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A door to Emily Dickinson's past

AMHERST -- More than 100 years after her death, the poet Emily Dickinson keeps a firm grip on the public imagination.

An unconventional documentary, "Loaded Gun: Life, Death, and Dickinson," released in December, explores the question of "whether anyone had ever gotten past second base with her." One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the reclusive poet is the identity of "Master," to whom she wrote many letters.

Last month, the ornate wrought-iron gate that guarded Dickinson's cemetery plot in Amherst -- and was missing for two decades -- was found at an antique shop in Vermont. A customer recognized it.

Next month, Harvard University Press will publish "The Gardens of Emily Dickinson" by Judith Farr. More than a third of Dickinson's poems allude to flowers; the book details how her knowledge of horticulture informed the metaphors in her poems.

This month, a scandalous yet seminal figure in her life has been thrown into high relief, with a new tour at what is now the Emily Dickinson Museum, one street away from a recently opened bed-and-breakfast in a house with a sinful past.

The figure is Mabel Loomis Todd, a painter, piano teacher, and the mistress of Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, a lawyer. Disgracing the family, he built a house for Mabel and her husband, David Peck Todd, an astronomy professor at Amherst College and one of Austin's friends.

Mabel Todd was a force to be reckoned with. She ran with the wolves and had tea with the ladies. She is said to be the first woman of European descent to climb Mount Fuji and she was the founder of the Amherst Historical Society. Her most important legacy, however, is as co-editor of the first two volumes of Emily's poems and sole editor of the third volume. She also collected and published two volumes of Emily's letters.

"If Austin and Mabel didn't have an affair, Emily's poems may never have been published," said Micki Sanderson, now co-owner of the house Austin Dickinson built for his mistress. The 1886 Todd House, a B&B operated by Sanderson and her partner, Lisa Sanderson, is a short walk from the house Austin shared with his wife, Susan, and their three children.

As testimony to the intertwined lives of Austin and Emily, their adjacent homes have been joined into one museum. The consolidation is being celebrated with special activities today through Saturday. A new joint tour debuted this month, the prominence of the Dickinsons in Amherst and the family strife -- known here as the War Between the Houses -- that arose from Austin's affair.

Austin's house, with its dark, cluttered interior, offers a stark contrast to the spare furnishings in the Emily's house, the Homestead. Opened this month for the first time is the nursery on the second floor. Here, the Austin's youngest child, Gilbert, died of typhoid at age 8 in 1883. His parents were so devastated that they shut the door and the room remained untouched. Today, the boy's velocipede and his rocking horse stand ready for play. In a letter to Susan shortly after the boy's death, Emily wrote: "I see him / in the Star, / and meet his sweet velocity in every- / thing that flies."

For a glimpse of the life Austin's mistress enjoyed, consider a stay at her former home (599 Main St.; 413-253-5000). None of her furniture has survived, but 30 works of art Mabel painted are displayed throughout the house, on permanent loan from the Amherst Historical Society.

Mabel and Emily never met face to face, but they exchanged letters. Emily wrote poems for Mabel. Mabel played the piano for Emily, who stayed in her room upstairs.

Sanderson did not know the history of the house when she walked in as a prospective buyer last year. Now, she is always eager to learn more about its past

"I was hoping it was haunted," she said, "but it's not."

Jan Gardner can be reached at

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