Emily Dickinson’s New Secret

Life in that Amherst house was more exciting than we knew.

Several times a week, during the last two years of Emily Dickinson’s life, a weird and symbolic drama would play itself out in the old Dickinson family house, the Homestead. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the poet’s brother, Austin—a married father of three, a pillar of Amherst society, and the treasurer of Amherst College—would leave his house next door, ostensibly to pay a call on Emily and his other sister, Lavinia. In fact, he came to meet Mabel Loomis Todd, the seductive young wife of the Amherst College astronomer David Todd, and have sex with her on Emily Dickinson’s dining room couch. We know exactly what happened and when, because Austin, a lawyer with good business habits, recorded everything punctually in his diary. On January 3, 1886, for instance, he wrote, “at the other house 3 to 5 and +=====XXX.” Mabel, who also kept a diary, wrote rather more tenderly on the same day: “A most exquisitely happy and satisfactory two hours.”

While the lovers trysted on the first floor, Emily Dickinson was up in her bedroom on the second. She must have known perfectly well what was going on. As Lyndall Gordon writes in Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, there must have been some kind of understanding about which rooms the poet was not to enter and when for fear of getting an eyeful. But what makes the story so odd, and so characteristic of Dickinson, is that she managed to live in the same house where Todd was so unmistakably present without ever meeting her. In fact, when Emily Dickinson died, on May 15, 1886, she had never once laid eyes on Mabel Todd—the woman who tore her family apart and who would make her poetry famous.

The two women continue their wary standoff in the pages of Gordon’s book, which starts out as a patchy biography of Dickinson before turning into a fascinating account of Todd’s contentious role in Dickinson’s afterlife. They are so different that they almost parody the conventional distinction between the life of letters and the life of action, or what the poet called “nobody” and “somebody”:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

Mabel, born in 1856, came from a poor family, and she was determined to use her beauty and intelligence to move up in the world, to “tell her name,” despite all obstacles. “There are capacities in me, I know, which I’ve not yet begun to feel,” she wrote at the age of 21. “I shall yet do something which will be heard of—that I know.” She would do many things in her life—travel around the world, become a popular lecturer, have adventurous love affairs—but as fate would have it, the “something” that made her name was to edit and publish the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson’s fame, of course, comes in no small part from what she refused to do. She rarely left her house, and her romances exist mostly in the realm of rumor and scholarly speculation. Most mysterious of all, this author of nearly two thousand poems, including some of the greatest ever produced by an American, published just a handful of minor lyrics in her lifetime. When she died, she left behind a locked chest full of manuscripts, with many poems copied into small handmade booklets. It was Mabel Loomis Todd, more than anyone else, who was responsible for unearthing these poems, transcribing them, editing them, and seeing them into print. The unearthly genius of Dickinson needed Todd’s worldly wisdom in order to win immortality.

Treating these two lives in the same book, as Gordon has tried to do, is a challenge: They resist each other on the page as they did in life. For the first half of Lives Like Loaded Guns, Gordon focuses on Emily Dickinson’s story, and she puts forward one major new claim: Based on medical records and family history, and, more doubtfully, on the evidence of the poems themselves, she suggests that Dickinson was epileptic. This would explain why she preferred near-total privacy—she was afraid of other people witnessing her attacks at a time when the disease carried a stigma, especially for women. It would also explain why her family indulged her preference for staying up all night writing poems and avoiding all housework—a kind of freedom that most New England women could only dream of.

Even as she makes epilepsy a kind of key to Dickinson’s mysteries, however—reading lines like “I seek the Dark/ Till I am thorough fit” as coded allusions to epileptic fits—Gordon is clearly uneasy with the very notion of using the poet’s life to explain her work. Were the famous “Master Letters,” in which Dickinson seems to address a lover, written to the newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, as has been speculated? Yes and no, Gordon replies: Bowles may have provided their occasion, but the letters are mainly rhetorical performances, “fertile imaginings of a potential situation that might have grown out of an initial situation we aren’t meant to recover.” Even when Dickinson sends Bowles an apparently erotic poem like “Two swimmers wrestled on the spar,” Gordon deflects speculation: “to pursue biography is not what this poem asks us to do.” True enough; but such interpretive austerity sounds odd in the context of what is, after all, a biography. It is as though Gordon—whose previous book was a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a major “somebody”—felt slightly ashamed of her trade in the face of Dickinson’s immense reserve.

The book shifts into a higher gear once Todd comes onto the scene. She is a biographer’s dream, starting with the clandestine affair with Austin Dickinson, which bloomed into a ménage-a-trois involving David Todd (and, at least once, Gordon suggests, a ménage-a-quatre, with another woman taking part). This affair was not only devastating to the Dickinson family; as Gordon shows in the most innovative part of her book, it had major repercussions for the way future generations would understand Emily Dickinson’s life and work. In particular, Gordon is writing to rehabilitate the reputation of Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Austin’s wife and Mabel’s hated rival. Sue was Emily’s trusted reader and close friend: “I chose this single star/ From out the wide night’s numbers—/ Sue—forevermore!” she wrote in a poem for her sister-in-law’s 28th birthday. But after the poet’s death, Mabel Todd convinced Lavinia Dickinson—Emily’s sister and the heir to her manuscripts—to entrust the unpublished verse to her care. This was a boon for readers, who benefited from what Gordon calls Todd’s “rigorous” and “scrupulous” editing of these eccentric texts—as well as her total faith in Dickinson’s genius, in the face of skepticism from editors, one of whom rejected the manuscript with the opinion that Dickinson was “generally devoid of the true poetical qualities.”

But Mabel Todd’s editorial control also allowed her to obliterate Sue’s friendship with Emily—sometimes by literally erasing her name from documents—and turn her into a villain for Dickinson biographers, a calculating woman who married into the socially superior Dickinson family and proceeded to make Austin’s life a loveless misery. The enmity between Austin’s wife and mistress even passed on, like a Biblical feud, to the next generation. As late as the 1930s, Gordon shows, Mabel’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, and Sue’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, were publishing rival editions of Emily Dickinson’s poems and slandering one another’s treatment of her life. Martha’s Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson created, more or less out of whole cloth, the legend of the poet’s doomed love for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, casting this alleged romance as the key to her aunt’s seclusion: “Without stopping to look back, she fled to her own home for refuge—as a wild thing running,” she wrote in typically purple prose. Gordon quotes the notes Millicent made in her copy of the book: “Bosh!”, “ugh,” “Oh yeah?” She got her own back with Ancestors’ Brocades, a study in which she suggested that Dickinson’s retirement was actually a way of escaping the malevolence of Sue. The all-too-human machinations of the poet’s family and friends make for a good, gossipy story. But by the end of Gordon’s book, we are more than ready to concede Dickinson’s “public” legacy to the croaking frogs and seal ourselves up in the privacy of her poems, as she recommended:

Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior—
As soon—AdversityA Diamond—overtake
In far—Bolivian Ground
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it—if it found—

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.