The Belle of Amherst?

Swapping the old, gray portrait for one of a woman, passionate, controlled, and possibly epileptic

By Christina Thompson
June 27, 2010

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The portrait of Emily Dickinson that emerges from this book is far more intriguing than the one I and no doubt many others have been carrying around in our heads. Banished, the wisp of a girl in white flitting through the 19th-century gloom. Gone, the disappointed spinster with some ophthalmic abnormality. Erased, the “harmless homebody . . . shut off from life.” And in their place a strange, seething creature filled with passion whose life was, in some fundamental sense, an exercise in control.

Art, writes Lyndall Gordon, biographer not only of Dickinson, but of T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and Virginia Woolf, “is made at the interface of abandon and decorum.” This idea of an interplay between explosiveness and discipline underlies both the literary critical and biographical strands of this book, in which the poet’s genius is framed first by the constraints of her upbringing and illness and then by the controlled chaos surrounding her.

The facts of Dickinson’s life are essentially these. She was born in 1830 into a prominent Amherst family, the second of three children. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer; her mother, Emily Norcross, a muted figure who may have suffered depression. It was a grave, respectable household of dutiful women and upstanding men imbued with the era’s twin concerns for piety and propriety — an atmosphere, Gordon suggests, that might conceivably have had “consequences” for the three children, each of whom in his or her own way, “gave vent, later, to extravagant passions.”

At 16, Emily entered what was then known as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but was obliged to withdraw after seven months because of an unspecified illness. Here we get our first hint of what would become one of the most persistent and fascinating questions about the poet’s life. Dickinson, who famously retreated from the world and lived as a recluse for the latter half of her life, was evidently plagued by some disorder, but no one in her own day ever named it, and no one since has been able to say categorically what it was. Many theories have been advanced — tuberculosis, eye trouble, melancholia — but as Gordon (quoting the biographer Mark Bostridge) notes, “posthumous diagnoses are rarely successful in establishing with any degree of certainty the nature of an illness experienced by a person long dead.”

Nevertheless, in a fascinating chapter titled “Snarl in the Brain,” Gordon expounds her own theory, which is that Dickinson was epileptic. The evidence is scant but persuasive. Some of the medications prescribed for her, like glycerin, were then used to treat epilepsy. An extensive period of ophthalmic treatment she underwent in Boston may have been related to visual abnormalities associated with epilepsy and not to an unknown eye problem. The stigma attached to epilepsy was such that her family might well have been determined to keep her condition a secret, though — and this cuts both ways — other members of the family were reportedly prone to seizures.

All of this is pretty speculative, but it’s what Gordon does with the poetry that is most compelling. A sensitive reader and a great admirer of Dickinson’s work, Gordon is skillful at harnessing the poet’s words in the service of her biography. “ ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’. A plank in reason broke, she says, and ‘I dropped down, and down —’. She feels a ‘Cleaving’ in her brain, as though the lid of the brain gets ‘off my head’ and can’t re-attach.” Gordon finds evidence in Dickinson’s poetry for the aura that precedes a seizure (the “Presentiment”), as well as the violent onset (the “Thunderbolt” or “electric gale”), and finally the aftermath (the “Fog,” or “Languor,” or “Hour of Lead”). It’s a fascinating exercise in literary detection, though whether it’s true we’ll likely never know.

About half of “Lives Like Loaded Guns’’ is dedicated to this kind of exegesis, using the few facts of Dickinson’s life to decode her suggestive but often impenetrable poetry and enlisting her poetry to shed light on her decidedly mysterious life. Other interesting topics include the unknown subject of the “Master” poems; the question of Dickinson’s various loves; and a general analysis of her temperament, which Gordon describes as brilliant, spirited, self-centered, pent-up, and even occasionally alarming. The other half of the book is, as the subtitle suggests, devoted to the story of what was going on in the family, to wit, the hijinks of her brother, Austin, and his mistress, Mabel Todd.

After their parents died, Austin, Emily, and their younger sister, Lavinia, continued to live together in a pair of contiguous houses in Amherst, with Austin, his wife, Susan Gilbert, and their children occupying The Evergreens, while Emily and Lavinia lived in the Homestead next door. There was a path connecting the houses, and one of the closest relationships in this tight circle was between Emily and Sue, who is described as one of the most insightful of the poet’s early readers and a staunch supporter of her work.

Into this slightly claustrophobic setting in the early 1880s sweeps the handsome, talented, and ambitious Mrs. Mabel Todd, wife of an aspiring young academic. Mabel is invited to visit Sue and Austin at The Evergreens and learns of the reclusive poet-sister. Intrigued, she inveigles her way into the family. Austin, in his mid-50s, is smitten and begins an affair with Todd, which lasts until his death 12 years later.

It’s a strangely mesmerizing story, not least because of the gap it suggests between what was known to be true and what could be admitted in polite 19th-century society. Like Emily’s illness, the affair was never named for what it was, even as it was irreparably warping, even destroying, some of the most important relationships in this hermetic family society. For Gordon, however, the point lies elsewhere: in the respective roles that Sue and Mabel played in the poet’s development — Sue as early muse and coconspirator, Mabel as later editor and tireless promoter of Dickinson’s work. “What began as a split over adultery,” she writes, “turned into a feud over who was to own the poet.” It was a feud that was to last well into the 20th century, as supporters and descendents of the betrayed wife vied with supporters and descendents of Austin’s true love over which of them was the poet’s authentic literary heir.

And where is Emily in all this? Well, here and there. Although Gordon’s explicit task is “to approach Emily Dickinson through the feud,” she is at pains to remind us that the poet is a profoundly elusive creature. There is something about Dickinson that enables her to escape virtually every critical or biographical net: a way of giving that withholds. This is, in some sense, the essence of her work, as well as of her life perhaps. “Abyss has no biographer — ” she wrote. “Truth is bottomless,” adds Gordon, and Dickinson “herself almost invisible.”

Christina Thompson, author of the historical memoir “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All,’’ can be reached at

LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds By Lyndall Gordon

Viking, 491 pp., illustrated, $32.95