Even if you are unfamiliar with the poetry of Emily Dickinson this biography is an absorbing read with a strong cast of characters. There is the enigma of Emily herself. Austin the handsome and austere Heathcliff-like brother. Vinny (Lavinia) the charming younger sister. Sue Dickinson the literary sister-in-law next door, married to Austin and probably the closest person to Emily. Then there is Mabel Loomis Todd, the interloper.
Beautiful, ambitious and pushy, Mabel is drawn to the mysterious poet and keen to move in literary circles. Shunned by Emily she begins a passionate affair with Austin causing untold misery to the families living side-by-side.
Lyndall Gordon makes a convincing case that Emily Dickinson's infamous seclusion was not necessarily entirely voluntary. She suffered from severe epileptic fits which, at that time, would not have been acceptable in the social circles of Amherst, New England. In fact, Emily's active inward life contrasted with domesticity. She made the family bread 'because her father preferred it' and kept a flourishing conservatory.
After Emily's death, Mabel Loomis Todd finds her vocation, painstakingly cataloguing, copying and editing the hundreds of poems which Emily had written on scraps of paper, shopping lists and receipts. I love the idea of great poetry written on discarded paper - no fancy moleskine notebooks required!
Gordon presents a balanced view of Mabel Loomis Todd. Certainly she was ambitious and adulterous, but her skills as an editor and her recognition of Emily's genius ensured that the poems are available to us today.
Dickinson greatly admired George Eliot and and this has made me want to re-read The Mill on The Floss. As it's over six hundred pages - I may be a while! Meanwhile, here's a lovely wintery review of The Mill on the Floss from Frisbee: A Book Journal and if anyone could recommend a good biography of George Eliot it would be much appreciated.