Emily v. Mabel

Susan Eilenberg

  • Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon
    Virago, 491 pp, £9.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 84408 453 1
  • Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries by Helen Vendler
    Harvard, 535 pp, £25.95, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 674 04867 6

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

‘All men say “What” to me,’ Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She certainly mystified Higginson. He never entirely overcame his uneasiness about her odd, disjunctive words and bewildering epistolary tones and seven years into their correspondence still complained of being unable to get beyond the ‘fiery mist’ in which he said she ‘enshrouded’ herself. She puzzled her brother, Austin. He complained he could not ‘comprehend’ her letters to him and demanded ‘a simpler style’. He thought she ‘posed’. And he was right. She could manage plainness well enough when it suited her. But sometimes plainness did not suit her, and she was mysterious on purpose:

Nature forgot – The Circus reminded her –
Thanks for the Ethiopian Face.
The Orient is in the West.
‘You knew, Oh Egypt’ said the entangled Antony –

This, her response to the gift of a painted jug from Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, and later the unchosen posthumous first of her editors, is plain only about its deliberate obscurity. It is the equivalent of shutting a door in its reader’s face.

As Richard Sewall, her biographer, noted, ‘She enjoyed riddles, apparently enjoyed being one.’ But was she a riddle that wanted to be solved? Did she want readerly guests? Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries and Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds take different positions on this question.

In the more ambitious and freewheeling of the two studies, Gordon treats not only Dickinson’s life and writing but also their bizarre posthumous transformations in gossip, lawsuits, editions and biographies. The main outlines of many of the stories she tells are common knowledge. Most Dickinson scholars remark at some point on the halting emergence of Dickinson’s writings from lost or unsuspected caches into a series of partial and more or less unreliable editions by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham in the last years of the 19th century and the opening decades of the 20th. Thomas H. Johnson’s solid scholarly edition of the poetry was published in 1955; Richard Sewall’s massive scholarly biography of the poet and her family in 1974; and Ralph Franklin’s variorum and reading editions of the poems in 1998 and 1999. The problems posed by the translation into print of manuscript poems never prepared for publication have been the subject of much recent discussion by scholars to whose work Gordon understands her own to be allied.

But her project is distinct from theirs. Keen to examine how we have come to think as we do about Dickinson and why we might doubt the traditional academic position, Gordon challenges what she describes as the standard line, epitomised for her in Sewall’s work, and gives us its back history. She traces the often unhappy, even criminal passage of Dickinson’s poems and letters through the hands of their recipients, editors, owners and would-be owners in the century that followed her death, producing a story of passionate and devious personalities, skulduggery and counter-skulduggery. Long stretches of her book feel almost like beach reading – a steamy thriller with unobtrusive source notes. So:

Before Mattie died Cousin Gilbert had let her know that he was reading her books on Emily. As his thin lips stretched to a self-satisfied smile, the long slits of his eyes narrowed.

The effect was not altogether pleasant; his smile held an element of menace.

And, right there, precisely when the reader might be tempted to roll her eyes, is a photograph of Cousin Gilbert, the long slits of his eyes narrowed indeed, looking as little pleasant as Gordon said he would and, if one squints, somewhat menacing. In such a fashion Gordon revives her reader’s momentarily faltering confidence.

The slightly more conventional half of Gordon’s book is given over to the significant prehistory of this and other villainies. She rehearses the central and peripheral facts of Dickinson’s life, considered in the context of her family and her social and medical circumstances: life at The Homestead, the solid, dignified family house in Amherst, Massachusetts; Dickinson’s education amid waves of religious revivalism; her closeness to Austin, and, to a lesser extent, her sister, Lavinia; her love of the Book of Revelation, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontës, George Eliot and a sentimental writer who went by the name of Ik Marvel; her passionate friendship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, whom Austin married after a difficult courtship and who thereafter lived next door to Dickinson in The Evergreens, reading and commenting on the poems Dickinson sent her by the hundred; the poet’s famous reclusiveness; her relationships with her chosen male mentors, Higginson most prominent among them; her late, happy romance with Judge Lord; Austin’s prolonged adultery with Mabel Loomis Todd, the young wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor; and the unexpected discovery after the poet’s death of nearly 1800 short poems. The stories of heartbreak and mental breakdown that colour so many earlier tellings of Dickinson’s life Gordon examines in order to dismiss. Even the unnerving ‘Master’ letters, those three documents in the form of three abject unsent love letters, Gordon regards as no more than literary exercises.[*] Her Dickinson is made of gratifyingly tougher stuff.

Dickinson was tough but also greedy for affection. All three siblings were. They felt themselves (in Austin’s words) ‘fainting for tenderness’ or struck others as indecently voluptuous. Dickinson herself wore out her childhood friends with incessant expressions of love and incessant demands to have that love reciprocated; one by one they stopped answering her letters. Much later, after he had finally managed to meet her, Higginson told his wife: ‘I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much … I am glad not to live near her.’ Not even Sue could love her enough to keep her from feeling betrayed. And along with the neediness there was something stranger and darker. Austin was dominated by it during his affair with Mabel, and we see it in Dickinson too. Gordon discusses two incidents in which Dickinson seems to have menaced people, once in sending a fantasy of punishment and murder to an uncle who had broken a promise to her (an episode that Dickinson at least regarded as a joke), and again (more disturbingly) in sending obscurely sinister, bullying letters to Mrs Bowles, wife of the editor of the Springfield Republican on whom Dickinson had turned an uncomfortable warmth.

The problems that most interest Gordon, however, are Dickinson’s reclusiveness and her brother’s adultery. The reason for the first seems to Gordon to explain Dickinson’s life; the consequences of the second explain her afterlife in publication. The outward facts of the reclusiveness have long been known; the daughter of a prominent family cannot lock herself away without people knowing. It began while she was in her twenties; we have a letter to an old schoolfriend saying she does not leave home ‘unless emergency leads me by the hand, and then I do it obstinately, and draw back if I can.’ She made excuses, and those excuses were sometimes decidedly odd. To her Norcross cousins she explained her inability to make a promised visit by saying she had frightened herself in the dark:

The nights turned hot, when Vinnie had gone, and I must keep no window raised for fear of prowling ‘booger’, and I must shut my door for fear front door slide open on me at the ‘dead of night’, and I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it – these gave me a snarl in the brain which don’t unravel yet, and that old nail in my breast pricked me; these, dear, were my cause. Truth is so best of all I wanted you to know.

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[*] ‘Oh, did I offend it – [Did’nt it want me to tell it the truth] Daisy – Daisy – offend it – who bends her smaller life to his (it’s) meeker (lower) every day – … . I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that don’t hurt me much [if you] Her master stabs her more –