“My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — / In Corners — till a Day”. So begins the 1863 poem by Emily Dickinson that provides the leitmotif for this biography. Lyndall Gordon (senior research fellow, St Hilda's College) specialises in the exploration of women's lives. Her new book deals with a group of individuals whose lives were like “loaded guns”.
Dickinson published 10 poems in her lifetime and left behind 1,789 others. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” she wrote. Gordon tells it straight. Setting aside the legend of the spinster in a white dress, she presents Dickinson as a spirited, highly educated woman.
The family division began in 1882. Dickinson's brother Austin fell in love with the married Mabel Loomis Todd. Many of the lovers' meetings took place in the house where the poet lived with her sister Lavinia, next door to Austin and his wife Susan, Emily's girlhood friend and finest reader.
When Dickinson died, her sister handed over the manuscripts to Mabel, who published a collection. In the next generation, Mabel's daughter Millicent and Susan's daughter Martha produced rival editions and biographies.
Gordon's biography is both a family saga of Jamesian complexity and a compelling story of the shaping of a literary oeuvre.