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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson

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If The Brontes reads like a dry, overdetailed textbook, Lyndall Gordon's biography of Emily Dickinson and the tale of what happened, later, to her poems, is the exact opposite, lurching between the tone of Serious Study and Overly Literary Novel, often awkwardly.

Mind you, what with rivalries and hints of bisexuality and hot sexual affairs keeping Emily Dickinson from tending her flowers and people having sex on the dining room table (we, er, infer, because, well, that was the room where they were doing it and, well, the room only had a table and chairs) and voyeurism and probable orgies (threesomes definitely, foursomes almost definitely) and the difficulty of chasing solar eclipses and the impact of said solar eclipses on orgies, voyeurism and publishing poetry (the lesson: it was apparently more difficult to combine solar eclipses and group sex in the Victorian age than many of us might have hoped) and terror of sex and lawsuits and drama queens and so on, it's perhaps not surprising that Gordon shifts to overwrought, dramatic writing, and occasionally seems to forget that she's writing a biography, not a novel.

The shifts in tone can be disconcerting, even with the fascinating subject matter. Probably the strongest part of the biography is the section where Gordon argues, persuasively, and without the novelistic interpolations, that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, then a socially stigmatizing disease, and chose to retreat from the world partly for her own safety and partly to conceal the frightening truth. This in turn led to her brother being able to use her house for many of his hot sexual encounters with the very married Mabel Todd – who would later edit many of Dickinson's poems and introduce her to the world.

The Todds practiced what would now be called an open marriage or polyamory and what was then Just Not Talked About. David Todd (the solar eclipse chaser) not only supported his wife's affair, he actively participated in it, with the three experimenting with voyeurism and orgies. But the other marriage in the affair was not as tolerant, and Sue Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's sister suffered deeply.

Exactly how Emily Dickinson felt about all of this (since the physical part of the affair happened in her house, and kept her from reaching her conservatory unless she wanted to walk in them, she had to have known) is not clear, although the biography speculates. What is clear is that the feud between romantic rivals Sue Dickinson and Mabel Todd was pursued by their daughters, delaying the publication and understanding of Emily Dickinson for decades.

Not that "understanding" appears here. Partially thanks to the writing (what with alien plants leaping up in New England and sending choking tendrils out to kill people with heart failure – seriously) and partly thanks to Dickinson, who I believe not-so-secretly loved to create an air of mystery and headed to her grave deliberately leaving puzzles and mysteries because the thought delighted her, Dickinson here remains – except in the discussion of her possible epilepsy – enigmatic, somehow unreal, especially in the midst of all of the other vibrant characters in the biography. And yet, once Dickinson dies midway through the book, something else dies as well; the rest of the book is considerably less compelling (possibly also because the sex and scandal also takes a nosedive at that point.) I'm not sure I'd recommend this book as a help for understanding Dickinson or her poetry, except perhaps in the places where her possible epilepsy may help unlock the meaning of some poems, but as a reminder that, no, Victorian America was not a model of sexual propriety where everybody stayed in nice two person families and never had sex outside marriage, and as a solid read, despite the theatricality, yes, I'd recommend this.

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Mari Ness

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