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Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 02 November 2010 04:08
Lyndall Gordon. 2010. London: Virago.

The title of Lyndall Gordon’s fascinating book alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s poems: “My life has stood – a Loaded Gun”. Gordon applies this to all the Dickinson family; Emily herself may be referring to an inherited disease which they wished to conceal.

Two generations of wives, Emily’s mother and sister in law, seem to have dreaded the physical relationships in their marriages; two generations of husbands, her father and brother, avoided self knowledge by becoming authoritarian and puritanical. Austin Dickinson, the brother, in his fifties and the father of three children, in 1882 after twenty-six years of conjugal life, began an affair with a young married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. This liaison divided his family into two camps, his wife Sue and his children on one side and he and his sister Lavinia on the other. Emily avoided meeting Mabel, and was intimate with Sue, to whom she sent letters and copies of her poems.

The family setup both facilitated and complicated this affair, which lasted for the rest of Austin’s life. He lived with his family in the Evergreens; next door, in the Homestead, lived his sisters, Emily and Lavinia, known as Vinnie. The town was Amherst, small, puritanical and gossipy. When the affair became a matter of physical and frequent sex, Austin met Mabel in the Homestead, where his sisters’ presence assured the curious that she was merely a family friend.

    Gordon admits that there is much that we cannot know about Emily, who in her adult life chose to become a recluse, never leaving the Homestead, but receiving a few chosen visitors. Gordon’s theory is that the poet suffered from epilepsy, which afflicted other members of the family, but was thought almost disgraceful in women. Her sister Vinnie, after an attachment to a man who abandoned her, became her devoted companion.

    Part of the motivation behind Emily’s withdrawal, Gordon suggests, was her knowledge that immortality as a poet was within her reach – if she did not acquire obligations to domesticity. Her father permitted her to rise early and write undisturbed. She had intense friendships in her youth with young women as well as men friends: Judge Lord, a family friend, probably wished to marry her, and she was very fond of him. Gordon discusses the (probably composite) identity of the ‘Master’ who figures in the poems.

    Emily died in 1886, having published little, but with a large corpus of unpublished poems, as well as remarkable letters. Austin Dickinson died in 1895, leaving his mistress determined to possess herself of Emily’s poems, edit and publish them, as well as many of her letters as she could. She cast Sue Dickinson, who had prevented her marriage to Austin, as a villainess, but Vinnie, at first willing to allow Mabel to edit the poems but eventually resenting an appropriation which rendered her invisible, became lastingly a second enemy.

    The result was a feud between the Todd and Dickinson families which lasted until the deaths of the last members of each. It involved published slanders of Sue, Vinnie and Mabel herself, suppressions and lies, including Mabel’s claims of intimate access into Emily’s life, though she had never spoken to her. It rendered even scholars of Emily’s poetry mistaken partisans, convinced by the allegations of one camp or the other. This book, impressively researched, scrupulously documented and brilliantly argued, goes as far as is possible to establish the truth – and necessarily enriches or corrects readings of the poems and interpretations of Emily’s life.