A poet’s secrets

2010-11-17 00:00

LYNDALL Gordon is known for the thoroughness of her research and meticulous attention to detail and this work is no different from her other biographies in that regard. It differs, however, due to the complexity of the secrets surrounding her chosen subject.

Emily Dickinson was the most reclusive of poets, famous for living in seclusion at her father’s house after an unspoken event at college required her to abandon her studies. There she remained, dressed always in white according to the few who saw her, tended by her parents until their death, and then by her sister Lavinia and a faithful family servant until she died of natural causes at the age of 55. This apparently sedate lifestyle belied her turbulent inner life. In the early hours of the morning, poems exploded out of her like bullets in a style which confounded the few publishers who saw them during her lifetime.

Mystery surrounded her seclusion. Was it unrequited love? Rumours abounded, during her life and even more so after it. A lover is indeed her intended recipient in a series of poems and letters addressed to “Master.”

Gordon blows a lid on much of the speculation. She uses her fine researcher’s eye to put one and one together and to solve the cause of the mystery. Once Gordon states the reason she believes is behind Emily Dickinson’s seclusion, it seems obvious, like all problems once solved. But it takes an exceptional and unusual mind to break the initial code. Gordon is adept at piecing together apparently insignificant details while remaining resistant to received wisdom. Her revelation makes enormous sense but I won’t give it away.

Lives Like Loaded Guns is also about the intimates around the poet as a family feud develops. An ambitious young woman, Mabel Todd, wants to possess Emily and her talent and also her family. She won’t stop until she gets what she wants. Gordon redresses the balance of an unashamed character assassination through the past 100 years of one of Emily’s closest confidantes, her sister-in-law Sue Dickinson. In doing so, she exposes an undercurrent of raw sexuality which seethed beneath the Puritan exteriors of some of the New England inhabitants.

This is an intensely detailed, rich and fascination biography. It requires thoughtful reading as Gordon unstitches the patches of received testimony, archival facts and hearsay to expose what really lay beneath the quilt of secrecy surrounding the almost mythical poet. It’s the best read I’ve had so far this year.

Janet van Eeden


Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds

Lyndall Gordon


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