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Last night, I finished reading Lyndall Gordon's biography, which is a biography of something much bigger than Emily Dickinson - it's more a biography of her reputation, and who got to determine what is known about her and her closest relationships.

Gordon does a good job presenting many of the facts of Emily Dickinson's life, which include her early relationship with a mostly fictional "Master", in which Dickinson assumed a posture that was not truly herself and wrote quite a number of poems using that persona, and her actual relationships with her sister-in-law, Sue, whom she seems to have adored all the way to the end of her life, and with her father's friend, Judge Lord, with whom she was passionately in love - and it was entirely reciprocated. Her refusal to marry him is explained by Gordon as being related to Dickinson's medical condition, which Gordon persuasively establishes as epilepsy.

Where Gordon excels, however, is at establishing the other players in Dickinson's life. Her brother Austin chased Susan to ground until she agreed to marry him. She was a prize to be won, and he (and Emily) both courted her assiduously. Emily actually thought Austin would have done better to marry Susan's sister, who adored Austin, since Susan wasn't really enthralled with him, but Emily truly wanted Susan in the family. And with good reason: she and Emily operated on the same wavelength, and Sue remained Emily's dear "Sister", friend, and first reader until Emily's death.

The thing is, somewhere along the way, Austin decided he wasn't all that happy with Sue (probably because she wasn't overly sexual). And not long after that, opportunity arrived in the form of Mabel Loomis Todd, a woman half his age, who was married to a philandering professor hired at Amherst College. Mabel was nothing if not ambitious, and she liked the affluent (by comparison) Dickinsons and aspired to "be" Sue when she grew up. Only eventually, she aspired to succeed Sue, by stealing her husband and consigning Sue to the grave or to ignominy.

To her eternal annoyance, she failed at her first goals, and Susan outlived Austin, but in her capacity as Dickinson's first editor (at the behest of Lavinia Dickinson, Emily's and Austin's sister), Mabel Loomis Todd managed to erase Susan from number of the poems and letters she belonged in, and to create the impression that Susan was the reason Emily lived a cloistered life, and that Susan was a mean-spirited, difficult, awful woman. (And really, from Mabel's perspective, she was - how DARE she stay alive and keep Mabel from marrying Austin?)

On reputation

As Shakespeare once said (in Othello), "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser." (Why yes, I know that one by heart, although I had to look up the punctuation.)

In the case of Emily Dickinson, it turns out that Susan thought Emily's relationship with Judge Lord was, at the least, ill-advised. Seems she walked in on them at one point when Emily and the good judge were swapping spit in a rather passionate embrace, and Susan (who did not really like the physical stuff with her own husband) recoiled and was appalled. Could be that she was just worried, since she would have known about Emily's epilepsy, or could be that she was just that prudish. Either way, she wanted to hide that information, so she put it out (or rather, her daughter Mattie did), that Emily had only ever been in love once, at an early age, and had suffered a disappointment and become a recluse. (Neatly dispensing with the issue of suitors AND avoiding discussing the real reason for Emily's seclusion, which Mattie may not have been privvy to.)

Mabel Loomis Todd knew about the relationship with Judge Lord based on letters of Emily's in her possession, and eventually her daughter Millicent made it public, but not until the mid-1900s. By then, the story about Dickinson's disappointed love had taken such hold that nobody paid the new revelations all that much mind. However, Todd's work as Emily's first editor and her daughter's subsequent books, created and preserved the fiction that Susan was a harpie and that she and Emily had a massive falling out, which is what sent Dickinson into seclusion. (Todd probably didn't know the true nature of Dickinson's health, and she certainly never met the poet in person, since Emily refused to come down and meet her in the many years Todd insinuated herself into the lives of the poet's family.)

Long story short: Emily Dickinson was just as you might have expected her to be when reading her poems. A force to be reckoned with. Someone given to great passion and wild fancy, someone with a strong personality and love for life. Someone who had a great secret she felt she couldn't share publicly (probably her seizures - and her poems are full of "fits" and "throes" and such, so it's all there, too). Someone who engaged actively with any number of correspondents, but who (for her own reasons), didn't travel overly much or spend much time in society. Someone who found great love in her own life, although she couldn't fully pursue it.

Only a lot of that was papered over by Mattie Dickinson (her niece, who never spent much time with her aunt and had only vague recollections of her, which didn't stop her from inventing stuff out of whole cloth when writing alleged "biographical" material) and by Mabel Loomis Todd (who didn't know all of it, and was more concerned with writing her rival, Susan, out of Emily Dickinson's life, at which she largely succeeded).

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 11th, 2013 03:15 pm (UTC)
It's really interesting to see how the two sides struggled to control things. Mabel Loomis Todd really wanted to eviscerate Susan Dickinson, and has largely succeeded - gobs of professors teach her lie, telling students that Susan and Emily had a falling out, and that Susan was a difficult person, when in fact she was not. (Well, she was difficult in not dying to clear the way for Mabel, I suppose, but that's about it.)

Susan really wanted for it not to get out that Emily was ill, and also preferred for people not to know about her passionate love life (some of which may have involved Susan, by the by), and she largely succeeded in that.

So both sides "won" their points, and in doing so, both sides obscured Dickinson's real person by a LOT.
Jul. 15th, 2013 06:50 pm (UTC)
Wow! In this "time" when I seem to have a lot of time to read, I'd like to get a copy of this. Maybe a trip to the bookstore is in order.

Great review, btw!
Jul. 15th, 2013 08:54 pm (UTC)
Would you like me to mail you my copy? Otherwise, it's going to the library book sale.
Jul. 15th, 2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
If you don't mind, I'd love that!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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