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Review: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon

Lyndall Gordon's new book is subtitled Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds. That gets the subject matter, and the order in which it appears, more or less right.

The first half of Lives Like Loaded Guns is an account of American poet Emily Dickinson's life. The second half deals with the complicated and vicious in-fighting that followed her death. Gordon (biographer of Virginia Woolf and Henry James, among others) has done her research. There's a generous bibliography and some 50 pages of notes, but Lives Like Loaded Guns - the title comes from a poem by Dickinson - is not in the least academic. It has a few interesting axes to grind and some theories to push, but it's never anything short of readable, its language, at times, just on the good side of "breathless," as it tells its rather lurid story of sickness, inspiration, adultery, vendetta and even, briefly, group sex and voyeurism in 19th-century New England.

Both halves of Gordon's story are enthralling. Her Emily Dickinson is independent-minded, somewhat irreligious and cruel. She's not at all the naïve and innocent shut-in that her earliest biographers depicted. (In one instance, she drowns four "superfluous" kittens in a barrel of brine and forgets them there until they stink.) Gordon presents a plausible picture of a poet whose thinking is as complex as, say, T. S. Eliot's - Eliot was Dickinson's distant cousin.

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But the surprise is Gordon's probing of the "role-playing" at the heart of Dickinson's work, a role-playing that allows the poet to create and inhabit the complex personae in her work, a work that begins in reality but moves to the strange symbol world at the heart of Dickinson's imagination. Clearly, Gordon's Dickinson is influenced by Camille Paglia's. She is sadomasochistic, violent, an earth daemon chained up in a spinster's drawing room. But she is also deeply philosophical, her poetry possessing the stillness and light of the natural world she turned to for solace. Like that of all great writers, Dickinson's work does not come when called.

At the heart of Emily Dickinson's story there has always been a mystery. Why was she a shut-in, one who was allowed by her religious family to skip church whenever she felt like it? Why did she avoid the company of all but a very select few? What was there in silence and dim light that she needed?

The easiest answer - the most common - is that she was some variety of "neurotic": lovesick, heartbroken, overly sensitive to stimuli, what have you. Gordon doesn't think so and she provides a believable cause for Dickinson's seclusion: epilepsy. Gordon has no positive proof of this. Epilepsy was thought a shameful affliction in the 19th century. As Gordon suggests, her family would have hidden her condition and even destroyed record of it, in order to preserve their Emily's reputation. But Gordon's case is well-presented. There was epilepsy in the Dickinson family, for one thing. There are records of Emily having unnamed "episodes" of illness, for another. And, then, we have some pharmaceutical records, in particular a prescription for drugs then given to epileptics. But what's elegant about Gordon's case is that, with little fuss, it makes sense of Dickinson's personal habits and her family's indulgence of her. Epilepsy, if Dickinson was epileptic, also grounds the visionary element in Dickinson's work in her physical experience, an interesting tack.

The second half of the Lives Like Loaded Guns deals with the decades-long consequences of an adulterous affair between Emily's brother Austin and a woman named Mabel Loomis Todd. Where the first half is a look at the effects of "genius" and vision on an artist, the second examines genius' sometimes bitter legacy. Dickinson's family was torn apart by the affair, and Mabel Loomis Todd appears to have been something of an adventuress.

But the story becomes more and more complex. Though Austin's wife, Sue, was actually close to Emily (she was Emily's first close reader and admirer), Mabel Loomis Todd was the first to painstakingly transcribe and edit Dickinson's work, a task for which she received little money and, at least initially, only fleeting credit. Both parties used Dickinson's posthumous reputation for self-aggrandizement. Both parties, Austin's wife and his lover, tried to write the other out of Dickinson's story. Not only that but, once Sue and Mabel were dead, their daughters took up the feud and continued to publish or suggest scurrilous things about Sue Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd.

This is the part of the book where Gordon's relative impartiality is invaluable. Though her sympathy is clearly with Sue Dickinson, who has been much maligned on feeble evidence, she refuses to bash the "Toddites." She points out the obfuscations and lies of both sides, from Mabel Todd's defacement of Dickinson's manuscript - in order to erase a mention of Sue - to the Dickinsons' efforts to have Todd's herculean editing written out of the history of Dickinson's work. It's a fascinating - sometimes appalling - story. The arguments and counter-arguments are like skirmishes in a long, relatively pointless war. But Gordon is a great guide to the proceedings. She examines the hurt feelings, the family drama at the heart of the war and, so, makes the stakes, personal and historical, absolutely clear.

I mentioned above that Lyndall Gordon's style is, at times, a little "heated." And I was going to give an example, but on reflection, I think the feeling of melodrama comes as much from how the book is organized. We begin with Austin's adultery, an infidelity that hangs over the proceedings until, having gone back in time, we come to it at last in its proper place. And then we watch the playing out of a surprisingly tawdry familial drama. The book is a conscious intermingling of scholarly research, The Scarlet Letter, Bleak House and the feeling suggested by Bernini's sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. I expected a more restrained book. But Lives Like Loaded Guns is the intellectually engaging biography of a New England poet that doubles as a great summer read.

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André Alexis's new book, Beauty and Sadness, will be published this fall.

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