The first half of the book follows Emily's life and death in Amherst, New England. Neither she nor her sister Lavinia ever married, and her brother Austin, after his marriage, build and lived in a house next door. She benefitted from a good education and went on briefly to one of the first women's colleges in the US. They lived a very quiet life, rarely venturing far from their home town. I liked the idea that she showed early signs of her unconventional nature, resisting social pressure while she was at school to a public confession of faith that accompanied a religious 'revival' of the time:
"Emily rejects not religion, but coercion. Signalling from behind her public failure is an intelligence collected enough to combat bullies who want to take over her mind and hardwire into it a formulaic 'tale - the 'tale' of all fundamentalist faiths that close down the right to freedom of judgement. This negates the intellectual development for which she had come to college and, at the same time, negates notions of self-reliance she had come upon in the essays of Emerson. She talked appreciatively of visits from her fellow students, but sensed that these attentions were not friendship as she understood it. Thought she did have the moral support of her father and brother, they were not on the scene and undoubtedly the strength to face this out alone came from herself: 'I generally carry my resolutions to effect', she had reminded her brother in a lighter mood. It's an accurate self-estimate of a young woman of extraordinary integrity and firmness." (p.46-7)
The social standing of the family contributed to a circle of people who went on to influence Emily, exposing her to writing and ideas. She formed many friendships over her lifetime and sustained them through correspondence, though from the description in the book I got the impression that she was a very intense young woman and would often alienate others by the ferocity of her friendship. She craved intellectual companions, people to discuss literature and writing, and it was still considered an unusual thing for a woman to be educated and opinionated. The book talks much about the social attitudes of the time towards women, and the generally small-town conservative attitudes that predominated.
"To marry would be to lose this freedom to follow her natural rhythm, no husband would have tolerated her timetable as her father did, and soon there would have been babies to fill the hours. The poet Julia Ward Howe found herself silenced by her husband Samuel Grindley Howe after she published Passion Flowers in 1854. 'The Heart's Astronomy' reveals the wife's affinity for a 'comet dire and strange' as she paces round and round the house, while children smile from its windows. The book made a sensation but Mr Howe was so displeased to hear of 'wild, erratic natures' tethered to domesticity ('Between extremes distraught and rent') that he delivered an ultimatum: if his wife continued to publish in this vein he would end the marriage and take the children. His threats bought Mrs Howe to heel." (p.82)
Their mother sank into illness and became bedridden and Emily and Lavinia between them care for her and maintained the house; they were affluent but not so wealthy as to not do their own domestic chores. The book puts forward the theory however that the main cause of Emily's seclusion was that she suffered from epilepsy, something that, at the time, would have carried a stigma and would not have been admitted in polite society. She has bouts of illness over the years and, though she maintained a vigorous correspondence, gradually became more selective about who she would socialise with at the house. Her withdrawal from society grew however until for the final fifteen years of her life she was completely reclusive.
At the same time she was writing. During her lifetime only a tiny number of poems were published, and these often were 'tampered' with by editors to make them more appropriate and acceptable as writing by a woman. Her closest friendship was with her sister-in-law Susan and they both visited and corresponded on an almost daily basis and Emily shared hundreds of poems with her. I think it is what is fascinating about her writing is that she did it for herself, and for a small private audience, not because she had something she wanted to say to the world.
"For Dickinson, the vital open-handedness of improvisation outweighed the permanence of print. Here was a positive reason to develop an alternative to publication: the well-established practice of circulating manuscripts. This was customary, of course, before Gutenberg invented printing ... Private circulation of manuscripts would seem to be superseded; still, the practice did not end. ... In the early nineteenth century, Byron, as an aristocrat, scorned publication and affected to toss off poems with careless ease, though he did stoop to publish - upon persuasion - and in1812 famously woke up famous. ... It was part of the modernist ethos to speak only to discerning readers, while in the Soviet bloc dissident literature was disseminated privately because publication was dangerous.
So, for aristocratic, political, or experimental reasons, texts continued to exist in private hands, often associated with contempt for the compliant herd. This elitism puts the unpublished texts above the masses; it reverses the educative mission of print, to be found in mid-nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens, whom Dickinson read and quoted. All the same, despite pleading for the poor, Dickens did not jar the well-to-do; he upheld the social divisions." (p.142)
The predominant part of the book however covers the arrival in Emily's life of Mabel Loomis Todd. She arrived as a young academic wife and found herself drawn to the Dickinsons, becoming friends with both Lavinia and Susan, and becoming fascinated with Emily's writing, but never actually meeting Emily herself. Her influence on what followed however came in the fact that she and Austin Dickinson fell in love and began an affair that was to tear the family in two. While Lavinia acted as 'facilitator' of the affair over many years, Emily steadfastly refused to have contact with Mabel. All the while Mabel tried, and failed, to tear Austin away from his family. The children sided with Susan and this laid the groundwork for the feud that would cross the generations.
In private Emily began the process of editing and collecting her poems into hand sew books, but the extent of her writing was not even discovered until after her death.
For years it was Mabel's work as transcriber and editor of the papers left after her death that was the dominant influence on the interpretation of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. However this work was tainted by Mabel's efforts to deny the place of Susan in Emily's life; her own desire to have Susan removed from Austin's life seemed to cloud her judgement, when it seemed that mostly she was very scrupulous to maintain the integrity of Emily's writing:
"A strange scene takes place in the middle of 1891, when the biographical project has barely begun. Mabel, with Austin's collusion, begins to tamper with the overwhelming evidence of Emily's bond with Susan. A booklet containing 'One sister have I in the house/And one a hedge away' is taken apart so as to remove the poem. Emily's sewing holes are cut to disguise the poem's place in the booklet, but though the page is thus mutliated, and torn in two places, it's not destroyed for the sake of another poem on the verso. Using black ink the mutilator scores out all the lines and, most heavily, the climax 'Sue - forevermore!'
The text survives only because Susan retained the copy sent across the grass in the late 1850s. There are similar mutilations of many letters, especially Emily's early letters to Austin, written when he was in love with Sue, and letters to Sue filled with Emily's parallel, more entrancing ardour. All mutilations are designed to obliterate the poet's attachment to 'Sister'." (p.267)
"At the same time, Todd did bring out the explosive character of the 'startling little poetic bombs', as though earthquakes, bolts, the revolver pointed at an unwanted self, and a life that stood a loaded gun had no connection with the ghostly writer. This blend of truth and evasion was to characterise future legend. Todd did encounter words like blades but, as mouthpiece for the family, never mentioned this, any more than Jane Austen's family saw fit to mention her sarcasm. Nineteenth-century families project an image of an authoress as retiring lady who gif shades into an uneventful life. Nothing could be said of sickness, love, adultery or the rising fire of the feud." (p.275)
What was a love affair went on to become a fight for the rights to Emily's legacy. Mabel put in years of work on Emily's often illegible handwritten poems and was promised some reward by Lavinia. Although early editions of the poetry sold well there was still not really a great deal of money to be made from poetry. Legal fights began, over copyright, but also over a tract of land supposedly given to Mabel by Austin, adjacent to the house that he had built for her and her husband. Mabel and Susan thus ended up holding part of the collection of papers that Emily left, and even then there remained hundreds of poems that were stored unread and unpublished for years. The intrigue and insults goes on for decades, as Mabel makes a living lecturing about Emily, but is unable to establish legal rights over the writing itself. As we move in to the 20th century Susan and Mabel's daughters, Mattie and Millicent, take over the feud, continue to publish further poems, and fight over what should happen to the papers.
One last quote that I loved but was a little bemused by, I was left wondering why paper was in such short supply; they were not poor or deprived, I assume it was not so expensive, so why did she do so much writing on scraps?
"... but in many instances of poems jotted illegibly on cast-off scraps (on the inside of used envelopes - a favourite source of paper - on tiny bits of stationery pinned together, on discarded bills, on invitations and programmes, on leaves torn from old notebooks, on soiled, mildewed subscription blanks, on drugstore bargain flyers, on a wrapper of Chocolat Menier, on the reverse of recipes, on shopping lists and on the cut-off margins of newspapers), the editor had been daunted for a long time and it was only in the last three years that she had brought herself to decipher these." (p.364-5)
I had often wondered, on hearing the story of Emily's seclusion, what does someone have to write about if you never go out into the world and experience things. What you find from her story is that even if she was physically contained, emotionally and intellectually she was curious and adventurous.
It felt tragic that all these people who claimed to love and admire Emily Dickinson used her as a battle ground for so long, but it was, I confess, the battle that made this such an engaging book. I was totally sucked in to the family drama. Mabel is much the strongest personality in the story; Emily, as her reputation dictates, remains somewhat elusive and was so wrapped up in her poetry that it seems that she was not interested in what might happen to it. Although I did not like Mabel it was undoubtably her efforts that did ensure a lasting legacy for Emily, but it was Susan who really recognised and nurtured the poet in her and who's friendship was the foundation of her life.
One Sister have I in this house
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded.
But both belong to me.
One came the road that I came -
And wore my last year's gown -
The other, as a bird her nest
Builded our hearts among.
She did not sing as we did -
It was a different tune -
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.
Today is far from Childhood -
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter -
Which shortened all the miles -
And still her hum
The years among,
Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.
I spilt the dew -
But took the morn -
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers -
Sue - forevermore!