Kevin Saving on

Lyndall Gordon
Lives Like Loaded Guns - Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Virago (2011)

 

This, paperback, edition (the hardback came out last year) concerns itself with - and contributes towards- the ongoing battle for the 'soul' of one of America's most prominent, yet somehow elusive, poets: Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Most of Lives Like Loaded Guns (an adaptation of one of Emily's idiosyncratic phrases) details the power struggle over the poet's literary estate and legacy - after her death in 1886 - between Susan Dickinson (Emily's sister-in-law and confidant) and a remarkable 'outsider', Mabel Loomis Todd. This latter femme fatale first entered the family's lives in 1881 and was soon cavorting adulterously with the poet's adored and indulged brother, Austin, fairly remarkably in Emily's own residence, 'The Homestead', Amherst - even more remarkably, without ever once meeting her. It would be Mabel Loomis Todd who'd contrive much of the credit for jump-starting Emily Dickinson's posthumous poetic beatification, and her own continuing feud with one branch of the Dickinson family dragged on well into the next century via two daughters, her own - and Susan's (Emily's niece).
 
So far, so flimsy. Lyndall Gordon's book (which doesn't attempt to be a conventional biography) rather corners itself - partially through its author's discursive, sometimes 'purple' writing-style- into a usually stodgy, occasionally juicy, disquisition upon literary in-fighting. Lives Like Loaded Guns (sub-titled 'Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds') does, however, offer one entertaining and controversial conjecture: that the poet herself may have suffered from epilepsy. In part, this thesis can be substantiated by a selective reading of some of the 1789 poems Dickinson is known to have penned -only ten of which were published in her own lifetime.
 
  I felt a Cleaving in my mind-
  As if my Brain had split-
  I tried to match it -Seam by Seam-
  But could not make them fit-
 
  The thought behind, I strove to join
  Unto the thought before-
  But sequence ravelled out of sound-
  Like Balls -opon (sic) a floor-
 
and (again)
 
  There is a Fitting -a Dismay-
  A Fitting -a Despair-
  'Tis harder knowing it is Due
  Than knowing it is here.
 
If we take into account the disapproving attitude of nineteenth century Western society towards epilepsy, it is wholly plausible that the condition could have been responsible for Dickinson's famous, well-guarded but self-imposed seclusion. Also, as marriage was discouraged for epileptics at that time (some American states actively prohibiting it) it is feasible that the poet - who saw herself as 'by birth a batchelor' - would have felt herself debarred from matrimony.
 
Gordon marshals other, non-literary, evidence in support of her postulate: Dickinson was a long-term valetudinarian who was prescribed Glycerine (which was used, inter alia, by contemporaries as an anti-convulsant). She had at least one consultation, in her twenties, with an eminent Bostonian physician, a Dr Jackson, who not only made out the prescription but was notable for his long-term interest in, and sympathy for, epileptics. In her mid-thirties, Dickinson spent 'the best part of two years' in Boston seeking treatment for what presents as as a species of 'photosensitivity' -then, as now, closely linked with the 'aura' preceding seizures. Furthermore, epilepsy often contains a genetic component and the poet's family tree offers both a (second) cousin, 'Zebina', and a nephew, 'Ned' who suffered seizures. Quite close to the end of her life, Emily seems to have experienced a 'black out' of several hours duration. She was treated with a number of 'remedies' which 'doubled' as anti-convulsants (and which included both Arsenic and Strychnine). These may well have contributed to her death, aged fifty five - which was certificated under 'kidney failure'.
 
Speculation will continue to colour a significant portion of the literary historian's/biographer's remit, and this is all very well if not treated too credulously by their readers. A.J.Balfour wrote to the effect that he was generally happy when praised, not too uncomfortable when abused - but always distinctly 'uneasy' when being 'explained'. Very little is likely, now, either to further embellish or tarnish Dickinson's iconic status (even the revelation that she drowned four 'superfluous' kittens in a barrel of pickle brine). Her's stands as an agreeably 'feisty' and 'idiomatic' voice at a time when most females were not allowed such appurtenances. The amalgam of socio-economic-medical influences which either 'formed' her (or which, possibly, she had to use stratagems to circumvent) are necessarily of less interest than what she had to say - and the enigmatic way ('telling it slant') in which she chose to say it.
 

Kevin Saving © 2011