Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lyndall Gordon: Lives Like Loaded Guns

The title of this book should win an award - biographies don’t usually sound so intriguing. It comes from one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems ‘my life had stood a loaded gun’, and in this biography the poems themselves are the weapons wielded by the protagonists after Dickinson’s death.
But to call Lyndall Gordon’s book a biography is rather misleading - there is little conventional biographical detail in it. The book is subtitled ‘Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds’ and it tells the story of how an adulterous relationship divided the family while Emily was alive and then after her death how a series of intestacies resulted in a family split along the same fault lines arguing over who owned the poet’s manuscripts and reputation.

Austin Dickinson
The elder Dickinsons were Amherst’s ‘First Family’ - deeply religious parents of unimpeachable virtue who preached (and practised) a life of abstinence, deprivation and duty. Unfortunately their three children were eccentric, gifted, pleasure loving, sensual beings. Austin, photographed as a young man, smouldering from the sepia emulsion, resembles Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights; Emily stares out of her portrait like a gazelle with an unusual combination of innocence and intellectual assurance. Her youngest sister Lavinia, a girl with beseeching eyes and sensual lips, was kept close by her parents, rather like Rapunzel, and eventually jilted by the only prince who came to the door - a man she loved passionately.

Emily Dickinson
Austin married a young woman - a friend of Emily’s - who was afraid of sex. He promised Susan a ‘mariage blanc’ if that was the only way to win her. They did manage to have three children, but Susan rarely allowed him physical contact. Needless to say, when a stylish temptress appeared on the scene Austin was a fruit ripe for plucking.
Mabel Loomis Todd was the young, dissatisfied wife of an astronomy lecturer. Her husband was a philanderer and Mabel seems to have decided that what was sauce for the gander might also be good for the goose. The Todds had little money and Austin was wealthy, with much local influence. There were benefits all round. The affair was conducted on the day bed in the secluded dining room of the parental mansion still inhabited by Emily and Lavinia after the death of their parents. Austin paid the bills, so it was hardly surprising that the sisters felt unable to refuse him. Lavinia at first seemed to like Mabel. Emily stayed upstairs, and sent her terse, coded messages in verse. Susan and her children next door felt utterly betrayed. Yet Mabel seemed to be astonished when Austin’s wife refused to entertain her.
Mabel Todd
The affair went on for 15 years, occasionally as a threesome with Mabel’s husband. Amherst had no idea that it’s leading citizen and pillar of society had such an interesting private life.

After Emily’s death, Mabel, backed by Austin, offered to transcribe and edit Emily’s poems and Lavinia agreed.  Susan, across the garden, also wanted to edit them, but had no experience. The poems in her possession remained unpublished. Mabel, better placed, spent years editing and finding publishers for the first collections of Dickinson poems in print. She kept some of the originals and claimed later that they were rightfully hers as recompense for her work. Austin gave her a plot of land which actually belonged to Lavinia and which became the source of even more law suits.
After Austin’s death the gloves really came off and the three women became involved in legal battles over ownership of land and poetry. Mabel lost, mainly because her adultery with Austin could not be revealed in court and without it she had no visible reason for such a close relationship with the family that might give rise to such monetary rewards. Lies were told on both sides and the whole truth is still not known, though Lyndall Gordon makes a lawyer’s case for her own premise.
One of the most interesting revelations in the book is that Emily Dickinson probably had epilepsy, like her nephew and her cousin, and that seems to have been the main reason for her seclusion and repudiation of marriage. Epilepsy was shameful - something to be hidden. King George V of England had a son (the lost prince) with epilepsy and he was kept out of the public gaze, unnamed and unmentioned. Lyndall Gordon makes a very good case for Dickinson’s affliction.

This book is going to make Dickinson scholars rethink a lot of received theories. I would have liked to have more of Emily Dickinson’s life in the book - the poetry, the feud, the family and particularly the Scarlet Woman Mabel Todd, are centre stage and Emily just a ghostly presence in white in the upstairs room - a voice off-stage. But what a voice!


  1. I've heard a lot about the wranglings over how the two different sides of the family chose to present Emily to the world since this book came out, but little about the specifics of Austin's affair and how it helped to create the split. Scandalous and interesting. Must pick up the book so I can see whose side Gordan is slightly more on.

  2. Definitely the Dickinsons'. She seems quite hostile (my impression anyway) towards Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel was an opportunist, but I think was treated quite shabbily by the family.

  3. Fascinating. It begs for fiction to tell a greater truth, But I would say that, wouldn't I?
    I'm putting it on my Christmas list...