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This review is from: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds (Hardcover)
Lyndall Gordon's account of Emily Dickinson's life takes the revisionist view. She dispels the popularly held belief that Emily was a slightly mad loner, shy and chaste, whose only commitment was to poetry, by placing her centre stage in an eccentric family wrought with tangled relationships. But this is a book that is not only about Emily's life, it covers also the machinations in and around the Dickinson family that took place long after her death.
Emily's's devotion to her writing caused her to become more reclusive (though Gordon suggests another reason for this) and she laboured at it for years, unrecognised and unacknowledged by the outside world. It was only within the family that she had a forum - at salons in her brother Austin's house, where her sister-in law Susan used to recite the poems on her behalf.
A regular visitor to the salons was one Mabel Todd, a young married woman. Mabel saw the genius in Emily's work and, sensing an opportunity to promote this talent, sought to get to know her by way of having an adulterous relationship with Emily's brother Austin. She tried for five years - incidentally the last five years of the poet's life - but Emily would not meet with her.
After Emily's death, a cache of her poems was found. Mabel set about gaining access to them, and did so by persuading Austin to make the other Dickinson sister, Lavinia, hand them over to her in order to get them published. However there was competition regarding how the work should be presented to the public in the person of Susan, who was in effect Emily's choice as `the keeper of her flame' and who had a collection of poems given to her by Emily. Thus the scene was set for a bout of rivalry between Mabel and Susan over Emily's two-part legacy.
Then there was the matter of a family feud, the details of which take up most of the second half of this enthralling book, when Mabel claimed the right to a strip of land on the Dickinson estate as recompense for her efforts to bring Emily's work to a wider audience. On this, and the abovementioned rivalry, the author is even-handed with her treatment of the approaches of Mabel and the Dickinson family members.
However the controversy rolled on; the two adversaries, Mabel and Susan being superseded by their daughters, who each produced a book about Emily, with the conflict coming to a head in the 1950s over the sale of the Dickinson papers.
The author has trawled the comprehensive archives relating to the Dickinson family and has come up with an account of the poet's life that brings the content of her poems more clearly into focus than has hitherto been the case, as well as attending to the Dickinson family's tribulations with meticulous detail.