© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy

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.

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."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.