When seventeen-year-old Abigail Taylor turns down the proposal of her suitor, Tom Dawkins, her family feels that she must go out and make her own way in the world. So a position as a servant is secured for her in the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Dearest David is the story of the few months in the year 1841 during which Abigail experiences life in the Emerson household at the peak of both its intellectual and emotional intensity. She falls in love with the free spirited but emotionally cool Henry David Thoreau. She discovers the power of the prophetic and frightening Lidian Emerson. She meets the charismatic and radical Margaret Fuller. And she learns to respect but also to recognize the limitations of Emerson himself.
Abigail is eventually forced to leave her employment in the Emerson household under circumstances that are both surprising and disturbing.
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The inspiration came when I was thinking about how a young woman of humble means but with a good education for her class in society would respond to the rarified atmosphere of the Emerson household, where talk was often considered the equivalent of action. I thought it would be interesting to contrast her sensible, but intelligent approach to things with the sometimes less than practical musings of Emerson and his friends. I also thought it would be valuable to have a woman’s insight into what was largely a man’s world, while at the same time contrasting her with the very different figures of Lidian Emerson and Margaret Fuller.
For Abigail, she falls in love with Thoreau partly as a man and partly as a representative of an intellectual life that she finds exciting. She longs to be someone such as Margaret Fuller, but knows that her position in society limits her to a life of physical labor. Thoreau sees her as a friend, as someone who is fiercely independent like himself. That’s why he finds the idea of their having a romantic relationship so unthinkable. He believes, perhaps rightly, that she has no more need for anyone to share her life than he does.
She is out of her depth. Abigail thinks that her youthful enthusiasm and affection will win Thoreau away from Lidian, not realizing that his innocent attentions to a married woman are the only sort of relationship that he feels completely safe with having. She also doesn’t fully understand that Lidian’s need for Thoreau, although not romantic, is as equally strong as her own. Although Abigail does outmaneuver Ms. Ford, it is only at the expense of her conscience and leaves her with a strong sense of guilt.
The two themes in this novel are the role of Transcendentalist philosophy at this point in time, and the status of women in the early nineteenth century. Margaret Fuller did visit Emerson often, and their relationship was close and complex. Lidian was definitely jealous of her, and Emerson often did little to allay that fear. I wanted Fuller in the novel as someone who could give some intellectual form to the feelings that Abigail was having. Since the novel is written in the form of recollections from twenty years in the future, I thought it would give the older Abigail a chance to reflect on what she had learned since.
His doctrine of self-reliance, the idea that everyone should develop their own ideas and not rely on established authority, is the main notion I wanted Abigail to take away from her time in this household. As the end of the story suggests, she lives an exciting life after leaving Emerson, and I think much of it is due to his intellectual influence. In some ways, she lives a life of courage that Emerson only talked about.
When I visited the Emerson house in Concord, Massachusetts and sat in Emerson’s study I really felt as if I had entered into the fictional world of my book. This is a feeling I had never experienced before when writing pure fiction, and it made the story particularly intense for me. Another thing I learned is that, although we often think of the people in the Transcendentalist circle as being emotionally cool, they were extremely passionate not only about ideas but in many cases in their feelings for each other.
At some point in the future, I would like to write another historical carrying Abigail’s story on to the next stage.
I am currently working on the second in my series of mysteries featuring Charles Bentley, a retired professor of English, who seems to have the bad luck of stumbling across dead bodies. By turns humorous and serious, it shows some of the challenges age brings to solving crimes and forming relationships.
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