Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
By Michael Shelden
Sheldon opens the book with a scene of Sarah Morewood crowning Melville with a laurel wreath at Christmas dinner, in honor of his completing Moby-Dick.
“The obvious, but unspoken, truth here is that Mrs. Morewood is in love with Mr. Melville, who is also married. Indeed, Sarah will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”
Sheldon paints a vivid portrait of the times and the inner motivations of both Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood. It reads like a terrifically romantic story, not a dry look at the facts and history.
“Melville fell completely under his lover’s spell from the moment they met in the summer of 1850. Mrs. Morewood was a singular character in the Berkshires of her day, a woman both bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate. Melville regarded her seriously as a kindred spirit, though his biographers have not. She is one of the great unsung figures in literary history.”
Some of the information given is fact but much is also conjecture.
“. . . a wild lament for forbidden love in the novel he called Pierre, didn’t soar to such heights or plunge to such depths in an emotional vacuum. The tempests in those books had their parallels in his life, and at the center of the storm was a relationship for which he was willing to risk everything.”
Sarah was clearly a passionate person. But the author assumes some things based on modern sensibilities in certain places while pointing out how different it was at that time in others. For example, he says she initiated a summer fling with Alexander Gardiner. There was some gossip in certain circles about the two of them being caught in a compromising position which must have been “more revealing than a kiss or an embrace.” But at another point he says that a large group of friends going on an overnight camping trip was scandalous. So which is it?
Neighbors gossiped about a clergyman who was spending too much time as a guest at her home. Really? With others in residence, just spending too much time there was cause for gossip.
It is a thoroughly interesting and entertaining book that delves into the lives and love of Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood but I don’t think the author fully makes his case that two of her children were by Melville. There’s no doubt they were great friends who may have loved each other passionately but that does not prove a physical relationship. Unconsummated relationships can endure all the longer for never being able to reach that stage.
Sadly, Sarah died before she turned 40, most likely of consumption. If the author is correct in only a percentage of his assertions though, some of her spirit lives on in Melville’s writing.
“The key for Sarah was always to be understood, not judged. But, of course, the world prefers to judge . . .”