Sunday, 16 October 2011

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

I knew next to nothing about Emily Dickinson before reading this book. I knew that she was a nineteenth century American poet who didn't leave her house. I had a vague image of an ethereal, other-worldly figure dressed in white. Lyndall Gordon presents an Emily Dickinson who is confident (sometimes off-puttingly so), and ambitious. She was one of the first generation of American women to be college educated, and she left the family home to stay in halls at college. She did however suffer from periods of ill-health and Gordon suggests that this is reason for Emily's increasing seclusion as she moved into her twenties. Gordon believes that Emily may have suffered from epilepsy, a condition which was quite stigmatised in the nineteenth century.

The first half of this book is about Emily's life. She lived in Amherst with her sister Lavinia, and next door lived her brother Austin, his wife Sue and their children. Emily was very close to her sister-in-law, they were both intelligent, bookish women. Her brother Austin was a lawyer (as their father had been) and a leading citizen in Amherst. In 1883 he begins an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. This inevitably splits the family. Austin and Mabel regularly had their assignations at Emily and Lavinia's home, though it seems that Emily took Sue's side. Mabel becomes fascinated by the reclusive Emily. Emily is polite, but distant. By this time she is seeing very few people and Mabel never manages to meet her.

The second half of the book is concerned with Emily's legacy. After her death there is a tug of war between Austin, Mabel and Lavinia on one side, and Sue and her children on the other over who has the right to publish the poems. This fight destroys the family and Gordon suggests it leads to the death of two of the participants due to the stress of protracted court cases. Unbelievably the feud passed down to the next generation and was still going in the 1950s.

The feud affected the image of Emily Dickinson which is held by the public. Each side wanted to claim that they knew her best. The Dickinson's reticence as a family meant that they were keen to portray her without any of the spikiness and mischief with Gordon says she possessed. Sue Dickinson's reputation suffered in the aftermath. In order for Mabel to place herself in the centre of the Emily Dickinson legend she had to push Sue to one side.

I thought this was a fascinating book. I did wish I'd known a bit more about Emily Dickinson before I started reading it, it has made me want to find out more about her.

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