November 6, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.
What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:
It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.
In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.”
The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise.