In the one hundred and twenty years that have elapsed since the first publication of Emily Dickinson's poems, no description of their effect has yet bested the exclamation of an early reader who found them to be "a shaft of light sunk instantaneously into the dark abysm." Sly and diamond-brilliant in their capacity for revealing the human condition in the fewest words, the nearly two thousand poems Dickinson wrote in her upstairs bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts remain shocking in their incisiveness even now. Her life, in marked contrast, has always been shrouded in silence, misinformation, and speculation. As one mourner recorded in her journal upon Dickinson's death in 1896, "Rare Emily Dickinson died -- went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in."
The writer of these words was Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of a philandering, ambitious Amherst astrology professor, long-time mistress to Dickinson's brother Austin, future Dickinson editor and, as Lyndall Gordon argues in her new book, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, a pivotal figure in both Dickinson's life and after-life. She came onto the scene in 1881 with a generous sense of her own destiny and immediately swept the upright, much older Austin, long married with children, off his feet. That Austin's son, Ned, had loved her first would prove to be just the first battle involving Mabel that eventually led Ned to describe her as "a woman who has brought nothing but a sword into the family." There was also her struggle with Austin's wife Susan, a dear friend of Emily's and the recipient of many of her poems, over his loyalties. Later, after Emily's death and after it became clear Mabel would never wrest her lover away from his wife, there were stand-offs -- first with Susan and then with Emily's sister Lavinia -- for the rights, both moral and legal, to Dickinson's poems and her reputation.
Amid all the triangulation was Emily herself, who managed -- in an awesome feat of control that belies the popular image of her as a neurotic dreamer -- never once to meet Mabel in spite of the fact that the lovers had their trysts in the poet's library. Freed from the constraints of marriage, children, and household duties by what Gordon posits, with a fair amount of back-up, was epilepsy (rather than the broken heart usually cited as the cause for her seclusion), Dickinson "saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use."
There is more than enough drama to go around in Gordon's book -- jealousies, deceit, the agonized shredding of wallpaper, even evidence of a ménage à trois -- and she often renders it in the plush detail of a pot-boiler. But beneath the operatic swell is an admirable amount of new information about Dickinson's world and the choices she made in the service of what she recognized as her magnificent gift. She was far more fierce than we've been led to believe, which makes perfect sense given the work she left behind. Writing to Ned at a particularly difficult moment, she closed her letter with a command no less forceful for its affection: "And ever be sure of me, Lad" -- a characteristically straight shot that echoes in every one of her poems.
From the Publisher
"Lives Like Loaded Guns...reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next...Gordon is fair to all...revealing their strengths and liabilities, and she corrects some of the inconsistencies of earlier biographies..."Abyss has no biographer," Dickinson warned future readers. But Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into undiscovered territory."
-The Washington Post
"Fascinating...[Gordon] shatters the Dickinson myth, revealing for the first time the twisted tale of how Dickinson came to be revered as "a harmless homebody shut off from live to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love."...Brilliant literary detective work...Uncovering the mystery of why the mischievous, sensible creature who emerges from this biography hid from the world is where Gordon hits her stride...Gordon catches the poet's essence, allowing us the closest, most thrilling insights yet into the volcanic genius of Amherst."
-The Chicago Tribune
"The portrait of Emily Dickinson that emerges from this book is far more intriguing than the one I and no doubt many others have been carrying around in our head. Banished, the wisp of a girl in white flitting through the 19th- century gloom. Gone, the disappointed spinster with some ophthalmic abnormality. Erased, the "harmless homebody...shut off from life." And in their place a strange, seething creature filled with passion whose life was, in some fundamental sense, an exercise in control...It's what Gordon does with the poetry that is most compelling. A sensitive reader and a great admirer of Dickinson's work, Gordon is skillful at harnessing the poet's words in the service of her biography...It's a fascinating exercise in literary detection."
-The Boston Globe
"The tale that Lyndall Gordon unveils in Lives Like Loaded Guns is so lurid, so fraught with forbidden passions, that readers may be disappointed to find that no actual gun goes off in this feverish account of the Dickinson family "feuds." ... Gordon's suggestion that Dickinson may have been epileptic has already inspired debate among scholars...A vivid account."
-The New York Times Book Review
"Emily Dickinson, the seemingly demure and buttoned-up American poet, comes wonderfully to life in Lyndall Gordon's telling biography. In Lives Like Loaded Guns, she entertains fresh interpretations of the poet's life...Viewing the poet through the lens of 19th-century spin doctors is fresh and provocative."
"This astonishing book, written with common sense and compassion, will do nothing less than revolutionise the way in which Dickinson is read for years to come."
"The great virtue of Gordon's biography is that it makes Dickinson the person- sister, friend, seducer, adversary-seem as scary her poems...Gordon is the author of biographies...that are distinguished by their sharpness of focus and economy of scale. Rather than competing for our attention with the author in question, Gordon tells the whole life by concentrating on what she judges to be the most potent aspect of it."
"Mesmerizing...You wonder what this woman [Emily Dickinson] might have made of the lawyers and court trials and furor that continued for decades over her poems, found after her death locked in a cherrywood chest in her room. Other truths were locked there, too; Gordon, admiringly and wisely, hands us a key."
-The Seattle Times
"Lives Like Loaded Guns is a remarkable achievement that deconstructs the image of Dickinson so entrenched in literary history. Gordon, a gifted storyteller, charts the ugly family dramas not to exploit them, but to prove how truly damaging they were to the poet's legacy . . . This fascinating biography will inspire readers to return to Dickinson's vastly rich poems and letters - and it's her work for which she should be remembered, after all."
"The story that preoccupies Ms. Gordon, [is] one of illicit love and intellectual property rights... Few portraits of Emily Dickinson are as vivid, few explorations of a family feud more riveting...Through the use of letters, diaries and legal documents, Ms. Gordon sheds light on the Emily Dickinson of public perception ("a harmless homebody") and its fallacies, the secret she most likely carried and the costs of families split over possession."
-The Washington Times
"Lives Like Loaded Guns reads like page-turning fiction, but is grounded in Gordon's masterful use of historical archives. It utterly revises our notion of dour 19th century New Englanders, turning them into flesh and blood people driven by the same urges as us. Gordon is one of the best biographers writing today, and this volume a superlative example of how the genre can both entertain and instruct."
-Sacramento Book Review
"Gordon's thoroughly absorbing new biography gives one of the fullest accounts yet of both Emily Dickinsons-the woman herself and the poet, a creation fought over by warring factions in a literary struggle that lasted through two generations and continues to influence the way we understand this elusive poet. Ms. Gordon's extensively researched account synthesizes a century of scholarship and adds a stunning revelation or two for those who think they already know the story...Lives Like Loaded Guns is a fascinating book on so many different levels. If you thought you knew the whole story of Emily Dickinson, you probably don't. And if you don't, you really should. In all its twists and turns through generations spanning an American century, it remains an explosive story."
"A very different take on Emily Dickinson...Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds will keep Dickinson devotees busy for decades... Gordon sets Emily Dickinson's life and legacy in the context of an adulterous affair that split her family and offers a splendidly speculative challenge to portraits of the poet as a withdrawn eccentric."
-Minneapolis Star Tribune
"A fascinating account of [Mabel] Todd's contentious role in Dickinson's afterlife...[Gordon] puts forward one major new claim: based on medical records and family history, and...on the evidence of the poems themselves, she suggests that Dickinson was epileptic...Innovative."
"Lyndall Gordon's new biography of Emily Dickinson's family, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a tour de force. Meticulously researched and keenly argued, it transforms the conventional image of Dickinson-and reveals how that image came to be."
-Bookpage (Top Pick)
"There is more than enough drama to go around in Gordon's book-jealousies, deceit, the agonized shredding of wallpaper, even evidence of a mTnage a trios- and she often renders it in the plush detail of a pot-boiler. But beneath the operatic swell is an admirable amount of new information about Dickinson's world and the choices she made in the service of what she recognized as her magnificent gift. She was far more fierce than we've been led to believe, which makes perfect sense given the work she left behind."
-The Barnes & Noble Review, reprinted in Salon.com