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.
1) Keep setting descriptions to one sentence.
In general, Brown confines her setting descriptions to one sentence scattered here and there around the narrative. If she does spend more than one sentence on a setting description, it’s because that description serves a second purpose in the narrative.
Brown uses those longer setting details to reveal character, to assess a character’s state of mind, as a proxy for difficult emotions and experiences, and to mark the passing of time.
2) Setting can reveal character.
Early in the book, Brown uses Lydia’s assessment of her home church in Plymouth to illustrate her fierce patriotism and independent mind.
We walked up North Street and beyond, to Town Square, where we found people streaming into the meetinghouse of the First Parish Church. The building, only recently completed, was made of wood and painted grey to resemble stone. Its centerpiece was the great circular stained-glass window that surmounted the doorway. The Gothic style seemed to be all the rage now, yet I wondered at the impulse that prompted this imitation of the cathedrals of Europe. Were we not a new and democratic nation? Should we not invent our own fashions?
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, page 8)
3) Setting can capture a character’s state of mind.
In the following passage, Lidian compares her new home in Concord to the life she left behind in Plymouth. The comparison gives Lidian an outlet for her frustration at a time when she is unwilling to overtly criticize her husband or her marriage.
The air in Concord was drier than in Plymouth, more extreme in temperature, and less congenial to activity. I found myself reflecting on how closely the people mirrored their climate. Concord was mud and dust and uncouth manners — all sharp edges and unhemmed fringes. It was the butcher and the judge at the same soiree. It was field dirt packed under ragged fingernails. It was the odor of pigs and cattle lying down upon the air all day, without the relief of a cleansing breeze from the sea.
I was dismayed that I was not yet with child, and wondered if I had been cursed with barrenness.
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, page 102)
Brown uses the setting details to link Lidian’s dissatisfaction with her new town to her discontentment in the early days of her marriage.
4) Setting can be a proxy for powerful emotions.
During the course of their marriage, Lidian and her husband inevitably experience great loss. In this passage, Brown uses the setting to reinforce the barrier grief has created between husband and wife.
“That night, Mr. Emerson returned to our bed. We did not speak or touch as we lay down. The darkness that girdled us was more than the absence of physical light. I fell slowly into sleep to the sound of his breathing.”
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, p. 182)
5) Setting can fill in for descriptions of difficult or painful experiences, such as when Lidian gives birth to her son.
“In the evening the wind picked up. Trees tossed their naked limbs against the sky and the house shook as one gust after another broke against the north east wall. My groans were buried in the gale’s howls. Just before ten, everything went suddenly still. The pains ceased and the wind died. An hour later, my son slid from my body, slick as butter, his head molded to a lopsided cone, his face streaked with mucus and blood. Yet it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen.”
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, p. 122)
6) Setting can be used to mark the passing of large blocks of time while setting the tone for the next stage of the story
Brown uses this technique a lot.
On page 175 at the beginning of a period of relative contentment for Lidian, Brown writes:
“January unrolled its long white carpet and fires roared in the hearth.”
On page 225, at the start of a more difficult emotional period for Lidian, Brown tells us:
“The first of May dawned rainy and cold.”
And most memorably, toward the end of the novel, when Brown needs to pass through a number of years very quickly to get to the end of Lidian’s life:
“The years burst around me, like pods of milkweed in late August, erupting in filaments that sailed past on the wind of time.”
(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, page 322)
In each case, the setting details that Brown chooses to include reveal volumes about Lidian’s state of mind.
Entire books have been written on the craft of weaving setting into your fiction without breaking your narrative. Eventually I’ll get around to reading one of them. Right after I practice what I’ve just learned from reading Brown’s book.