Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns"

This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and an examination of who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson was prevented by her dependency on her brother from attacking the affair directly, but she wrote many subtly barbed letters to Mabel Todd and refused to see her at all, despite approaches by the latter. Emily, in Gordon's hands, appears as a fierce and uncompromising spirit. Her seclusion, Gordon argues persuasively, was not due to disappointed love, as legend would have it, but the stigma of epilepsy. The Fit, as coded in many of the poems, gave Dickinson the sense of being among the Elect.

The second half of the book looks at the war between the houses over the control of Dickinson. The battle started by Sue Dickinson, Austin's wife, and Mabel Todd, Austin's mistress, was taken up by their respective daughters, Mattie Dickinson and Millie Todd. Lavinia Dickinson, the sister of Austin and Emily, took Austin's side against Sue at first, but went over to the other side decisively when she fought with Mabel Todd over Austin's promise of family land to his mistress. It is a testament to Gordon's skill at narration and characterization that the story of disputed contracts and legal battles retains high interest. She does not lose sight of how such prosaic matters have shaped, and distorted, a poetic legacy. If she has restored Emily to the original that she was, she has also recovered the real Sue Dickinson, the intelligent and sympathetic reader whom Emily held to her heart as her "Sister."

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