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Sunday, 07 November 2010 02:00

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
It should be safe to say that it is impossible to complete a university degree in English Literature anywhere in the world and not come across the genius of the great American poet Emily Dickinson. Her fame soars well beyond university departments. For well over a century she has haunted reader's imaginations, lecture halls, anthologies, biographies and fictional adaptations with what came to be known as her reclusive nature and spasmodic gait. Hardly any reader coming in touch with her poetry would have been spared the elusive image of a middle-aged spinster in white, mourning an unknown lover and harbouring little self-made booklets of poems in her sheltered home.

Unrecognised during her lifetime, and largely misunderstood after her death, she has nevertheless managed to conquer millions of hearts with her original, daring and evocative poetry, which has been able to speak clearly through all the layers of deception, intrigue and legend surrounding her person.

In one of her poems Dickinson wrote:

You cannot fold a Flood -
And put it in a Drawer -


And so, even if she did not publish more than a dozen poems during her lifetime, her poetic genius erupts like an Icelandic geyser out of that proverbial drawer. Who can resist or forget such famous lines from her oeuvre as:

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.


Or:

You think my gait "spasmodic." I am in danger, Sir - You think me "uncontrolled" - I have no Tribunal.

And:

My Life has stood - a Loaded Gun

The latter has been brilliantly adopted by Lyndall Gordon for the title of her biography of Emily Dickinson. Shrouded by mystery for over a century, the poet has been the subject of numerous, more or less informed, biographies. Gordon's take on her life is as ground-breaking and explosive as Dickinson's poetry itself.

Gordon is the author of such critically acclaimed biographies as Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, and Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Her research is impeccable, her approach fascinating and her style eruditely engaging.

In Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds, Lyndall Gordon considers the two unassailable facts of Emily Dickinson's life: the family feud over the affair Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, had with Mabel Loomis Todd, and the poet's letters and poems about her unnamed sickness. In the process Gordon debunks the many myths created around the unique woman who spent most of her time in her own home, writing, gardening and baking prize-winning bread for her family.

Through a meticulous reading of letters, court evidence, publishers' papers, medical prescriptions and other archival records, as well as most importantly, the lines of her poems, Gordon distils the essence of Emily Dickinson and allows her to emerge in a completely different light. Not as an eccentric, disappointed, white-clad spinster, but a woman of genius who lived fully and loved passionately, while choosing a seemingly quiet 'Existence' - one she insisted on spelling with a capital E.

It is the initial letter of another word that plays a crucial part in the biography: epilepsy. While Gordon's evidence is mostly circumstantial - doctor's prescriptions, letters, similar openly known cases in the family, and the poetry itself - her sound arguments concerning Dickinson's sickness are believable at all times. As epilepsy was highly stigmatised at the time when Dickinson lived, especially when the patient was a woman, admitting to the condition would have put the poet in a terribly precarious position. Gordon argues that Dickinson, with the help of her closest family, chose to hide the fact from the public eye and remained single (although she could have married) as well as close to the home which offered her the safest refuge.

Gordon not only draws a new picture of Emily, but also of her life-long friend and most avid reader, a "Sister", Susan Dickinson - Austin's wronged and often unjustifiably misportrayed wife. The accounts of the relationships between Emily and Susan, Emily and Mabel, Austin and Susan or Austin and Mabel - are well balanced. Gordon is not lured into either of the camps - the wife's or the mistress's - and approaches her subject with an integrity which is never in doubt. When praise is due, it is given, as with Mabel Loomis Todd's unquestionable editorial contribution to the preservation and dissemination of Dickinson's work. Or, when the feud - now no longer over the adultery but over the right to the poet's work and the shaping of her public image - continues into the next generations, the despicable actions of both the Dickinson and Todd descendants are equally condemned.

Lives Like Loaded Guns is a thrilling read, drawing one in from the first page and never letting go. Above all, Lyndall Gordon's magnificent biography awakens a desire in the reader to revisit Dickinson's work, to look at her poems from Gordon's fresh, clear perspective.

In a letter to one of her earliest editors, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the poet wrote:

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her -



Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds

by Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 2010

To learn more about Lyndall Gordon visit her homepage: http://www.lyndallgordon.net/
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