For anyone who loves nineteenth-century American literature, and I do, April Bernard’s Miss Fuller: A Novel catches the quasi-archaic tone perfectly. Bernard’s characters understand exactly how they’re supposed to write and think. One calls Margaret Fuller’s prose “somehow vegetal, vine-like, even mouldy,” then almost contradicts herself a few pages later when she responds to “the awkward, herky-jerky force . . , rather like an electric eel, twisting, brilliant, sparkling.” Simultaneously meandering and forceful, Miss Fuller herself evaluates the dilemma of her own style. “But now I return to my chronicle & I do promise to be more direct, altho’ as you know the shortest distance between two points has never been my particular forte.”
The language is letter perfect; the diction reads as if lifted from Margaret Fuller’s own pages. The novel wasn’t, of course. Rather, it is April Bernard’s fictional version of Miss Fuller’s life and dramatic death. The story is told from a series of shifting points of view. Part One peers through the eyes of an imagined adopted sister of Henry David Thoreau, as she encounters the person, the presence, and the words of the woman most famous for arguing women’s rights in the nineteenth-century. Part Two moves into Miss Fuller’s own voice, as she writes to the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorn, recounting facets of her life in America and then abroad, clarifying and justifying her Bohemian lifestyle,. Simultaneously she is keeping a diary to share with Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, a diary that is detailing life aboard ship as she heads home with her new Italian ‘husband’ and their son.
The fatal voyage ends in a shipwreck on a sandbar within stepping distance of Fire Island and American soil. Henry David Thoreau is sent to the scene to look for bodies and to search for any manuscript pages that might have survived. He finds, not Miss Fuller’s expected narrative of the recent Italian revolution, but the lengthy letter/diary addressed to Mrs. Hawthorne. His notes on the experience perfectly mimic the Henry David Thoreau prose so familiar to readers for generations. Finally, the novel ends with a return to Thoreau’s ‘sister’, an old woman now. Anne acquired the correspondence (which Mrs. Hawthorne never saw because her author husband forbid it) after her famous brother’s death, and she has always been fascinated by Margaret Fuller, her life, her reputation. Of course Anne reads the unsanctioned pages.
Bernard’s recreation of the known events, plus her innovations about the unknown, make Miss Fuller a welcome addition to nineteenth-century lore. Scholars interpret Fuller as an important, if quirky, figure in American letters. As the Women’s Movement took hold in the twentieth–century, Fuller’s reputation has grown. There remain mysteries about her life, however, and Bernard has imaginatively filled in some of the gaps. Sometimes creative writers who are working closely with facts forget to be creative, relying too heavily on what is already known and failing to imagine and extrapolate. Bernard, on the other hand, extrapolates in ways that are true to character, that are convincing, and that make the story come to life for the reader. Anyone who finds the Transcendentalists tantalizing, and I do, will surely enjoy MissFuller. -A.R.
The following books by April Bernard are also available: Romanticism: Poems, Swan Electric: Poems, Psalms: Poems, Blackbird Bye Bye, Pirate Jenny.