Review of Lives Like Loaded Guns - Lyndall Gordon, for Tribune Magazine

Lives Like Loaded Guns – Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds – Lyndall Gordon, Virago. Review for Tribune Magazine.

That doyenne of gynocriticism, Elaine Showalter, declares that: "To compare any other American poet to (Emily) Dickinson is to understate her exceptional originality and uniqueness." Original and unique in her poetry Dickinson may well have been, but she could also be insufferable and suffocating to be around, particularly in her early relationship with her future sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. However, Lyndall Gordon, presenting us with the first biography of Dickinson since 1974, conveys this beautifully. We are given not just Emily the scribbling eccentric woman, after whose death would be found 1,789 poems, (of which only around half a dozen were published in her lifetime), but certainly more than just ‘The Belle of Amherst’, a town which 'held out against the metropolitan tolerance of Boston'.

The reader is therefore treated to Emily as a poet in the context of her most important environment, because Gordon has chosen instead to focus on the familial relationships and feuds, hence the overly long title of the book. Moreover, Gordon also begins the book with a list of the family members, which, along with the section and chapter headings, serve to frame this work in a manner that causes premature and unnecessary information overload.

We are first introduced to Emily’s father, of whom we get the full gist when, asked by a photographer to smile for the camera, he keeps his head held as if in an invisible brace, eye unflinching, and replies, through set jaw, 'I yam smiling'. What this portrait of her father sets the scene for is how the Dickinson children are brought up by parents who are determined, at all costs, to keep up appearances, despite Mrs. Dickinson’s ‘tendency to tears’. Here, in Emily's mother, there is a strong presence of post-natal depression who, upon giving birth and close to emotional breaking point, is given not the most thoughtful present by her husband: The Mother at Home: Principles of Maternal Duty.

Emily, on the other hand, despite her parents attempt at all costs at emotional paralysis, and compensating for that, channelled her own into early intense friendships, writing poetry, and reading books, favourites of which were the Brontes', Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights et al. It is in these books in particular that emotions are given what must have seemed a wild and attractive expression, and in which Emily must have found identification.

Susan Gilbert, with whom Emily would have the longest friendship, was said to have a mathematical talent and had even been encouraged by a Yale graduate to apply there. However, hard enough it would have been for any young woman, doubly so for Susan, who was also an orphan. It seems she was an even more voracious and selective reader than Emily, eventually amassing over three thousand volumes.

Coming to know each other at their most impressionable ages, therefore, Emily and Susan would form a strong bond. Yet it is a bond that never seemed to satisfy Emily, before Susan marries Austin, in its intensity, whereas the same could not be said of Sue, who leaves Amherst for a while, her friendship with Emily cooling somewhat, until returning as Austin's wife.

Naturally, some may say, this bond between Emily and Susan, and their letters, give rise to the suggestion they were lesbians. Yet Gordon seems intent on refuting this, rationalising the close relationships women had during this era, as well as the subconscious danger of marriage leading to childbirth and childbirth leading to possible death.

All this ticks along, with Austin and Susan moving into a newly built house next door, until the arrival of a woman who would become the long-term mistress of Austin, cue Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a young astronomy lecturer. Austin and Mabel's affair would remain known not just by both spouses, but also by Lavinia and Emily, in whose house, (despite her father's death, Emily still referred to as her father's house), the affair was largely conducted.

Yet Austin is not enough for Mabel, a young woman who, like the older Susan, has unrequited ambitions. She also wants Emily the poet, in whose work she recognises an extraordinary talent, and yet who, bizarrely, she will never meet.

Yet, after Emily's death it is Mabel who arranges for the publication of Emily's first poetry collection and who is responsible for her posthumous celebrity, all the more potent because it had remained unrealised whilst the poet herself was alive, calling to mind a Dickinson quote that celebrity was the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent.

Yet, as if years of her own unrealised ambition come to taunt her in the image of her husband's mistress, Susan rises up and delivers her own image of Emily against the younger mistress of her husband, thus giving birth to two camps - the 'sister' camp and the Mabel camp. This rivalry proceeds well into the twentieth century, with Susan's daughter, Martha, and Mabel's daughter, Millicent, both putting out their own Dickinson related works and feuding over the sale of the Dickinson papers, making for many headlines along the way.

Gordon's work is to be highly recommended and will, I'm sure, become a standard text not just in Dickinson studies, but women’s history, because this is not just about Emily, or her work, but a series of brilliant women, Emily, Susan, and Mabel. Emily, to a large extent, had to keep secret her own outlet, an outlet that was needed because of the need to contain the person she was; Susan as a potential mathematics whizz who had the talent but not the realistic opportunity; and Mabel who, it would seem, despite having the eye for Emily's talent, had to resort to manipulation, and fighting the wife of her lover. A page-turning series of events it may all amount to, yet it a sorry tale for all that, not least because of the legacy it left to their feuding daughters.

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