joyfully locked into Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room. The novel is already drowning under a tsunami of hype, but is worth the praise: it is, among many other things, a stunning depiction of the mother-child dyad, a beautifully imagined representation of how children experience the world, and a bittersweet parable of parenting -- its fierce love and its circumscribed orbit -- and the inevitable weaning and separation.

(Having known a few people who’ve found themselves living in the author's hometown of London, Ontario, I did briefly and uncharitably wonder whether the locked room also functions as a geographical allegory… Probably not, but that leads me to my favorite moment in the FAQ on Donoghue's appealingly modest website:

Q.Why did you move to Canada in 1998?
A. I once answered this question at a reading in Ontario by saying "Love", but the questioner then asked confidently, "Love of Canada?" - so I had to spell it out and say "No, love of a Canadian!"

Ah, Canadians. The New Zealanders of the north. Gotta love ’em, eh?).

Back to the book: Room is also a spectacular example of the difference between plot and story. Yes, the plot of the book is grim: a kidnapped young woman and her years in a makeshift dungeon with the child she subsequently bears. But that’s just the pretext. The story that Donoghue unfolds is vaster, larger, deeper and more humane than any of that. It’s a modest ante-chamber that opens into a labyrinth of paths; wandering them as you read will take your mind to places it’s never been before, and to some places you’ve been but have forgotten, like the numinous, luminous world of childhood, all totem and taboo and magical thinking. The very best kind of fiction.


So how many books did you own when you were eight going on nine? I ask because one of this summer’s domestic tasks was to reconfigure the older child’s room -- itself about the size of the room inhabited by Donoghue’s Ma and Jack -- to accommodate his personal library. Which is currently about the size mine was when I finished grad school.

His impressive holdings are partly a function of living in a country where books are cheap. (So cheap, in fact, that when in my first semester of grad school I sat down to cover my textbooks with that sticky plastic stuff that in a more book-poor country tends to preserve their resale value, my American flatmates laughed themselves silly). When you can buy the latest hard cover Rick Riordan with just over 2 weeks’ pocket money, you can be as acquisitive as you like; the local book exchange gets a run for its money, too.

But it’s also partly a function of a dedicated collecting instinct, I think. By tripling the linear footage of shelving, we not only managed to get the various piles of books up off the floor, but also left space for future acquisitions, and -- crucially -- elbow-room for moving things around and categorizing them.

So now there’s Fiction (alphabeticised, natch) and Non-Fiction, of course, with separate sections for reference, how-to books and self-published efforts. A small collection of rare editions rivals my own prized shelf of 20th C New Zealand first editions.

There's also a magazine corner, featuring Science Illustrated; National Geographic for Kids known hereabouts as National Geographic for Babies on account of being photo-heavy and not especially full of multisyllabic scientific terms and other really hard stuff; and the splendid How It Works. (This month’s fave How It Works feature: how to mod that Nerf gun that your mother can’t quite believe she bought for you at Wal-Mart. Next I’ll be shooting wolves from a helicopter.)

And of course the mainstay of every eight or nine year old's library: the graphic novels, especially Calvin & Hobbes, which he has entirely from memory, chapter and verse, like a good evangelist, and reads daily for inspiration and consolation.

See, too, the volumes of Footrot Flats that were a crucial part of his breakthrough to literacy -- was it only three and a half short years ago? And now it's probably a matter of months before his alphabetically-inclined four-and-a-half-year-old little brother is queueing up to borrow those same books, if he can scrape together the membership fee. Upkeep, apparently. Of the librarian's lolly stash.


The art of seismography

Seismography, n. 1. the science of detecting, measuring and recording ground vibrations, especially those from earthquakes.

True enough, but I'd like to propose a new sub-definition:

2. writing about earthquakes and their aftermath.

Even as the Canterbury earthquake slowly recedes from the front pages, there is some seriously excellent writing coming from the front lines. Here are a few must-reads, besides of course our own redoubtable Emma and David:

Harvestbird meditates exquisitely on How To Be Brave.

Cheryl Bernstein delves into the bittersweet Aesthetics of Earthquakes and shares Dispatches from an Earthquake Zone.

Moata Tamaira manifests an enviable sense of humour about the whole darn thing.

13 Things Mike Dickison Learned From an Earthquake, and his Aftershock Diary.

Adrienne Rewi always has amazing combinations of words and images, never more so than now.

Matthew Walker recounts the day of the earthquake, with photos.

Kalena's First Three Tweets project is a veritable haikai no renga of initial reactions.

For the scientific perspective, Dr Mark Quigley is the seismological ne plus ultra.

See also this discussion of the tectonics at Highly Allochthonous (great name! I am highly allochthonous too).

James Dann's Rebuilding Christchurch does exactly what it says on the box: "one brick, one word, one city" at a time.


Who am I missing? Please send any related links, and I'll fold them into this post.


If it's meta-critical writing about writing about earthquakes you're after, you'll have already noted Russell's report on the first reports from NZ and elsewhere. Philip Matthews follows up with a reflection on how -- and where, and why -- the news unfolded on the day: "Quake a Virtual Reality".

One of the upshots: we are all in the public domain now!


Lastly, for the tiniest taste of how abrupt and upsetting the continuous, random aftershocks can be, see this security-cam footage of the staff of C1 Espresso sussing out the shop (link courtesy of Cheryl Bernstein).

The jolt happens at about 1:08 -- now imagine how it must feel not to know that in advance.


The shakes

Three hours ago, I was just about to hit “publish” on a frivolous blog post when the lateral fault under Christchurch groaned into life, rendering everything else a bit beside the point.

I am hoping that PA’s South Island correspondents will chime in once they’ve made sure everyone is in one piece and had a chance to have a cup of tea with LOTS OF BRANDY IN IT. Or if the power is still out and there's no camping stove to hand, just start with the brandy. (It's what my dear old Christchurch-raised Nana would have done).

Watching the news roll in, via a flock of tremulous tweets, was uncanny. Once again, bite-sized reports from wired citizens were running around the world before the mainstream media had even got its boots on.

Thankfully, and barring any late developments, it seems the major damage is to property. Nerves too, of course.

And also possibly to the Cantabrian reputation for civic order, if the rumours of looting are to be believed. Looting? Surely they mean luting. This is Christchurch we’re talking about.

Amid the early uncertainty, I found myself having a wee Arthur Dent moment.

…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”

This would mean, in these days of hyperspace and Improbability Drive, that most people’s souls are wandering unprotected in deep space in a state of some confusion; and this would account for a lot of things.

Similarly, if your birthplace is actually destroyed, or in Arthur Dent’s case demolished - ostensibly to make way for a new hyperspace bypass - then these tendrils are severed and flap about at random. There are no people to be fed or whales to be saved; there is no washing up to be done. And these flapping tendrils of guilt can seriously disturb the space-time continuum.

Yes, flapping tendrils of guilt and memory and concern, waving about all over the place. I didn’t grow up in Christchurch, but I did a lot of growing up there. At varsity, my geologist friend Steven always said to forget Wellington, that Christchurch would be next. This was a good two decades ago, but it turns out he was right, and our tipsy scoffing at his undergrad seismic "expertise" was wrong.

Thing is, I learned earthquake drills at kindy in the Hutt Valley, forgot them in Auckland, joked about them in Christchurch, and then moved to Tokyo -- where I was grateful for that early pragmatic training in instant response.

In Tokyo, I had cause to brace myself under a sturdy steel desk a couple of times. One huge shake happened just after midnight. The next day I asked my ten-year-old students if it had woken them. “Woke us? Nah!” But it had interrupted their Nintendo and their homework.

The local wisdom was that if you felt the room rocking from side to side, you should fit yourself in a doorway or under a sturdy piece of furniture, and just go with the sway until it stopped. If, on the other hand, you felt the floor moving upwards underneath you, you should reflect on what a nice life you had had up to that point, and hastily make your peace with your deity, or lack thereof.

It was also said that after the Big One, the city would be full of disoriented Tokyo-ites making their way home along the train lines, as that was the only way most of them knew the city and its directions. This I found a strangely moving testimony to the force of habit, and the power of a good public transport system.

After acclimatising to living in a massive city on a massive faultline, it was rather terrifying to land in London and see all those chimney pots, precariously poised like certain death over the heads of the unconcerned citizens wandering the streets in happy ignorance of the impending Blitz overhead. One half-decent shudder and it would have been good night, Mary Poppins. It took me some time to abandon the anxious habit of constantly scanning for where one might hide if the earth abruptly started moving.

And now after a decade and a half in New England, I have completely unlearned the trick of standing upright. People just do it, here; there’s no wobble, ergo, no trick.

It’s not that there haven’t been a number of random civil emergencies of one sort or another while we’ve been living here. I know how to duct-tape the windows shut, where to get Cipro, why to avoid Times Square. But the ground beneath my feet, compacted by a mile-high glacier during the last ice age, is unnaturally firm.

That’s a good thing, right? Then why does it feel so bloody precarious?


Those of you in earthquakey zones (g'morning, Wellington) are presumably revising your survival kits and emergency plans. The rest of us, how can we help, and what should we do?

Kia kaha, Otautahi. Stand firm, albeit wobbly-kneed.


A Thought Went Up My Mind To-day

I don’t know why this page hasn’t been updated in so long. Obviously some technical glitch in the brain-machine interface, as I’ve been blogging like mad the whole time. You know, the usual chattering stream of perfectly formed consciousness -- limpid, crystalline and deeply musical as it burbles across the jewel-like pebbles in the shallows of my brain, eddying gracefully into fully-formed paragraphs of exceptional intelligence and wit.

I just… keep forgetting to write any of it down.

Bumper sticker version: introverts do it all by themselves. You’re never alone with that inner voice, are you? Except when you realise that none of it was recorded and is therefore all lost down the plughole of history. Oh, the loneliness of the long-distance blogger!

Note to self: write it down.

Especially after spending the last couple of months time-travelling with a couple of top-class oddball 19th C graphomaniacs who shunned and derided company but helplessly, compulsively poured out their infinite thoughts on the page. What they left behind is the next best thing to a Tardis, I tell you.

I will introduce you to the marvellously verbose Victorian New Zealander next time, but first: the spectral madwoman in America’s attic, Emily Dickinson.


I’d met the Myth of Amherst briefly in grad school, when a friend helpfully noted that pretty much every poem Emily Dickinson wrote can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. (That’s one of those earworms that dies outside its host, which is why I had to pass it on without warning you first. Sorry).

I knew a handful of her poems. Not really my thing, but intriguing nonetheless: gloomy flashes of terrifying insight delivered in neat symmetrical lines studded with Capitalised Nouns -- and -- strange -- Punctuation. Form by Hallmark, content by Post Secret. Like Whitman, she sings the body electric, but in Morse Code rather than opera.

I’d agreed to review Lyndall Gordon’s fascinating new book, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds, in the hope of learning more about the poet, who after all, is practically a neighbour.

It took me a while to warm up to Gordon's slightly fey prose style, but by the end I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Luckily for the author, this story has everything: feisty schoolgirls, psychological warfare, courtroom battles, group sex, late-in-life lust, early death and various degrees of mental instability, plus academic brouhahas and small-town gossip. Also, a medical bombshell, in the form of Gordon’s contentious but well-argued new theory about Emily’s physical ills and her reclusive ways.

As part of my famously comprehensive review process, I skimmed the other biographies and read as much of the poetry as I could manage. Emily, soul-sister! Stranded in small-town New England, conducting most of her business with the world via fierce and zippy correspondence… She'd have been a terrific emailer, and an even better Tweeter.

And then I dragged the family along on an expedition to Amherst, since it’s just an hour up the road from New Haven.

The review should appear in the Listener in the next week or two. For a big book, my review is short, because 600 words is how New Zealand rolls. (Oh, for longer and more challenging book reviews -- hello, new Metro? James Longenbach’s contemplative take in the Nation is a fine example of what you can do with more than a regulation page-with-photo). In the meantime, here's the travelogue version, director's cut.


The trick to taking literary field trips with the junior crowd is to make it an over-nighter, and to make sure the cheapo hotel you stay in comes with a swimming pool. We found one on the outskirts of Springfield.

The other trick is food. After working up an appetite in the pool, we took ourselves out to dinner at a quaint local-ish institution called the Red Robin Burger, in a quaint local strip mall, next to a quaint local Barnes and Noble.

Ah, New England. So traditional, so bucolic. The barn-like food barn was full of people mooing contentedly over their industrial-strength (and industrial-quality, and industrial quantity) “food”, and we gladly took our place in the chute. I mean, queue.

We were greeted, cheerfully, by a cheerful worker sporting the company badge that listed the exceedingly cheerful Red Robin code:
Seeking Knowledge
Having Fun!

We were also greeted by a faux verdigris Statue of Liberty, holding aloft a burger haloed in neon, and standing next to a banner advertising the current special… Banzai Burgers.

It’s like Pearl Harbor never happened. We were definitely having fun already!

While waiting for a table, the 8 year old read his book, and the 4 year old waved at people in the nearby booths. The bible study group -- praise the Lord and pass the ketchup -- smiled back. So did a teenager at the next table, but his older companion leaned across, beckoned my boy closer, and growled, with a Cheney-like grimace, “Go away, little boy. I didn’t come here to be your play-date.”

Well, nor he you, Dick; but cheers, anyway.

We left the Roald Dahl character to his conversation, which consisted of boring for New England on the subject of basement waterproofing. I’d have felt bad if we’d been interrupting something special, like an adoption reunion or a father-son sex talk. So I didn’t feel bad. Later, when another customer was treated to the special Red Robin birthday chant with coordinated rhythmic clapping, we considered confiding to the waitress that Mr Grump was turning 100, but alas, he had already gone home to check on his basement situation.


The Soul selects her own Society - / then - shuts the Door -

Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, didn’t revile children. Neighbourhood children used to play pirate games in the wooded lot next to her house, and, according to our guide at the Dickinson house, when they stood under Emily’s window calling “Booty, booty!” she would lower baskets of her home-made gingerbread.

She also had a very soft spot for her nephew Gib, who sounds like one of those precocious young wits that you either love or hate. “Dear Santy Clause,” goes one of his surviving letters, “Please bring me whatever you think best. I don’t mean a spanking I mean some common place toys.” Naturally, she loved him.

The houses of famous dead writers are haunted, but artificially so. There are photographs, sample pages of manuscripts, carefully displayed dioramas of their remaining furniture and, usually, a writing desk staged as if the writer has just stepped away for a moment.

The houses of famous dead women writers are doubly artificially haunted, because there’s always a hovering dress in the picture. Like Charlotte Bronte’s impossibly tiny dress at Haworth, Emily’s plain pin-tucked dress, white cotton trimmed discreetly in broderie anglaise, floats in a glass box at the Dickinson house (Charlotte’s is original, Emily’s a reproduction).

It’s as if we can’t grasp these dames except via their frocks. The important thing about Emily’s frock: pockets. A compulsive graphomane, she always had to have pencil and paper on hand to capture her firefly thoughts. Any old paper. Her astonishing poems, diamond-studded nutshells of insight, singular as the flowers she cultivated in her greenhouse, were written on scraps of paper and cardboard, on the backs of shopping lists and letters, in one case on the inside of a chocolate wrapper.

There are 1,775 known poems, mostly written in the 1860s; in 1862 she cranked out at least a poem a day. Only a tiny handful were published in her lifetime; the rest stuffed into drawers, a few given away, some of them bound by the poet or her friend into small booklets.

The Dickinson Homestead was used by Amherst College as faculty housing until 2002, so most trace of the family’s residence there is gone. It’s scrubbed clean, a blank white page, with strategically arranged artifacts in glass cases, a few pieces of furniture, and pictures on the walls. In Emily’s room, the bed is hers but the minuscule desk where she scribbled her poems is a reproduction. The original is safely in a museum at Harvard, which would have horrified her grandfather, who established Amherst College partly as a godly alternative to worldly Harvard.

Emily’s room is not the garret you might imagine, but a four-square and sunny space, with two windows that look down onto the main street of Amherst, and two onto the side yard and across to the Evergreens, the house in which her brother lived with Susan, his wife (and Emily’s friend, constant reader, and perhaps soul-mate). Emily lived in the homestead with her parents and her unmarried sister Lavinia.

Susan threw parties, Austin planted trees, and they raised three children; Emily wrote poems and Lavinia pottered about. All was relatively neighbourly until, in his 50s, Austin tumbled headlong into a passionate affair with a new girl in town, the beguiling Mabel Loomis Todd.

Mabel was a twenty-something faculty wife with city manners, feminist principles, and literary aspirations; also a philandering voyeur of a husband – the astronomy professor at Amherst – and far too much time on her hands. She was eager to broker an acquaintance with the reclusive poet, or failing that, her siblings.

The story of Mabel and Austin’s relationship has been told before, and their steamy letters (including those in which Mabel sweetly wishes Susan would hurry up and die) have been published, but Gordon brings it to life in full Days of Our Lives colour. Part of her task is the rehabilitation of Susan, whose reputation was persuasively and systematically trashed by Mabel in her self-appointed role as Emily Dickinson’s posthumous editor, biographer, and champion.

The astonishing thing is, Mabel never met Emily, who refused any dealings with her. With Lavinia’s knowledge but against Emily’s wishes, Austin and Mabel enjoyed lunchtime assignations in the homestead (also, occasionally, off-site and with other people -- oh, those Victorians!). In particular, they canoodled in the library, which was downstairs and diagonally across from the poet’s bedroom. The homestead is a solidly built house and fairly soundproof, so it’s entirely possible to “entertain” downstairs without disturbing anyone upstairs. But Emily cannot have been unaware, and it seems clear that the Irish maid, Margaret Maher, kept her informed.

(By the way, Aife Murray has written a fascinating book about the Dickinson servants, a nice companion volume to Alison Light's book about Virginia Woolf and her servants).

It is also Margaret we have to thank for the single surviving daguerrotype of Emily, taken when she was seventeen. The family threw it out, thinking it unflattering, but Maggie saved it, without which we’d only know the poet through a childhood portrait. (Another possible image surfaced in 2000 on eBay, but has never been authenticated; the intriguing story is told here).


If it’s a truly haunted house you’re looking for, stroll across the yard - as Emily often did, when she was still visiting Susan, before the almost total seclusion of the last ten years of her life -- to the Evergreens.

The Evergreens must have been gorgeous when first built for the newly-wed Austin and Susan: light and airy and decorated in golden wood trim and pale sprigged wallpaper. In 1877, Susan gave the house an Eastlake makeover, transforming it into what we think of when we think of Victorian décor: gloomy, atmospheric, all blood red and dark wood, crowded and cluttered with art and furniture.

Susan died in 1913; her daughter Martha lived there alone till 1923, when she was joined by the young Alfred Hampson as her secretary. After Martha died in 1943, Hampson continued to maintain the house until his death in 1953; his widow Mary lived on in the house till 1988, determined to save it from the terms of Martha’s will, which stipulated that if the house was ever sold, it must be torn down. Fortunately a trust was established, and the Evergreens was eventually folded into the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Restoration is being gingerly undertaken, but as it stands today, the Evergreens is virtually unchanged since Susan presided over the slow death of her marriage in the late 1800s. The interior is sturdy but decrepit: crumbling plaster, torn wallpaper with dark patches where pictures once hung, smoke-blackened ceilings overhead, dangerously frayed rugs underfoot. The piano room where gregarious Susan held parties is crammed with Victoriana. Enormous oil paintings in gilt frames, elaborate sconces, marble statues, heavy dark furniture with clawed feet, a massive mirror over the mantel.

The kitchen, which is in the original 1700s part of the house to which the “new” house was added in 1855, is a revelation. With the original wide wooden floorboards, it is also the only truly modernized part of the house: the black iron Crawford range from 1904 stands next to a gleaming white 1950s stove, and a white cast iron 50s sink with draining board has been installed, adjacent to a cool-room with a slate floor and a dry sink.

Upstairs, you find the servants’ rooms, and the most genuinely haunted part of the experience: the bedroom of Gilbert, known as Gib -- Austin and Susan’s late-in-life child, born when his parents were in their mid-40s.

His homework lies on the desk, his clothes on the bed; the room has stood untouched since October 1883, when Gib died suddenly, from typhoid fever, at the age of 8. His devastated aunt made a rare visit to sit by his sickbed, and thereafter, until her death three years later, she never left the homestead.

(Photography is forbidden, but there are some photos of the Evergreens here, and another visitor describes her experience here).

Poor dead Gib. We were all a bit quiet as we walked back to the main house. I remembered the trip to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, also a shrine to a dead child, after which our older child, then three, had wailed “I don’t want to die and people put our things into a museum!”

Back at the homestead, I looked for the conservatory Emily’s father had built for her adjacent to the library (I am mad for greenhouses, as was she) but it’s gone, as if it never existed.

The dining room is now a gift shop, where I bought a replica edition of the book Emily’s father gave her mother when they married: The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy (1833), by Mrs Child (Author of "Hobomok," "The Mother's Book," Editor of the "Juvenile Miscellany," &c).

The book has recipes -- including three for gingerbread, which I will try if I can get my hands on some pearlash -- and handy household hints. Never clean your andirons with vinegar. Wash your hair in good New England rum. Huckleberries are just the ticket for constipated children.

On the matter of children, Mrs Child recommends that you put them to good use, starting now:

In this country, we are apt to let children romp away their existence, till they get to be thirteen or fourteen. This is not well. It is not well for the purses and patience of parents; and it has a still worse effect on the morals and habits of the children. Begin early is the great maxim for everything in education. A child of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others.

So we romped in the garden for a bit, piratically, and then the children assisted us to find somewhere good for lunch. A nice Chinese place three blocks away, further than Emily Dickinson walked in all the years she was writing her most enduring poems.

A Thought went up my mind to-day

That I have had before,

But did not finish, -- some way back,

I could not fix the Year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came

The second time to me,

Nor definitely what it was,

Have I the Art to say.

But somewhere in my Soul, I know

I've met the Thing before;

It just reminded me -- 't was all --

And came my way no more.