Most of us first encountered Emily Dickinson in early literature classes and came away with the notion that she was a meek and fragile pawn of a paternalistic society, happily jotting out her little poems from a cell-like room in a stuffy Victorian home. Lyndall Gordonís exploration of the poetís life and surroundings, Lives Like Loaded Guns, thoroughly crushes our romanticized idea of a woman who was not only strong but downright charismatic, perhaps to the point of being a director of her family and friends rather than merely a bit player in her own life.
While Gordonís contention is that Dickinsonís legendary reclusiveness resulted from epilepsy, there is no evidence in her book that strongly supports the diagnosis. In any case, that speculation has no real effect on a massively inclusive biography that puts Dickinson in a three-dimensional setting and gives readers a hard look at the poet in her natural habitat. The driving force here is a detailed examination of the supporting cast: Emily Dickinsonís family members and friends, who engage in a convoluted soap opera full of intrigue, family feuds and adultery. It was, in fact, the familial wrangling that contributed to the dearth of information available about Dickinson. As Gordon explains:
ďThough the feud began with adultery, Emily Dicksinson became its focus after her death, each side battling for her unpublished papers. The issue was not so much money as the right to own the poet Ė the right to say who she wasÖ. These legends still guard the entrance to the Abyss, for the feud persists even now.Ē
The effect of brother Austin Dickinsonís adulterous affair with Mabel Todd is the plot thread that weaves together the poetís correspondence and writing with her surprisingly active social life.
Through excerpts from remaining letters, Gordon reveals numerous candidates for romantic targets as well as Dickinsonís loyalties within the family, and even flashes of a violent mind that have seldom been considered in previous biographies. The feud between mistress and wife, however, lives on through the daughters of those two women who tangled relentlessly for control of Emily Dickinsonís poetry and reputation. Fascinating as this may be to the literary voyeur, the end result is a tragic loss of written works that might have provided insight into the unquestionably brilliant mind of a woman unbent and unbowed by the mores of her time.
Lives Like Loaded Guns reveals a deeply dimensional woman with a range of moods, not the delicate and dutiful dreamer of the myth. This biography, like any other, can only depend upon sources available, and Lyndall Gordonís exhaustive research deserves kudos, whether or not the reader agrees with her basic premise that epilepsy formed a significant contribution to the Dickinson opus. By exploring the details of family members and friends, Gordon veers off in multiple directions, which makes for a sometimes fragmented read. Nevertheless, Lives Like Loaded Guns is a deeper and more colorful portrait of Dickinson than most. Though not a book for everyone, it is a treasure of revelation and inspiration for the Dickinson devotee.