Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds

"Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied - ," Emily Dickinson wrote in 1885. It remains just as true today, but that has not stopped biographers from chasing her. For over a century, Emily Dickinson (1830-86) has been enshrined as the most elusive of American geniuses. So entrenched is the image of Dickinson as a "partially cracked poetess at Amherst", whose refusal to leave her father's house for the second half of her life created a mystery that popular imagination has not hesitated to fill with romance, pathology and madness, that she has become the academic equivalent of a tabloid celebrity. That the robust, rigorous, humorous intelligence of the poetic voice is quite at odds with this myth of a timid virgin has bothered very few.

Lyndall Gordon has set out to challenge the fey "white legend", creating a far more human Dickinson, one who wore her red hair low on her neck in a brown velvet snood, whose bread won prizes at Amherst fairs and who was sufficiently unsentimental to drown "superfluous" kittens in pickle brine. Always independent-minded, though far from outwardly rebellious, she refused especially to yield to assumptions about 19th-century femininity. "God keep me from what they call households," she wrote as a young woman.

Much speculation over the century and more since Dickinson's death has focused pruriently on her sexuality. Discrediting most of the myths before her, Gordon does permit a passionate (but unconsummated) middle-aged romance with a widower who wanted to marry her. Dickinson refused because, Gordon argues, the reason the poet was a recluse also, to her own mind, rendered her "unfit" for marriage.

It is no mean feat to solve a century-old biographical mystery about a major literary figure - and yet Gordon appears to have done just that. The mystery is why Dickinson went into hiding at all. Gordon argues that she was epileptic, in an age when epilepsy was stigmatised. Epilep­tics were warned against marrying or having children; some states even prohibited them from marrying, for fear that sexual arousal might incite seizures. Moreover, epilepsy is heritable and Dickinson's nephew Ned had the condition; predictably, it was less shameful for men.

Finally, Gordon's coup de grâce: Dickinson punned more than once about "fits" in her poems and her letters, and some of her most celebrated "spasmodic" verse plays on images that suggest not only epileptic seizures, but the visionary "aura" with which they have historically been associated:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -
As if my Brain had split -
I tried to match it - Seam by Seam -
But could not make them fit.

Happily, Gordon does not over-literalise her thesis. She argues that seizures provided the poet with obvious images (including even her "volcanic" metaphors of explosive bursts of revelation), but hardly explain away her genius.

After Dickinson died, at the age of 55, gossip, hearsay, wishful thinking and sheer bias came into play in the struggles over her posthumous reputation. Gordon shows how these became the most powerful weapon in a domestic civil war already raging within the Dickinson family.

Emily lived with her parents and her (also unmarried) younger sister, Lavinia, in the Dickinson "Homestead". When her older brother, Austin, married the poet's dear friend Susan, they built a house next door. The families were in daily contact; it was to Sue - her "second heart" - that Dickinson most often sent copies of her poems.

But then arrived the "Snake" into their little Eden in 1881 - the ambitious, young, beautiful and married Mabel Loomis Todd, who set her sights on Sue's husband, and eventually on Emily's poetry as well. Austin commenced a 15-year affair with Mabel, first using the Homestead for their trysts, with Lavinia's connivance - and to the evident fury of Emily, who refused ever to meet the woman who was in her house very nearly every day.

The lines were drawn in a battle that raged for generations, and after Emily's death, control of her literary legacy became the trophy. Again with Lavinia's (somewhat unwitting) assistance, Mabel managed to acquire a valuable cache of poems and letters, and proceeded to erase evidence of her rival Sue's existence, deleting her name from documents and inserting herself into the story as Dickinson's first editor - a claim that Gordon shows she earned through industry, if not integrity. The feud spread to the next generation, carried on by Mabel's daughter Millicent Todd and Sue's daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi, both of whom went on to edit and write "authoritative" books about the poet they knew primarily through violently partisan family legend.

Gordon does an admirable job of bringing much-needed objectivity to the tale, but does have her own axes to grind, most saliently her dislike of Mabel Todd. Determined to read Dickinson in familial contexts, Gordon also implies that the poet was sufficiently reclusive to miss the war that split the country during the years of her greatest productivity. Astonishingly, she mentions the civil war twice only, in passing, and never in reference to the poet - though it was unquestionably the defining historical event of Dickinson's lifetime. Arguing that many of the poems of the early 1860s "have to do with the unexplained onset of dysfunction", she neglects to say that they also dealt with the onset of war, including the poem from which she gets her title, "My life had stood - a Loaded Gun - ", and others such as "A slash of Blue -/A sweep of Gray -". She thus perpetuates, by implication, the myth that Dickinson was concerned with private, domestic matters only; busy sewing her little verses, the Belle of Amherst failed to notice the civil war.

As ever, Dickinson beats us to the punch, writing once with mordant irony: "It's easy to invent a Life -/God does it - every Day -". It is no easier to reinvent a life, let alone one so buried under legend and competing interests. Perhaps no writer will ever fully catch the “Biographied", but Gordon has come closer to the fleeing Emily Dickinson than any other biographer yet.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia.

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 512pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN