Sunday 21 July 2019

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

(Virago, £20)

Thousands of teenagers are currently studying Emily Dickinson for the Leaving Cert. Almost every one of them, you can be sure, has got her image wrong in their heads. The long-established picture is of a prim little Victorian virgin, dressed all in white, living like a hermit and writing prim little poems in 19th century Massachusetts.

The truth is Dickinson had a flinty and sarcastic personality, a deeply passionate sexual nature, and she lived in a family riven by adultery, multiple abortions, lesbianism, greed for land, death threats and much else besides.

What this book doesn't tell you in sufficient detail was that Emily's maid, fixer, go-between and, arguably, her closest friend was from Tipperary. Maggie Maher, 'the North wind of the family', knew everything, and she kept all the poems locked up in a trunk in her room. Nor does this book tell you much about Emily's other Irish servants, six in all, who carried her coffin to the grave in 1886.

Maggie was extremely bright and she was literate. There is an intriguing possibility that she sent regular letters home and that they survive -- if so they are worth a small fortune. On this side of the Atlantic we don't appreciate how big Dickinson is in America. Deservedly so, too.

It might be an exaggeration to say that she is the best poet in the English language since Shakespeare, but it wouldn't be a big one.

In contrast to our ignorance about Shakespeare, we know a great deal about Emily's family. Her prosperous Old Testament father was Treasurer of Amherst College in Massachusetts, which was founded by her grandfather. She had a cold mother, a sister, disappointed in love, and a brother, Austin, as broodingly handsome as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Emily was well-educated, but, being a woman, there wasn't much for her to do except marry a suitable man. But the burdens she carried were heavier than the weight imposed by her gender, and she enjoyed, after all, a life of privilege. Actually, it's a mistake to think of Dickinson's obsessions with death and immortality as burdens -- a good deal of her greatness lies in the defiant lightness of her engagement with last things.

There was, too, a degree of comedy in Dickinson's life. Some of it was unintentional: men inclined to condescend to her and not to realise they were being made fun of by one of the subtlest intelligences in the history of literature. The many girls she swamped with love -- the only thing lacking in the case for Emily being gay is evidence -- ran away from her as far as their legs could carry them, largely because her intensity was unbearable.

What exposed the fault lines in the Dickinson family was the arrival in Amherst of Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David. The Todds were, even for our times, an unusually liberated couple sexually. Mabel promptly seduced Austin and, seemingly with her husband's approval, continued the affair for years.

Not surprisingly, Austin's wife, Susan, despite keeping up appearances, hated Mabel. As for Emily, she stayed in her room, listened to Mabel's (excellent) singing, knew she was regularly having sex with her brother downstairs -- but never met her.

Gordon argues that the reclusivity was because Emily was suffering from epilepsy. The argument, though interesting, is by no means conclusive.

In a wider sense the story is as complex as a Henry James novel, though James, even at his most convoluted, never attempted a scene involving a sexual foursome, which the Todds, Austin and another woman may have engaged in.

The chief merit of Gordon's book is that it charts the complexity of this and other intricate family secrets, even after Emily's death. Unfortunately, she attempts to imitate Dickinson's immensely condensed style, with results that are sometimes absurd. As ever, what remains and amazes is the original poetry.

It would be nice to think that one of the present crop of Leaving Cert students will one day shine a light on the Maggie Maher story.

Brian Lynch is a poet, novelist and screenwriter

Irish Independent

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