Over past decades, many biographies have explored the Emily Dickinson myths: her withdrawal from society, secluded, the ethereal ‘woman in white’; her relationship with her family; the identity of the man she calls ‘Master’ in her poetry.
Lyndall Gordon’s latest memoir is at once biography of the genius poet, and study, and judgment, of her brother’s infidelity with Mabel Todd, who would becomeDickinson’s first editor.
Emily Dickinson’s family ties began to undo soon after the arrival of the attractive, energetic Mrs Todd, who first befriended theDickinsonfamily, then embarked on an affair with the uprightAustin. This affair lasted for the rest of his life and demolishedAustin’s wife and children. The feud poisoned future generations, with Dickinson and Todd heirs wrangling over Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and even the particulars of Emily Dickinson’s own life story.
Now, literary biographer Gordon is well-suited to write this story: her research thorough, her discussion necessarily equivocal, her pace studious and accomplished, but her words do not always chime impartially, and an immense researcher’s dislike for Mabel Todd is palpable. But she competently, if hesitantly, reveals Emily Dickinson as a woman, possibly as a lover, definitely as an artist of great will and talent. Gordon also posits her own theory as to Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness. Seclusion was a way to manage illness (probably epilepsy), which Emily Dickinson then used to excuse her from the minutiae of domestic drudgery, giving breathing space within which to write, unencumbered by claims on her time from family or a husband. And because of this, and regardless of familial battles, our literary world is greater for it.