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Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon

So I've been reading this really interesting biography of the Dickinson family by Lyndall Gordon. It's entitled Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, and it's all so much more convoluted and in some cases tawdry and petty and wild than anything one might imagine being associated with Miss Dickinson.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point. At least some of the family feuds (ones I've not yet gotten to, since Emily isn't dead yet) had to do with control over the author - not just over her work, but over her public image, which was washed even whiter than the dresses she is reported to have worn.

What I've learned so far, in the first third or so of the book, is that Emily is no longer on my list of "famous authors to have tea/dinner with". She was so intense and so peculiarly intense, and so prone to being both extremely direct and oblique in conversation (delivered, apparently, in up-speak), that I am certain she'd have made me uncomfortable. I'm pretty certain Jane Austen (on my list) would be uncomfortable around her, too, although she'd probably enjoy her for a bit, if only as an interesting character study.

I've been fascinated to learn that she likely had red hair. And likely had epilepsy (although I'd heard that before), a case that the author makes persuasively, and backs up with some of Emily's poems, which make far more sense when seen through that prism.

And now, I return to the hotbed of sin and infidelity that was Emily Dickinson's house. Apparently.

I'd love to know if any of you have read this, or have had a similar disquieting experience in how you think about a historical figure after reading a biography.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 24th, 2013 08:48 pm (UTC)
I'm curious to read this now!

I remember feeling quite disillusioned when I first read L. M. Montgomery's journals, and then felt it again when I read the recent hefty biography of her, which dished even more about some of the family dramas. As a child of course I always imagined LMM would be this lovely, dreamy person like one of her heroines--I expected her to be a little tempestuous, maybe...but the LMM that comes across in biographies can be rather bitter and stodgy sounding and her family sounds very dysfunctional and laden with depression. Of course, biographies do tend to go for the dirt, without necessarily being able to capture the lighter, day to day side of a person, so I imagine that in truth she was somewhere in between.
Jun. 25th, 2013 05:37 pm (UTC)
I am sure LMM must be a bit in-between. This particular bio isn't so much about Dickinson (who is now dead, at the halfway point), but is more about the upheaval in her family after her older brother took on a much younger mistress. ED didn't ever bother to come down and meet the woman (Mabel Todd Loomis), and seems to have disapproved, but her sister, Lavinia, seems to have liked Mabel (at least so far), and to have turned on her sister-in-law, Susan, even before Emily's death (but moreso afterward). Lavinia essentially made Mabel into Emily's editor for the first collections of poems.

The whole relationship between Austin and Mabel is a fascinating trainwreck. Mabel's husband not only knew, but approved (and appears on occasion to have participated in three- and four-somes with his wife and her lover (and occasionally one of his lovers). Austin's wife, Sue, knew, and did not approve, but didn't make a huge deal out of it. Apparently, she didn't know that Austin and Mabel were actively trying to conceive a child between them, along with a number of other things.

It's all so tawdry, in a lot of ways, but also fascinating.
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Jun. 25th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC)
The only words of Emily's I've read were poems, until this book, when I started to read excerpts from some of her letters and items from journals and such. And her letters are just as intense and occasionally hard to parse as her poetry. She was really intense, and would not have made comfortable company for most people. And she really, truly glommed onto people whom she did deign to befriend, occasionally driving them away because she was simply too much to deal with. All of which is really interesting, but again, I think she'd have been far too demanding and high-maintenance as a friend.

The book isn't really a Dickinson bio, although I may find and read one. It's more about the fights within her family for "ownership" of Emily and her poems, as well as the fight between Austin's wife, Sue, and his mistress, Mabel Todd Loomis, for that ownership. (And I suppose for "custody" of Austin.) I haven't gotten to the trial for adultery yet, but let's just say that Austin and Mabel (and her husband) certainly led different lives than you'd expect from Puritan-like residents of Amherst, Massachusetts in the late 1800s.
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