Until just a few days ago all I knew about Emily Dickinson was that "hope is the thing with feathers" and she lived (and died) in Massachusetts. (In high school I thought for the longest time that Massachusetts was critical to literary success; it wasn't until we got to Hemingway that we found an American author who was from New England.)
I've always felt a little bad about knowing so little about such a great poet so when the buzz started about Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, I paid attention. The book went onto my wish list last year and my husband bought it for me for Christmas. I finally started it about a week ago and after some slow going in the beginning, I felt myself get sucked in more and more. By the end I was positively beside myself with who was going to end up controlling her literary legacy and I now feel confident discussing just who Dickinson was and what she accomplished.
Now where is that dreadful American Lit teacher when I need her? I'M READY FOR MY TEST AT LAST!!!
Gordon does an excellent job of using Dickinson's poems and letters (and her family's letters) to buoy her narrative. This bogged me down a bit in the opening chapters as I am not familiar with much of her work so the constant quotes broke up the reading for me. But I understand why Gordon was doing it and I respect that she chose to work this way. She is clearly not just pulling her thoughts out of the air - the biography comes from Dickinson and her family. This is important as a big part of what Gordon does here is [nicely] tear apart the work of others who have written about her subject.
I feel like I should mention spoilers here but since Dickinson has been dead for over a hundred years that seems pretty silly. (So look away if you want to discover her secrets on your own.) Gordon strongly suggests that the poet suffered from epilepsy which makes a lot of sense when you think about her choice (supported by her family) to live a reclusive life. More than that however, the story is about Austin Dickinson (Emily's brother), his first marriage with a woman who was much beloved by the family, and the manner in which he became embroiled in a long term affair with a married woman (sanctioned by her cheating husband). The family dysfunction is EPIC - I can't imagine what their Thanksgiving dinners were like - and had a terrible affect on all of their lives. Ultimately Emily and Austin die, the mistress bonds [for awhile] with the surviving sister and becomes Emily's primary editor (and largely responsible for getting her poems out to the world initially), more havoc is wrought between the sister, Lavinnia, her sister-in-law, the wronged Susan, and the determined mistress, Mabel. The dysfunction moves to the next generation as Susan's only surviving child and Mabel's daughter keep on fighting the fight. In the end it is kind a miracle that Dickinson's original papers survived or that anyone would ever be patient enough to sort through all of this mess and get to the bottom of it.
Three cheers then for Lyndall Gordon!
I learned a lot, I enjoyed what I learned and I really wish that some small part of this story could have been shared with me in high school. It makes me feel a lot more for Emily Dickinson up in her room, stuck putting up with her brother's cheating because he pays the bills that keep a roof over her head (and she can't support herself) (stupid 19th century sexism!), and putting all of her big emotions into her writing. This is really interesting stuff and not to be missed.
[Post pic is the UK edition - love this cover.]