The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 6, 2010

Lives Like Loaded Guns

‘This may all seem very queer to you, and it is. We are a queer lot.’

— Austin Dickinson, writing to Emily Dickinson’s
publisher (September 25, 1894)

I’ve just finished (and greatly enjoyed) reading Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her family’s feuds, by Lyndall Gordon. This isn’t a straightforward biography (it sketches in some, but not every, detail of Emily Dickinson’s life, and puts forward the interesting idea that she suffered from epilepsy, but she has died a little more than halfway through the book). For me, the book became even more engaging (and the narrative a little less jumpy), when Gordon focuses on the lives and loves of the people around her: her stern father, her nervous mother, her sister Lavinia (Vinnie), her upright brother Austin, his wife (Emily’s beloved Sue), their children, and Mabel and David Todd, a stylish younger couple from Washington, D.C. who move to Amherst, accidentally conceive a daughter, and change everyone’s lives.

It describes other times and other events, and offers some analysis of ED’s poems, but the first part of the book dwells most on the adulterous relationship between Austin and Mabel, and how Emily, Lavinia, Sue, David and the children circle around and react to it. This is all fascinating, and in some places unexpected (things go on 'up stairs' that you might connect with repressed 19th-century New England). Their relationship created schisms and divided loyalties in the family and set the stage for a literary feud, over publishing Emily Dickinson’s letters and poetry, that continued to haunt, and harm, the next generation (‘The eruptive force of what must not now come out left Millicent pale and strained, clutching the arm of her kindly husband.’) and to affect early scholarship.

If this were a novel (and good biographies read that way, don’t they?) Mabel would be the mostly deeply drawn character; she gives writers so much more to work with. As Susan Dickinson (who was from an older generation) tried to be, she was more worldly. As Emily did herself, and even Lavinia when she took Mabel to court (‘Isn’t that business?’ Miss Vinnie asked in a wondering voice. ‘I know nothing of business.’), she creates characters for herself to play (‘Look like an innocent flower.’), and offers not-quite-truths and brazen justifications at every turn. It’s fascinating to read that this woman, who immersed herself in Dickinson’s poetry and in the Dickinsons' lives, never met Emily or even saw her face until Emily had died. She’s a very compelling figure, even though a damaging one.

The portaits of Mabel, Emily, Austin and Lavinia are from the Todd-Bingham Picture Coll Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.)

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1 comment:

Vintage Reading said...

I loved this book, too. I had some sympathy for Mabel, though, and I think she was responsible for bringing Dickinson to a wider audience. I love the cover on your edition.

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