Lyndall Gordon, author of Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Title:Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Author: Lyndall Gordon
Publisher: Virago Press
ISBN: 9781844084531


Review by Janet van Eeden

I’ve read a number of Lyndall Gordon’s literary biographies, most notably her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft after I’d written my own play on the first feminist ever. I also reviewed her semi-autobiographical novel, Shared Lives, (litnet link here) about growing up in South Africa. I’m one of her biggest fans. A biographer seldom manages to bring her subject to life in the way that Lyndall Gordon does.

Her most recent biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, has surpassed the others.

Gordon is known for her thoroughness of research and meticulous attention to detail. This latest work is no different from her other biographies in this regard. It differs from the others, however, due to the complexity of the secrets and rumours surrounding her chosen subject. Gordon also chooses to make her own deductions about Dickinson’s unusual lifestyle, and her well-deduced revelations give this biography the edge.

Emily Dickinson was the most reclusive of poets, famous for living in seclusion at her father’s house after an unspoken event at college required her to abandon her studies. There she remained, dressed always in white according to the few who saw her, tended by her parents until their death and then by her sister Lavinia and a faithful family servant until she died at the age of 55. Her apparently sedate lifestyle belied her inner life. In the early hours of the morning she sat at a small writing table in her bedroom and poems exploded out of her frail form like well-aimed bullets. Violent imagery such as volcanoes and guns abound in her writing in a style which confounded most of the publishers who saw her work during her lifetime. Women’s writing was required to be demure and gentle in the 19th century. Publishers did not know what to make of Dickinson’s violently expressed poems which seemed to hint at depths not mentioned in polite society.

Mystery also surrounded her seclusion. Was it due to unrequited love? Rumours abounded during her life and even more so after it. A lover is indeed her intended recipient in a series of poems and letters addressed to “Master”, and these fuelled the suppositions that she’d been rejected in love.

Lyndall Gordon blows a lid on much of the speculation. She uses her fine researcher’s eye to put one and one together and solve the cause of the mystery behind Emily Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle. Once Gordon states the reason she believes is behind Emily Dickinson’s seclusion, it seems obvious, like all problems once solved. But it takes an exceptional and unusual mind to break the initial code of secrecy. Gordon is highly skilled at piecing together apparently insignificant details about the poet’s life while remaining resistant to received wisdom. Her revelation makes enormous sense when she finally exposes it, pointing out crucial evidence which backs up her claims. I was completely convinced – but I won’t give the plot away here.

Lives Like Loaded Guns is inevitably also about the intimates around the poet as a family feud develops. An ambitious young woman, Mabel Todd, from Washington, moves to Amherst where the Dickinsons live. She wants to possess the myth which Emily has become and tries to exploit her talent. Although she struggles to gain access to the poet, she begins to make inroads into her family. Determined to become Emily’s familiar, she won’t stop until she gets what she wants. In this biography Gordon redresses the balance of an unashamed character assassination of one of Emily’s closest confidantes, her sister-in-law Sue Dickinson, by Mabel Todd and her daughter over the past 100 years. In doing so, Gordon exposes an undercurrent of raw sexuality which seethed beneath the Puritan exteriors of some of the New England inhabitants. Their antics make modern sexual mores look quite tame.

This is an intensely detailed, rich and fascinating biography. It requires thoughtful reading in parts as Gordon unstitches the patches of received testimony, archival facts and hearsay to expose what really lay beneath the quilt of secrecy surrounding the great and almost mythical poet. It is one of the best biographies I’ve read and it appeals to lovers of Dickinson’s work and lovers of literature equally.

Q&A with Lyndall Gordon

“Abyss has no biographer – ,” Emily Dickinson said.

Truth is bottomless, and she herself almost invisible. “I’m Nobody!” she declares … In shadow she may be, but no nonentity, and the roles in her repertoire are many: the tease speaking in riddles to an overbearing “Master”; the flirt who exults in the role of “Wife – without the Sign!” and above all the not-so-veiled boasts of volcanic power. This presents a deeper challenge than the obfuscations of feud and legend. The time has come to risk the abyss. (Lives Like Loaded Guns, p 7)

Lyndall, you express the challenge of a biographer so well above. A biographer has to decide which parts of a person’s life to explore and which to overlook. In the case of a life as ephemeral and mythic in some ways as Emily Dickinson’s was, this must be particularly difficult. You have her writing, yes, but as she says herself, she speaks in riddles about herself as an abyss and a nobody. What was the compulsion to write about such an intangible person? And what was the first step you made towards beginning this biography? In screenwriting terms, what was the “inciting incident” which compelled you to begin work on such a complex subject? Was it her poetry itself, or an interesting fact you found out about her life?

As with other subjects, the story I chose to tell evolved over many years, often going back to childhood and what my mother read aloud. She was a semi-invalid in earlier days, but with improved medication was able to go to UCT as a mature student, and she did a major in English at the same time as I did. My tastes for Eliot, the Brontës and Emily Dickinson were all formed by her independent insights. A fascination with Dickinson was reinforced when I studied 19th-century American literature at Columbia in New York. An idea of how we might read her poetry and the meaning of her idiosyncratic punctuation – the importance of her mysterious dashes – goes back to a class “report” in about 1968. I did some research on the manuscripts during a leave period from teaching in about 1990, sketched out a proposal for a biography in 1999, then put it aside in order to write a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her followers, and then finally came back to Dickinson in 2005. Rereading the old proposal at that point was the “inciting incident”: it suddenly came to me that a projected chapter on the family feud could be a frame for the whole story of the poet’s life and afterlife – that to follow the explosive happenings in the family would be a way into the volcanic elements in Emily Dickinson.

You ask about approaching, this time, an “intangible” person. Indeed so. Dickinson’s words, “Abyss has no biographer”, teased and haunted me. Yet part of the draw of this subject was the challenge of reaching into that Abyss, not through the licence of fiction but through a myriad kinds of documentary research – research takes you to places where you’d never thought to go: Scandinavian sailing records of the 1790s in relation to Mary Wollstonecraft; drugstore records of Dickinson’s medications in the 1880s; a novel about “Yorkshire life 60 years ago” which Mary Taylor published in 1890. Sixty years before this feminist had been Charlotte Brontë’s schoolmate and correspondent, and when CB died Mary destroyed all but one of CB’s letters – why? What did Mary not want posterity to know? Possibilities might lie in the truth-telling impulse behind her novel. While writing Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, I came to see that imaginative truth must co-exist with documentary truth if we want to bring a subject to life and avoid a dead shell, the compendium of fact.

In choosing what aspect of a life to explore and what to leave out, Virginia Woolf has pertinent advice in “The Art of Biography”, where she makes a distinction between dead facts and “the facts that suggest and engender”.

You spoke to me once before about approaching the task of writing biographies with the same skill as one should write a novel, paying full attention to the complexity of story structure and the need to engage an audience by writing a compelling story. Lives Like Loaded Guns has a number of spectacular revelations about the Dickinsons and the New England town of Amherst. You play these out well, hinting at secrets but revealing only what is necessary every step of the way. To use screenwriting terminology again, you hook your audience with a promise of a big revelation and then you reel them in slowly but surely, keeping them focused until the “big reveal”. Do all biographers pay this much attention to the structure of their work or are you trying to create “a new genus” of biography as Mary Wollstonecraft called herself once?

Your suggestion of a “new genus” is astute and touches me closely: it’s been all along an intention – a passion – to experiment with and transform the genre. To put it in milder terms, I don’t think that there’s only one way only of writing biography. In the seventies, when I wrote my first, on Eliot, it was the heyday of “definitive” or “full-scale” biography. Anyone can put one date in front of another in a plod from pedigree to grave. In the era of “definitive” biography this led to an excessive proliferation of leaden tomes, many lacking narrative momentum. A “new genus” of biography is more demanding in that there’s no set structure. Each life is distinctive and its story takes a form of its own. The biographer therefore has to devise a different form for each subject. This invention of form makes life-writing potentially an art. And I enjoy, too, the constraint of facts, in the way a poet might enjoy the constraints of form in writing a sonnet. To go as far as facts can take us into the “Abyss”, to hold to the facts and then to press on with an informed guess (alerting the reader that this is no more than a guess), this is the challenge of authenticity.

Looking back, a “definitive” life appears to have been a fiction of the marketplace. If we think of our own lives, there is no way we could tell the whole truth, even if we wished to do so. Since there’s no end to truth, it seemed legitimate to select a telling aspect of the life – in Dickinson’s case, to pursue the resonances of her famous line, “My Life had stood – a loaded Gun.” What made her life so explosive? Was she as idiosyncratic as the myth appeared, or was she part of an explosive family? Starting a biography is not so difficult if we ask the crucial questions; a narrative then falls into place.         

Inevitably, research into letters and other primary sources brings the biographer up against popular myth, and the biographer has to face the reality that it’s hard to budge a myth. (Hence the inevitability of the opposition to revelations about Emily Dickinson, which you ask about next.)

There must be a very loyal Emily Dickinson following in America, with many scholars having made her life and her work their area of expertise. I’m sure they had their own very definite ideas about the reclusive poet. Your biography might contradict long-held opinions. Have you run into any opposition from scholars with the revelations you’ve made in this biography?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, there is opposition from academics who have been followers of the supposedly “definitive” biography of Emily Dickinson by Professor Sewall, first published in 1974. Sewall was appointed as an executor by a representative of one side in a family feud: the daughter of Mabel Todd who, as mistress to Austin Dickinson, the poet’s brother, had split the Dickinson family. That Sewall was co-opted as an instrument in a further campaign by the Todd camp is spelt out in a newly discovered memoir essay among unpublished papers at Yale. Sewall’s integrity and ability are not in question. Yet it’s now obvious that – influenced by the persuasiveness of Todd’s claims – he was drawn into this camp’s smears of the ousted wife, Susan Dickinson, a crucial figure in the poet’s life. Curiously, then, it’s the adulteress’s version of events that has largely held sway since the seventies, and some who have taken this line in print are naturally put out, as you correctly surmise.

The opposition has tried to discount findings that suggest a different Emily Dickinson from the sentimental pathos of the “Belle of Amherst”. They resist new evidence that Dickinson took a stand against the mistress, as well as the new possibility you mention about the poet’s reclusiveness. About ten years ago two critics proposed – on little evidence – that the poet had tuberculosis. These two are bent on closing off any question and mystery with emphatic diagnosis, a deployment of medical terminology in a categoric way that falsifies what primary research shows to be inconclusive. Another tack is to assume that if the slander of Susan Dickinson’s reputation must be corrected, a biographer must be attached to her camp and against the mistress. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of biography. For they ignore nuance, including the back-story which opens up Mabel Todd’s situation in a way that questions a reductive view of her as a femme fatale, and they ignore, too, the portrait of Todd’s extraordinary achievement as Dickinson’s first editor and promoter. Such minds assume that you have to be in one camp or the other. In short, the feud goes on.

The opposition hasn’t amounted to much in the wider context of reviews and readers – this prompts a “no” answer to your question. Letters from readers must remain private, but to select three Americans among the many who have supported the findings in public, there is a top Dickinson scholar, Martha Nell Smith, at the University of Maryland – we don’t necessarily agree on everything, but she’s a model of scholarly open-mindedness; Karen V Kukil of Smith College, the editor of The Complete Journals of Sylvia Plath, who tracked down the vital testimony of a servant to the Dickinson sisters in a court case of 1898; and Gretchen Gerzina, chair of the English department at Dartmouth College, who did an interview for her book programme, syndicated to about seventy radio stations across the US.

You have been a Research Fellow at Oxford for many years. Could you tell the readers of LitNet how you came to be there after growing up in the suburb of Sea Point in Cape Town? How often do you return to South Africa?

It would have been less improbable had I been a high-flyer at school – King’s Road Junior School in Sea Point, followed by Good Hope Seminary (my mother’s old school) in Cape Town – but I was average. Not a prefect – too rebellious, too critical of school (though I loved the set books – Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights, Virgil – and exciting drama classes with Helen Haughton). My reading was very mixed: there were the classics at home, and my mother was a terrific reader; on the other hand I read, like other girls, Enid Blyton and, later, romances. Girls of my generation read Tryna du Toit whose romances, I seem to remember, used to end with the melting words: ... en hy het haar gesoen ... innig ... innig ... This would not have gone down well at an Oxford interview. Fortunately, I married an intellectual who was determined to improve me – he offered excellent advice on how to organise work and get things done. As I was greatly influenced by the calibre of my mother’s reading, so later, in the sixties, I was influenced by the work ethic of New York, its stimulus and possibilities. I loved 19th-century American literature: Dickinson, Henry James, and then Eliot – all of whom became subjects for biography. Going to Oxford through the Rhodes Trust was the result of my Columbia University thesis on Eliot’s early years. One of my teachers contacted the great Eliot scholar Helen Gardner, an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s College, and so I went there in the early to mid-seventies. And it was through Dame Helen, a trustee of Oxford University Press, that my first book was accepted. This all sounds simple and lucky, but there were many setbacks and difficulties – too many to explain here, but they included a breakdown when I couldn’t adjust to New York and longed to return to South Africa.

These days I do return often: I did so in 2010 in August-September and again in November-December. I inherited a flat in Seacliffe, opposite Saunder’s Rocks in Cape Town, where every window looks out over the sea towards the horizon. The best sound in the world is the crash of the breakers on the rocks below. It’s a delight to be with my oldest friend – we were in the same class at school – who is the food writer, Phillippa Cheifitz. She reads a good book for an hour every morning before work, and I admire her casual style of cooking, her emphasis on local produce and her creation of a way of life (in her Cape Town Food and Lazy Days – the latter about Weskus [West Coast] food). Another serious reader is Graham Viney, the foremost interior designer in South Africa – I like to visit his beautiful home and garden above Bantry Bay (walking distance), where we talk about books.

What attracts you to writing about literary figures? Did you always know that this is the kind of writing you’d excel in? And do you think authors are more highly respected in Britain than they are in South Africa?

What attracts me to literary figures is primarily a passion for their work and making sense of their work in the light of their lives. For this reason I’ve chosen subjects where work and life are particularly close, as with Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf. Letters are the most useful of the primary materials because they tell us so much about a character. But as a dramatist, Janet, you will at once see that it’s dangerous to read back from work to life – there’s no simple equation of art and life. Dickinson mentions in one letter that the “I” of many poems is dramatised – she has several roles, even though her voice is instantly recognisable (as in the case of any immortal writer or composer). What most interests me as a biographer is the transmutation of life into art – this was especially in my mind when I wrote on Virginia Woolf – but Henry James (another favourite subject) reminds us that this can work the other way round: “Art makes life, makes importance,” he says. This seems true for Eliot, whose life is curiously fitted to a single-minded trajectory: the traditional pattern of salvation with its necessary passage through a dark night of the soul – called variously “the slough of despond” (Bunyan) or “the waste land” (Eliot), and patterned after Exodus.

To return to Dickinson, it was the visionary as well as the volcanic element that appealed. She has a thrilling blend of verbal bolts and silence – pushing the language apart with her dashes to let in something beyond language. Eliot spoke of “the frontiers of language where words fail but meanings still exist”. Both poets have this extraordinary reach into a region beyond words.

“No” is the answer to “always” thinking I’d excel at this. Definitely, no. I saw my mother as a gifted writer, a born poet (though, like Dickinson, she didn’t publish her poems). She thought in images. My ability is inferior: deductive rather than creative.

I can’t easily answer the last question here – comparing respect for writers in the UK and South Africa – because I don’t know enough about what generally goes on in South Africa. Kalk Bay Books in Cape Town has a wonderfully inviting atmosphere, and the events held there are attended by readers with infectious enthusiasm and lots of stimulating questions – it’s a place where authors are alive and well, and what’s more, the owner, Ann, has created a milieu of readers. This achievement seemed unique to me when I chatted with the insightful Finuala Dowling (Kalk Bay resident and winner of the Olive Schreiner prize for poetry) about Dickinson in that bookshop last August. I’m also impressed by the keenness, knowledge and preparation of women who interview authors on radio programmes. Well-read Hilary Reynolds used to produce a high-flying women’s programme on the SABC, and to say that she respects authors would be an understatement.

What’s disrespectful is the government’s tax on books, as though books were a luxury item that people can do without. A bookseller in Cape Town told me how he caught a child stealing a book and told the child off. Isn’t that sad? Faith Williams, an innovative school librarian in a poor area of Washington DC, believes that it’s vital for children to own books, as well as loaning them from libraries. My husband grew up in a poor and bookless home in Darling in the Cape, and though he borrowed books from the local library, he’s never forgotten what it meant to him when an older girl gave him a book he could own, Hanky Panky and the Hedgehog. Similarly, Faith Williams found the money for each of the 3–6-year-olds to own three books of their choosing. Wouldn’t that kind of respect for literacy have been better for the children of South Africa’s future than squandering vast sums of public money on weapons? What was missing was an education minister with the oomph to stand up to greed and the strutting aspect of insecure masculinity.

Your biographies are intensely well researched. How long does it take you to write a biography? Do you think you will always write literary biographies or will you reach a stage where you are done with them?

Archival exploration is my favourite phase of biography. Another biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, said rightly that you have to go with questions in mind “or you’ll get seriously unstuck”. He said too, that, if you ask the right question, the story unfolds almost of itself. So it had been for me when, as a student working on Eliot, I went to look at his papers in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library and at the Houghton Library at Harvard. The question was: When did his religious life begin? It was a radical question in 1970, because until then people spoke of a divided career: a sophisticated antagonist of faith, sceptical, debunking; then, in 1927, a conversion, after which he was a religious poet. My mother had read Eliot differently – had seen him as a persistent searcher for belief – and when I followed her reading of the poetry and looked for this possibility in the manuscripts and letters and in his notes as a philosophy student, the answer was overwhelming. It became abundantly clear that it was a single-minded life.

Research takes ages, and then revision takes ages, because the glory of biography is authenticity and every detail must be accurate. I enjoy precision and what dates can tell us. I’ve said above that the books have evolved over most of my life, but to answer your question in the way it’s probably meant, the formal work takes about five years.

“Yes” to the question about trying other genres. I want next to write a memoir (see below).

Here is the dreaded question! Can we look forward to another intriguing biography from you, and what are you working on at the moment?

“Dreaded”, yes! This is a question to be dreaded because a writer is vulnerable at the outset, and each new venture appears as difficult as anything done earlier. I know that you ask this question as a fellow-writer and so will understand how easily an impulse to do something can be crushed by indifference or puzzlement. It’s taken me a year to put together two proposals, and I’m apprehensive of the present marketplace because decisions are really made by an invisible sales force. What their tastes and marketing slots are, I don’t know, but I’m somewhat reassured by my editor at Virago, Lennie Goodings, who says that her sales force has had enough of celebrities. I prefer now to write about the lives of the obscure.

The memoir I have in mind will take me back to South Africa. It will be about the strange life of my mother, Rhoda Press, and the working title is from Wordsworth: “Strange Fits of Passion” (from Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems about a rare and utterly obscure girl: “Strange fits of passion I have known”). Illness of an unmentionable kind kept Rhoda at home until the age of thirty-five. Her seclusion, following a childhood in what was then a remote place, Klawer, on the edge of Namaqualand, bred a cast of mind that for many years had no truck with the ways of the world. Purity – intense purity – is not a quality much talked of now, but she had it, and those who sought her out were drawn to her rarity. This will be the story of an unworldly woman who was born to be a poet, and her more ordinary daughter, appointed to be a “sister”, or carer, and to act out her mother’s dream.

The other proposal is about women’s nature. One question runs through the lives I have explored: What is a woman? What may be her invisible history and what might she become? The question, in one form or another, waited in the “new genus” terms of Wollstonecraft’s emergence in 1787; in Charlotte Brontë’s “pause … pause …” before the “rising character” of a professional woman coming into being in the early 1850s; and in the voice of Virginia Woolf in 1928, the year when the long campaign of Votes for Women ended with full female suffrage in her own country. At this historic moment she laid out a further step: “the great problem of the true nature of woman”, looking to a future beyond the immediate possibilities of a room of one’s own. My hope is to explore this question through original episodes in about eight lives, starting with Ruth and Naomi in the Bible – two women who, for a while, exist outside the patriarchal structures of their societies. Two of those I propose act in South Africa: Lady Anne Barnard (from an idiosyncratic angle) and Olive Schreiner in the lone period at Matjiesfontein, the time of her prophetic Dreams.

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