Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy

Emily Dickinson i i

hide captionA lifelong resident of New England, Emily Dickinson died in 1886. This is the only confirmed photograph of Dickinson in existence.

Courtesy Amherst College Library
Emily Dickinson

A lifelong resident of New England, Emily Dickinson died in 1886. This is the only confirmed photograph of Dickinson in existence.

Courtesy Amherst College Library
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
By Lyndall Gordon
Hardcover, 512 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $32.95
Read an Excerpt

A week after Emily Dickinson died in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia opened drawers in the reclusive poet's bedroom and found a veritable treasure trove: nearly 1,800 poems, meticulously crafted by Dickinson during her lifetime.

But the discovery of the poems set off a multi-generational family feud within the Dickinson family over the poet's posthumous publication and her legacy. Writer Lyndall Gordon, a senior research fellow at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, describes the fight between Dickinson's sister-in-law Susan, and Susan's husband's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, in a new biography of Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns.

"It would have seemed natural to everyone that Susan, who had been Emily Dickinson's support as a poet and keenest reader, should be the one to edit and publish the poems," Gordon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[But] after Emily Dickinson's death, she sent a poem to the foremost New York editor of the day, Richard Watson Gilder ... [and] he rejected Emily Dickinson's poem."

Nine months later, Mabel Loomis Todd — the mistress of Emily Dickinson's brother Austin — took matters into her own hands. Every few days, she typed up several of Dickinson's poems and started to send them to publishers. And she was successful: Four years after Dickinson's death, the first volume of her poetry was published.

Todd heavily edited Dickinson's poems, Gordon says. It wasn't until 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson published the Complete Poems, that Dickinson's writings were published without alteration from the manuscript versions.

Gordon says that several of those unaltered poems offer clues about why Dickinson rarely left her home: She may have had epilepsy. Several of her poems touch on a handicap — and, Gordon says, certain lines within those poems indicate that Dickinson may have had spells.

"I think that we have no way of knowing for certain," Gordon says. "But if it's true, it would explain everything. If there was this stigma associated with epilepsy, the best solution for her would have been for her to remain in what she called 'my father's house.' ... She was protected by her father and by her sister Lavinia. She had a comfortable room. She had the time and space to write poetry. If she had married, she would have had babies every year and many more domestic duties."

Lyndall Gordon has previously written biographies of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Wollstonecraft.


Lyndall Gordon i i

hide captionGordon is the author of Eliot's Early Years, Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft.

John Marriott
Lyndall Gordon

Gordon is the author of Eliot's Early Years, Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft.

John Marriott

Interview Highlights

On the possibility that Dickinson had epilepsy

"Her handicap or whatever we want to call it was connected with her visionary life. And that was an exultant life. She often suggests that she might have some handicap. She says in one of her poems 'My lost by sickness — Was it Loss? / Or that Etherial Gain — / One earns by measuring the Grave / Then — measuring the Sun.' She's being ambivalent and truthful about what she calls her sickness because she both suffers [and] she feels a certain kind of death, but at the same time, there are spiritual gains."

On Dickinson's brother Austin

"Austin Dickinson and his wife, Susan, were the social leaders of the town [of Amherst, Mass.] And Austin Dickinson was called the Squire. He inherited the title from his father. He was a man of grave bearing and great aplomb, and nobody would have suspected looking at him, as he strode through the town tapping his cane, that he would ever fall into the folly of passion. But that's what happened. And what I would say is that behind every character ... there is an abyss. There is a history. So it's not simply a sensational, physical passion, though it was a physical passion. ... Austin Dickinson's marriage was not entirely happy. Susan Dickinson was somebody who had suffered a terrible shock at the age of 20 when her most beloved sister died in childbirth or died right after childbirth. Susan didn't want to marry. And she wore black for a long time after her sister's death. She was an intelligent woman who tried to find other means of supporting herself so she didn't have to marry, but she was unable to do so. And Austin was the most eligible bachelor in town."

On Dickinson's relationship with Susan, her sister-in-law

"[Emily] sent 276 poems next-door to Susan Dickinson. That was more than twice the number she sent to anyone else. And she affirmed, in letters, that Susan Dickinson was in the know. She said, 'You know.' She gave assent to Susan Dickinson as her preferred reader. And Susan Dickinson was a bookish woman. I think she bought about 2,000 to 3,000 books in her lifetime. She was somebody who read the best, even better than Emily Dickinson — the real classics, like the Brontes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot — and she and Emily Dickinson were reading together. So she's a terribly important person in Emily Dickinson's life, and Emily Dickinson adored her. But the letters are almost ardent. And some think that there was some element of same-sex love, but we can't prove that."

On Dickinson's legacy

"It would have seemed natural to everyone that Susan, who had been Emily Dickinson's support as a poet and keenest reader, should be the one to edit and publish the poems. And it must be said that Susan tried immediately. After Emily Dickinson's death, she sent a poem to the foremost New York editor of the day, Richard Watson Gilder — the editor of Century Magazine. He was known to be a civilized man. And he was, at that time in 1886, serializing Henry James' The Bostonians in his magazine. But alas, he rejected Emily Dickinson's poem. Now, we don't know what happened to Susan at that moment, but my guess is, there is Susan — intelligent, bookish woman in a provincial town who's never had anything to do with the publishing world before. My guess is that Susan was very daunted by this rejection. And she didn't do anything for a while. And nine months after Emily Dickinson's death, Mabel Loomis Todd — who was a professional and used to dealing with magazine editors — tempted [Emily's sister] Lavinia by acquiring a typewriter and asking Lavinia if she should type up three of Emily Dickinson's poems to see what they looked like in print. And of course Lavinia was absolutely delighted.

It's possible to follow what Mabel did in her voluminous journals and diaries. ... So you can see that every few days, she typed up a few of Emily Dickinson's poems. And eventually Lavinia decided that it was Mabel Todd who should edit the poems, and Mabel Todd would have been very confident. And Lavinia began to take over baskets full of Dickinson's manuscripts and dump them in front of the fire in Mabel Todd's home. So it's a scene to speculate about. So in the end, Mabel Todd had a huge cache of poems. This is where we have to admire Mabel Todd for 2 to 3 years in the late 1880s. She had the staying power and the conviction of Emily Dickinson's genius."

Excerpt: 'Lives Like Loaded Guns'

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Cover Detail
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
By Lyndall Gordon
Hardcover, 512 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $32.95

There was no paving on the Dickinsons' side of Main Street. Townsfolk had to walk farther off on the other side of the road. A hemlock hedge, planted in the sixties, linked the two houses and protected their privacy. Behind the hedge, and invisible to curious eyes, was a home-trod path between The Evergreens and Austin's sisters next door in 'the paternal mansion'. Cross this path and enter the Homestead, an older house built of brown brick in the handsome Federal style. Climb its well-swept stairs and along the top landing turn right into a bright room with four windows. The front two look out across hedge and street at the snowy sweep of the Dickinson meadow and the Pelham hills in the distance. The side windows look at The Evergreens. Here is another, and sicker, invalid who has lain in her bed since October. Her hair flames against the pillow, for though she is fifty-four there's no sign of grey. This is Emily Dickinson, reclusive, unknown to the reading public in 1885 but soon to burst into fame as a poet. She expects fame and more: nothing less than immortality, and sometimes she can't sleep at night for thinking of immortality. 'Exterior — to Time — ', she shuns intruders. Shutting her door on distractions, for thirty years she has honed her genius in the privacy of this room:

The Soul selects her own Society —

Then — shuts the Door —

To her divine Majority—

Present no more—

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing—

At her low Gate—

Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling

Opon her Mat —

I've known her — from an ample nation —

Choose One —

Then — close the Valves of her attention —

Like Stone —


Who is the One with her? Another poem, addressed to 'Sue' (Susan next door) and signed 'Emily', confides the answer in no uncertain terms. A divine 'Guest' keeps her company. She wants no other:

The Soul that hath a Guest

Doth seldom go abroad —

Diviner Crowd at Home —

Obliterate the need —


Against the wall stands a locked cherrywood chest, two of its drawers packed with forty handmade booklets into which she has copied many of her earlier poems, together with a huge assortment of loose manuscripts, a lifetime's unpublished oeuvre. Here is her secret 'Fortune'. Nearby is a small cherrywood table where she writes poems and letters. This year, though increasingly weak, she will write often to Susan Dickinson, her long-time neighbour and friend of her youth, the woman who had married her brother. Their attachment lies behind their lives, deep and not quite fathomed.

To another correspondent, the poet conceals her condition. 'I do not know the Names of Sicknesses', she waves the question away, but the present ill was said to be different from a recurring illness since her youth.

Emily Dickinson is now recognised as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, yet her life remains a mystery. She continues to be encased in claims put out by opposed camps fighting for possession of her greatness. These camps originated in the clash between Austin Dickinson and his wife, who had been the poet's intimate and her keenest reader. Out of this clash a lasting feud developed, and it was the opponents in this feud, their allies and warring descendants, who devised the image of the poet as her fame grew and endured. What began as a split over adultery turned into a feud over who was to own the poet: in the first instance, who was to have the right to publish her works; in the second, whose legend would imprint itself on the public mind.

A fixed image has separated Emily Dickinson from family dissension, setting her apart to make art alone like the Lady of Shalott. Yet given her compassion for those in distress and the closeness of her attachment to members of family caught up in the feud — her brother, her sister Lavinia (who sided with Austin), and the fraught children of Austin's marriage (who sided with Sue) — it simply cannot be so. Austin and Emily both had an eruptive vein, which Emily channelled into poetry. Her letters show that she cultivated adulterous emotions, if only in fantasy, for a married 'Master'. Did this affect her response to her brother's active adultery? And how did the ensuing feud strike the poet, who died at the height of its impact on her family? She did live long enough to know that what had happened could not heal.

To approach Emily Dickinson through the feud, to search out why it happened and to follow its consequences to the present day, is one of many possible stories. A feud, at least, is verifiable. People who knew the poet, then their daughters, heirs, and followers, did fire at one another, and went on firing when positioned to do so. But what is the link, if any, with a poet who said, twenty years before the feud began, 'My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — '?

There are other explosions, if we turn our eyes from her tame visible life, flitting about the Homestead, or kneeling on a blanket outside while she tended her plants, or sending timely notes, flowers and goodies to friends and neighbours. What she termed 'Existence' was something else. Of that there are only hints and guesses. An unseen but decisive event, a 'bolt' or 'Bomb' that she had to 'Hold' and 'calm', vetoed a life she might have led outside her home, while it opened up the secret life she devised as a poet. There is the velocity of letters aimed at correspondents she marked out for her own, a gunman's 'yellow eye' narrowing at the target. There is the explosive image-cluster in her poetry: the earthquakes, the rumbling volcanoes, Vesuvius, Etna and the poet's voice like lava, coming in spurts through the 'buckled lips' of a crater.

'Abyss has no biographer —', Emily Dickinson said. Truth is bottomless, and she herself almost invisible. After her death, letters from correspondents were burnt according to her instructions and soon legend replaced living fact. The public learnt to revere a harmless homebody who shut off from life to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love. Who, then, is there if we pare away the sentimental story that sees the poet through one or other man in her life, or the counter-story that cuts out men in favour of sister-love? Only the poet herself can tell.

Excerpt from Lives Like Loaded Guns Copyright Lyndall Gordon 2010. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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