Sunday, 23 May 2010

Emily Dickinson and George Eliot

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.


Lulu said...

I'm waiting for this to come out in paperback - my blog title is a line from one of Emily's poems - I utterly worship her. Who else could write lines as loaded as: "She dealt her pretty words like blades..." or, "One need not be a chamber to be haunted." Wonderful.


Carolyn said...

I've been wanting to read The Mill on the Floss too, maybe this year.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I adore Emily Dickinson. I've seen these biography in lots of bookshops and flicked through it several times. If only I were allowed to purchase books! I visited her house in Amherst when I went to stay with an American friend who was at university nearby - everything she owned was still there and it was such a haunting and touching experience to be able to experience the house as she had known it. Kathryn Hughes has written a biography of George Eliot - I haven't read it but I know she's very good from reading some of her other stuff so you might want to give that one a go.

Hannah Stoneham said...

I have read so many good things about Lyndall Gordon's book - I can't wait to get hold of it. It sounds like it almost has the power of a novel in the way it tells the story. I am an Emily Dickenson fan and a biography enthusiast so I have no excuse!

Thank you for sharing a lovely post


Karen said...

This sounds like a wonderful and entertaining read. I have to admit I am not a big lover of poetry myself - I think I am just too dense to truly appreciate it unfortunately - but I have always been interested in Emily Dickinson as a person and a character so this might be just the book for me. And who knows - it might actually lead me to read and appreciate some poetry!

A Bookish Space said...

I must also admit that I am not a poetry fan, which is why I have never heard of Emily Dickinson until now. I do adore literary biographies though (even if I haven't read any books by the subject), and Emily's life does sound fascinating. Just another book to add to my every increasing pile then :D

Mae said...

This sounds like a great book and one that lived up to it's good reviews. I recently finished Mill on the Floss and I'm still devastated! One of the best books I've read.

Study Window said...

I heard Gordon interviewed several times when this first came out and made a mental note to get hold of a copy. Like so many of my mental notes it then got buried somewhere amongst the clutter that passes for my mind and I've done nothing about it. Thank you for reminding me.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit to a fascination with this book. It's not yet out here, but it's been getting a lot of advance press because of the idea that Dickinson's reclusiveness was the epilepsy. She's one of my favorite poets, so I'm curious to read it when it's out.

StuckInABook said...

Just popping in to say "Tag!" - on this post;
Have a go if you'd like!

Vintage Reading said...

Lulu, hi, yes I intended to wait for the paperback and then bought the hardback on impulse. It was only after I'd read the book that I realised your blog title comes from an ED poem which I was unfamiliar with. *Blush* A great poet.

Carolyn, I'm about halfway through now. A hugely enjoyable book but - typical Victorians - goes on forever!

booksnob, I'd love to see the two houses in Amherst and the room ED worked in. The book is incredible, not just for the poems of ED but for the extraordinary behaviour of her brother and his lover. Sue Dickinson is an interesting character, too. I've bought the KH biog of GE. Thanks for recommending it.

Hannah, it is an unusual biography in that the story continues after ED's death. It doesn't really go in for too much literary analysis of the poems which I think is a good thing, more, the effect her life may have had on her poetry.

Karen, I'm not huge on poetry and I read almost exclusively, women writers, so I'm a bit limited. I think this book is hugely readable even if you aren't familiar with the poems.

Mae, I know how it ends as I've read it before. Poor, lovely Maggie.

Study Window, hi, if you read it please let me know when you post a review.

makedoandread, yes the epilepsy was something I didn't know about and I thought I knew the basic biographical info about ED's life. I suppose 19thC diagnosis was not what it is today.

Simon, hi, oh dear, I'm terrible at these tags and memes and things. Still, as it's you, I'll do my best!!

Shelley said...

I just have to say that the classic Dickinson biography is still the one by the late Richard Sewall, my dear friend and a crucial supporter of my own work. He was an angelic man, and he did right by Dickinson.

potterjotter said...

Have wandered through blogdom and happily alighted at your blog which is delightful - I have loved Emily Dickinson's poems since I was little. Your list of authors contains so many of my personal favourites, so I will definitely be returning here. Thanks.

potterjotter said...

Have wandered through blogdom and happily alighted at your blog which is delightful - I have loved Emily Dickinson's poems since I was little. Your list of authors contains so many of my personal favourites, so I will definitely be returning here. Thanks.