Fear in Writing: Lives Like Loaded Guns: a truly international author comes to SCM

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lives Like Loaded Guns: a truly international author comes to SCM

Lyndall Gordon is an international author in the purest sense of the phrase.  She was born in Cape Town, educated in New York City, and began her career in England.  A member of the Royal Society of Literature, winner of multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black prize for biography, and author of seven biographical works...Southern City Mysteries is honored to welcome this intimidating and awe-inspiring woman.

I first came across Lyndall Gordon's latest work in an article in 'The Economist.' I know--not exactly the first place one looks for reviews in literature.  But that is one thing I love about being a writer--you never know from whence inspiration shall come! (These other interesting posts have been inspired by the magazine known for its Wall Street readership: one, two, and three.) And here is what 'The Economist' had to say about Gordon's latest work, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds:
"This astonishing book, written with common sense and compassion, will do nothing less than revolutionise the way in which Emily Dickinson is read in years to come."
Wow. How could I not be intrigued? How could I not want to talk to this author? And so I emailed Gordon's agent, and received a prompt reply from both of them.  While she couldn't prepare something specifically for this blog (and the following will explain why), she had this to say to all of you...

Michele Emrath's invitation to contribute to this site reached me yesterday on the train from Edinburgh after the Festival. There I was in discussion with poet and novelist, Ruth Padel, great, great granddaughter of Darwin. Her recent (and terrific) novel, not as yet published in the US, is called "Where the Serpent Lives" and it's an extraordinary blend of fiction and biology - a story in which survival depends on lending oneself imaginatively to other species, especially reptiles. We discussed how people - the Dickinsons - lived in the shadow of ancestors and hidden family conflict. Tomorrow I leave for my native South Africa, and what I have in mind is to go through my mother's papers with a view to a future memoir. She called herself "only a housewife at the bottom of Africa" but she was also an Emily Dickinson character in some ways: a visionary and a poet who didn't publish. Her family used to joke about her "runaway basket" where she stashed her work, written on scraps of paper, undated and in a huge mess. I'm daunted and excited at the prospect of going through it.

Without further ado, here are some fascinating facts the author sent to me about Emily Dickinson, a mere glimpse into the biography Gordon has created. 

1.  Rather than the silent, brooding type, Emily Dickinson was, in Gordon's words, a "volcanic character...Stillness was not a retreat from life but her form of control...Far from the helplessness she played up at times, she was uncompromising; until an explosion in her family, she lived on her own terms."

2.  "...Emily Dickinson suffered from epilepsy. This would explain her secluded way of life, the customary course of non-disclosure (especially in the case of a woman) and the impossibility of marriage."

3.  A family feud involving her brother's adultery led to the fighting that followed the poet's death.  "Though the feud began with adultery, after the poet’s death she became its focus. There followed a battle to possess her and her papers, persisting through three generations."

4.  Slander of Dickinson's sister-in-law was immediate upon the beginning of Austin Dickinson's affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of a professor (who was also probably implicit in the adultery).  "They called her 'the great Black Moghul,' implying an alien power when, in fact, Susan was in mourning – in black – after the death of her and Austin’s youngest child."

5.  Emily was not without standing in the feud.  "What look like unintelligible teasers in letters and notes to Mabel reveal Emily’s active involvement in the feud during her lifetime. Her stand is reinforced by a parallel discovery: the poet’s refusal to sign over Dickinson land to her brother’s mistress."

6.  Sexless or spiritually-fulfilled?  "There is some basis for [the same-sex love argument] in the ardour of the poet’s letters to the friend of her youth who married her brother. Yet the intensity the poet feels never quite fits our labels because her spark of spiritual connection carries her off into a sphere of her own."

7.  "...Emily Dickinson drafted love-letters to an older man, her father’s friend Otis Lord, a fierce judge in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It’s clear from the letters that he wished to marry her. For more than half a century these letters lay buried in a Chinese chest belonging to Mabel Todd. As the first editor of Dickinson’s writings, Todd had promoted the sexless legend, and kept these letters under wraps. Eventually, her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham published them in 1954 entitled A Revelation. But by then the lovelorn legend was so established that this revelation went almost unnoticed."

8.  The mistress-turned-wife, Mabel Todd, became Dickinson's first editor.  "...The ousted wife, was ousted yet again as prospective editor. Mabel did the hands-on editing in secret (with the co-operation of a prestigious co-editor); then suddenly Poems (1890) was published to enormous acclaim."

9.  A surprising heroine in the tale: Mabel's daughter, Millicent Todd.  "This honest girl, who saw herself as the opposite of her flamboyant mother, was gradually tugged into the feud until it took over her life. She underwent a fascinating conflict between revulsion for her mother and loyalty – a female Hamlet who found herself on course for revenge and with the intelligence to question what she was doing. An adjunct to her mother at first, she ends by playing one of the most substantial roles in the ongoing feud. In her eighties she set in motion a posthumous campaign that would affect our view of Dickinson’s life to this day."

If you aren't completely fascinated, you're crazy...but if you are, click here to purchase Gordon's groundbreaking biography of Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds.  If you are a fan of my Literary Movement Series and this post subject as well, click over to Gordon's website for all of her amazing works, including the heralded Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft and the award-winning T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life.

Lyndall Gordon will try to stop by today, so feel free to ask any questions you have.  But she is steeped in work, so there is no guarantee!


  1. Michele - Thank you so much for sharing this extraordinary woman's communication with you! How exciting.

    And thank you to Lyndall Gordon for sharing such fascinating information about Emily Dickinson, whose work I have always admired.

  2. Very fascinating information. I never knew any of that. I hope they're teaching this stuff now when they teach Dickinson in college.

    Thank you for sharing with us today.


  3. I have been keeping up with this in The Globe & Mail's book section but I hadn't seen it all in one place. I do plan on buying the book at my local independent book store!
    Thanks for another wonderful post, Michele and thank you Lyndall.
    Jan Morrison

  4. What an interesting article. I've long been a fan of Dickinson's writing. I had a rather progressive teacher who scraped up all sorts of tidbits on poets we studied. She missed a few fun facts. :-)

  5. Lyndall Gordon is such an interesting person, I mean look at the people she talks with, Ruth Padel, g-g-granddaughter of Darwin! Just imagine the journey she'll be taking going through her mom's papers. Thanks for sharing today's post.

  6. Really interesting info here! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  7. That was incredibly fascinating and I'm putting it on my wishlist. Thank you both Michele and Lyndall.


  8. That was great. I had no idea so much drama went on behind the scenes.

  9. I'm with Clarissa--fascinating! I'll be reading this book--it was on my TBR list before your post and it's moved up a few notches. :)

  10. Hallamrk could make a movie of her life. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing as I did not know this.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. I'm always amazed by the things I learn reading blogs. It's my excuse ... I mean reason.

  12. This was fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! :]