I finished “Lives Like Loaded Guns”, a new biography of Emily Dickinson by Lyndall Gordon. Gordon proposes that Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle may have resulted from her epilepsy, which Gordon thinks she had as a result of some poems, letters, and some prescriptions for (ineffective) drugs that were filled for her. Epilepsy, with its loss of control, was shameful in the 19th century, especially for women.
Gordon weighs in on the “Master” letters, erotic and masochistic fantasies. There was no actual “master” in Dickinson’s life – Gordon dismisses each possible candidate. There are no definitive answers about Dickinson’s love life – she had a deep emotional and intellectual attachment to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, but the speculation that they were lovers is unconfirmed. Emily did have erotic attachments to several men, including, late in her life, Judge Otis Lord, to whom she wrote: “"I will not wash my arm; 'twill take your touch away."
Emily died in 1886. In 1882 her brother Austin (who lived next door) started an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd. Of course his wife Susan was one of Emily’s dearest friends (and possibly a lover). Todd’s husband was a free love advocate and an astronomer at Amherst. Mabel was a young beauty – some 25 years younger than Austin – and the affair continued until Austin’s death, five or more years after Emily’s.
Mabel was an energetic, intelligent woman, and edited and published a book of Emily’s poems in 1890. The book was an immediate success. Susan Gilbert Dickinson, who had in possession additional poems, tried with little success to duplicate the success of the original. Lavinia Dickinson, Emily’s sister with whom she shared a house, worked with Mabel at first, but then they feuded and the family feud lasted for 70 years, with Mabel’s and Austin’s daughters taking up the fight into the mid twentieth century. The image of Emily Dickinson as a ghostly figure, dressed in white, came from Mabel Todd, who communicated with Emily through notes, but never talked to her face to face. This was true despite the fact that Mabel and Austin met 4 or 5 times a week in Lavinia and Emily’s house, presumably in lovers’ trysts.
The title of the book comes from this spectacular Dickinson poem:
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--