Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Nobody and Somebody

Ginevra Fanshawe, Miss Thing herself, wants to know, “Who are you, Miss Snowe?”

And a little later:

Charlotte Brontë, Villette (1853).

A rising character indeed. Lucy Snowe is a protagonist in a novel.

I would like to imagine that these passages from Villette stand behind Emily Dickinson’s 260 (1862):

260, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Ralph W. Franklin (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).

Noting that Dickinson read “competitively,” seeking to outdo other poets, Richard B. Sewall points to a different inspiration for 260: “Little Nobody,” a trite poem by Charles Mackay that appeared in the Springfield Republican (1858). The closing lines of its two stanzas: “I’m but little Nobody — Nobody am I,” “Who would be a Somebody? — Nobody am I.” Okay. But I’d rather think of Dickinson finding inspiration in Brontë’s protagonist, whose life of aloneness, walking by herself in empty classrooms, stealing away to an attic to read a letter, must have made compelling reading for the poet.

There were two copies of Villette in the Dickinson family library: one from 1853, one from 1859. In neither are the passages I’ve quoted marked. Then again, in all of Jane Eyre there are just two passages that Dickinson marked.

”Who are you, Miss Dickinson?”

“I am a rising character — Vesuvius at home.”

Related reading
All OCA Brontë posts and Dickinson posts (Pinboard)

[Miss Fanshawe doesn’t speak the word “somebody”: the contrast between “nobody” and “somebody” is Lucy’s. Sewall writes about Mackay’s poem in The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974). Sewall doesn’t mention Villette in relation to 260. “Vesuvius at home”: from Dickinson’s 1691, which ends, “A Crater I may contemplate / Vesuvius at home.” The phrase became the title of Adrienne Rich’s 1976 essay “Vesuvius at Home.”]

comments: 2

Tororo said...

Well done, Miss Snowe! That's something, being a cool hand protagonist in a novel. And having the story of my life ending in Emily Dickinson's hands… I would love to someday have a dream about that.

Michael Leddy said...

I hope she’ll write something in the margins. : )