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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Hardcover – 4 Feb 2010
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** 'This book is unforcedly and powerfully original (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
** 'Gordon takes the lid off the violent emotional life of the Dickinson family and its far-reaching effects on the poet's work. What she exposes is a seething Peyton Place of adultery, betrayal and lifelong feuding. Lyndall Gordon has opened the way to (LITERARY REVIEW)
** 'Gordon makes this story venomous, thrilling, shocking, impassioned and sometimes darkly farcical. The myth is Saint Emily. Gordon reveals the sarcastic, sexual, sophisticated, self-assured woman . . . Gordon's book makes you read Dickinson again with polished eyes: expect it on the prize lists soon (SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY)
** 'As Gordon tells it, this story of the terrible fascination Dickinson exerted on her heirs is as rich as a novel by Henry James. There is the same complexity of motives, the same grim comedy . . . "Tell the truth but tell it slant" was Dickinson's advi (DAILY TELEGRAPH)
* The acclaimed biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf and Henry James, turns now to the life of Emily Dickinson, one of America's best-loved poetsSee all Product description
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The first half of this book is an intelligent, almost academic, study of Dickinson's life and poetry. The second half is a Heat magazine ready expose of the sexual shenanigans of her brother and his lover. This is followed by an account of the repercussions of this affair for Emily's legacy.
I didn't always find this a convincing book but Gordon makes her arguments with some passion. The intense yet claustrophobic nature of Dickinson's life and family situation comes over well as does the social setting. So this is far from the final word on Dickinson but is definitely a book worth reading.
It's a page-turner. I could not put it down and yet counselled myself to read more slowly so as to savour Gordon's insights and style. Wit and human sympathy keep company in these pages: Gordon's characterisation is powerful. She has the novelist's knack of showing her people extemporising their lives. This novelistic gift is earthed by meticulous fair-mindedness. Austin and Susan Dickinson and Mabel Todd are scintillatingly present; much of the narrative takes place after Emily Dickinson's death but somehow we feel the poet all the more as a haunting presence in the aftermath of her death, as the competing family attempts to seize and possess her ghost, often to tragicomic effect.
In the end Emily Dickinson preserves her mystery, as does her poetry. What Lyndall Gordon gives us is a sense of her compelling reality, as if a candle had only just been blown out in a dark room - so that we retain a pregnant and exact after-image. I have read all Gordon's biographies so far and impatiently await the next one.
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.
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