Intersecting Fact & Fiction

April Bernard, Miss Fuller

Steerforth Press, 160pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781586421956

reviewed by Amanda Civitello

There exists in historical fiction an inherent tension between the factual and the invented. In her recent novel Miss Fuller, poet April Bernard attempts to reconcile a sense of responsibility toward the historical record with her novelist’s right to poetic license. Bernard’s originality and lyrical prose are more than worthy of her subject, the American Transcendentalist feminist writer Margaret Fuller, but the book, caught as it is between fact and fiction, never quite decides what kind of story it wishes to tell. A writer of historical fiction who employs real-life characters must first decide how to use them: whether those individuals will be focal points and protagonists, or whether they will be consigned to the background, useful as they are for providing historical context and little else. In Miss Fuller, Margaret Fuller and her contemporaries – Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among the many Concord luminaries who feature in the novel – are essential characters: there would be no story without them. This approach, which renders the believable fictionalisation of historical figures crucial to the success of the book, is ultimately where Bernard falls short. The problem with Miss Fuller is that the book is divided into three parts, two of which, the beginning and end, are essentially fiction set in Fuller’s circle of intimates, and a long, middle part, in which Fuller tells her own story.

At the heart of the more successful first and final parts is a fictional character, Anne Thoreau, the purported adoptive sister of the Walden author. When we first encounter Anne, she is twelve years old and on the brink of meeting the ‘excessively educated’ Margaret Fuller at one of Fuller’s legendary ‘Conversations’, a tea-and-lecture series, given by Fuller’s wealthy patrons, at which she expounded on various topics of interest to the progressively-minded nineteenth-century woman, who otherwise was frequently excluded from intellectual life. Her Conversations provided well-connected women with a forum for intellectual discussion at a time when women – wealthy, well-connected, progressive, brilliant, or otherwise – were banned from even entering the library at Harvard University. By the end of the novel, Anne has grown from an eager, self-conscious child mortified at spilling her tea at the Conversation to an old woman reflecting on the circle of thinkers whose long shadows populated her childhood. Anne’s chapters are thoughtful and critical, especially as she grapples with the particulars and the consequences of Transcendentalist thought.

The other, less successful chapter concerns Margaret Fuller more directly and is in fact written in Fuller’s voice, in the form of a long letter addressed to Sophia Hawthorne, wife of the novelist. Composed on the merchant vessel carrying Fuller, her Italian husband, and their son home to America, the letter recounts her travels in Europe as a journalist, her involvement in the Italian revolution, and her subsequent (scandalous) marriage to a Catholic marquis, and ends with Fuller’s untimely death on rough seas. The letter is mostly factual in substance, with much of it reading like a well-researched, basic biography, apart from an odd interlude in which Bernard’s heroine falls for the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (according to biographies, she didn’t). While the letter comprises the bulk of the novel, Miss Fuller can’t be strictly called epistolary: there is no sequence of letters, no sense of dialogue between Fuller and her friend, no implied correspondence to which Fuller is replying. Rather, the letter is a kind of memoir with an addressee, equal parts confession and last will and testament. Bookended as it is by Anne’s story, the letter interrupts the flow of the third-person narrative concerning the efforts of the Concord circle to grapple with Fuller’s life, premature death, and the legacy they wish to perpetuate.

Disappointingly, Miss Fuller shies away from dealing directly with Fuller’s ideas in favor of addressing and supplementing the potential for drama inherent in her unusual biography. For what other reason to invent something of a love affair if not melodrama? Margaret Fuller fascinates because of what she thought about, not men she may have slept with. In one effective passage, Fuller excitedly recounts to Sophia Hawthorne about getting rid of her corset and purchasing a new wardrobe, including boots more suited to her journalistic goals, but it’s ultimately a missed opportunity to engage with the ideas in Fuller’s Nineteenth Century Woman, the feminist tract so radical for her circle that it earned her Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lifelong disregard. In the novel, Fuller, whose place among the Transcendentalists is intimated to be secured by Emerson’s favor, loses the affection of Emerson and Thoreau for her personal choices (chiefly, marrying Ossoli) and for her dedication to women’s issues at the expense of a more pressing concern: the abolition of slavery. Fuller’s refusal to engage more than perfunctorily with this key, controversial political matter in antebellum Massachusetts – of course she abhorred slavery – in favour of her own agenda alienates even her friends. This patent disapproval of Fuller’s main intellectual engagement is presented as a fait accompli: other characters stand in judgment of her, but Bernard never permits Fuller to respond, apart from brief instances in her letter to Sophia Hawthorne, whose husband ultimately prevents its delivery. By preventing Fuller from defending herself, Bernard seems to paradoxically offer the same condemnation of Fuller’s brand of nascent American feminism. The reader closes the cover of Miss Fuller engaging only infrequently with Fuller’s ideas, and when those moments of clarity do come, they are almost all in Anne Thoreau’s chapters.

Thus, there’s always the specter of what Miss Fuller could have been, if only it’d gone far enough. Anne is a compelling character who’s never allowed to fully develop, a keen observer of the people around her. Bernard sadly sells her short: the novel is most frustrating when the authorial narrator continually patronises the main character, undermining Anne’s thoughts and experiences with qualifiers that diminish the authority of her ideas. As an adult, reading Fuller’s work and critical essays on her oeuvre “strains her [Anne’s] memory,” requires her to “think very hard,” and still she “struggles to understand.” Consequently, Anne never seems to grow up: her inner voice sounds the same when she’s a young girl as it does when she’s an old woman, still unable to grasp Fuller’s ideas. Unlike Margaret Fuller, who is depicted as having alternately barrelled and charmed her way into the Boston intelligentsia and made it her life’s work to share her ideas, Anne’s thoughts occur privately, either through internal monologue or journal entries. Anne writes no letters to discuss her reading and shies away from articulating her own ideas in conversation. She is unwilling to share her ideas at all, making her in many ways the antithesis of Margaret Fuller. Coupled with the narrator’s condescension, Anne’s moments of insight seem to occur only in spite of herself.

There is still much to enjoy and savour in this novel. Bernard’s prose is poetically eloquent, and her writing is particularly evocative when describing the Eastern coast and landscape of Anne’s childhood, with a respect for the environment that’s in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau if not in the style. It’s frequently a beautiful, achingly melancholic book, one that tackles these scions of American thought with sensitivity, that lays bare their complex humanity, and that successfully resists the tendency to mount them on gilded pedestals. Anne’s story is about coming to terms with the larger-than-life personalities who inhabited her childhood and subsequently haunted her adulthood, about reconciling the expanse of their ideas with the narrowness of their lives, about men who struggled between admiration for Fuller’s thought and disapproval of her lifestyle, who appreciated her brilliance until it threatened their own sense of innate male superiority. Bernard is at her best illustrating the tension Fuller wrought amongst the Transcendentalist circle and evoking Fuller’s complex, often contradictory, personality.
Amanda Civitello is a freelance writer based in Chicago. A graduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), she holds degrees in art history and political science.