Could so enthrall a Man –
As the perusal of
His Individual One —
'Tis Fiction's — to dilute to plausibility
Our – Novel. When 'tis small eno'
To credit — 'Tis'nt true –
F590 (1863) J669
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. – Albert Camus
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” ― Jessamyn West
Novels are sometimes thought to be more true than life perhaps because they illuminate some insight or develop certain themes that resonate with readers. The novelist arranges parallels and resonant details to amplify the inner lives of their characters. Consequently, characters in Romance are more vivid, their details more sharp than the people we know. Real people flounder about with no such illuminating devices.
Dickinson, however, claims that the novelistic process is dilution, not amplification. Jewelers cut through earthy or mineral matrix to isolate a crystal, and then facet the resulting jewel to best display its fire. Likewise, the novelist chisels away at life to produce a polished, coherent, and plausible story. Dickinson' point is that much of that story is imbedded in in the rock and matrix in which it grew. The truth of the crystal is in the volcano, the gradual depositions of water, the tectonic foldings of earth – all of which has been severed from the jewel. The truth of life is tangled in the interplays of history, locality, society, and family. It often turns out as implausibly as the daughter of a straight-laced Calvinist lawyer becoming a reclusive and explosive poet.
|Crystals in matrix
photo: James W. Johnson
But Dickinson doesn't just say that much is lost in novelistic paring down and shaping: she says that when the novel is finally "small eno'" to be believable, it "'Tis'nt true". Something vital has been lost; what is left is a false presentation; a severed jewel.
I read all that into in the second stanza of the poem. In the first, Dickinson makes the claim that we find our own life more interesting than those portrayed in any "Romance" we could buy. By "Romance" she is probably referring to such books as those she read by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot. You could never be as enthralled in a book, she says, as in the contemplation of your own life.
Certainly many of us devote untold hours recounting the odd jigs and jags of our lives, snippets of conversations, musings about what might have been, and wonder at how we ended up where we are. And yet … many of us would pick up a book for a happy afternoon far more quickly than embark on a real "perusal". Even Dickinson reported herself transported by literature. She read George Eliot's Middlemarch in the same year as she wrote this poem. Ten years later she famously wrote her cousins, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this 'mortal has already put on immortality.'"
I would agree with her about Middlemarch. I'm not so sure about how my own life stacks up against it, at least in terms of enthrallment. But Dickinson may also, I think, be talking about how we each craft our own Romance novel. We peruse our life, pick out what we find the most salient episodes, the critical turning points. We string these together to make "Our – Novel." Yes, that would be pretty good reading.