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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

10th Jun 2011

Lives Like Loaded Guns Lyndall Gordon

Lives Like Loaded Guns borrows a phrase from Dickinson, and its subtitle, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, indicates that the ‘lives’ we encounter reach far beyond the poet’s lifetime. The first part of the book covers Emily’s life, while the latter half traces the ‘afterlife’ of her work, and the ownership disputes which continue to this day.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her grandfather had founded Amherst College. She began writing poetry at an early age, and left home at sixteen to train as a teacher at a college for young women. However, Emily soon clashed with her headmistress. Though of Puritan upbringing, Dickinson dissented from the ‘revivalist’ fervour sweeping New England at the time.

She returned home and immersed herself in domesticity, while sharing her writings with a select circle of friends. In 1856, her closest friend, Susan Gilbert, was married to Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson.

The last existing portrait of Emily was taken when she was just a teenager. Over time she has been sanctified as a timid creature, disappointed in love. Gordon argues that this was not the case. By isolating herself, Emily was able to focus on her writing to a degree that would not otherwise have been possible.

More controversially, Gordon suggests that Emily may have been epileptic, although this theory has been challenged by some readers. But it does seems likely that she suffered from seizures of some kind, and that this condition was hereditary.

She was not lacking in confidence, or ambition. Dickinson was an avid reader, and admired the Brontё sisters and George Eliot. Although editors were slow to appreciate Dickinson’s unusual style, she was published in literary magazines. And in middle age, Gordon writes, Emily pursued an unlikely flirtation with a family friend, Otis Phillips Lord.

Emily’s dalliance was but a minor ripple compared to the storm that erupted after the arrival of Mabel Loomis Todd, an editor and writer, in 1882. She was a champion of Emily’s work, but although the two women corresponded, they never met. Mabel, married with a child, soon embarked on an adulterous affair with Emily’s brother, Austin.

While Mabel’s husband tolerated the relationship, it tore the Dickinsons apart. Austin’s wife, Sue, and her three children were ostracised. After Emily’s death in 1885, Mabel persuaded Lavinia to allow her to edit the poems left behind. Sue also owned a hoard of manuscripts, but lacked Mabel’s marketing prowess.

As Emily’s fame grew, the feud deepened. Lavinia regretted her actions and accused Mabel of fraud. Though the Dickinsons won the case, Mabel was undeterred. Emily’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and Mabel’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, both published their share of the manuscripts and wrote conflicting accounts of Emily’s life.

While Mabel’s behaviour was undeniably scandalous – one chapter is entitled ‘The Lady Macbeth of Amherst’ – she was one of the first to recognise Dickinson’s genius, and brought her work to a wider audience.

Lyndall Gordon paints a vital picture of Emily’s life, character, and poetry, as gripping as any Victorian melodrama; exploring a world on the cusp of modernity, yet still clinging to the past.

Published by Virago, Lives Like Loaded Guns is available in hardback for £15.75, in paperback for £6.49, and on Kindle for £5.49.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Fans of Emily Dickinson and readers of literary biography

Other recommended reading: The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson; The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, a novel by Jerome Charyn; Charlotte Brontё: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon.

Tara Hanks