Lyndall Gordon’s new biography of Emily Dickinson’s family, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a tour de force. Meticulously researched and keenly argued, it transforms the conventional image of Dickinson—and reveals how that image came to be.

More than 100 years of biography, fiction and theater have depicted the famous poet as a reclusive woman in white who fled the world, perhaps after a tragic love affair, to spend the rest of her life gardening and writing brilliant poems nobody saw. Gordon upends this legend, revealing Dickinson as a passionate and powerful woman who was fervent in her friendships (too fervent, in fact, for many of her friends), had a midlife love affair with an elderly judge and carefully controlled the circulation of her poems. In one of the book’s biggest bombshells, Gordon uses family history, pharmacy records, 19th-century medical treatises and Dickinson’s poems to argue that epilepsy, rather than thwarted love, was the reason she rarely left her home.

While the first half of the book tells the story of Dickinson’s life, the second half morphs into a literary thriller. The lengthy affair between Dickinson’s brother Austin and Mabel Loomis Todd has been well-known since the publication of their letters in 1984, but Gordon meticulously traces its aftermath, as Dickinson’s and Todd’s heirs battled for control over the poet’s manuscripts, publication and reputation. Todd, whom Gordon calls the “Lady Macbeth of Amherst,” is the villain of this part of the story, creating the “shy . . . eccentric, asexual” Dickinson of myth, and erasing from the historical record Dickinson’s strong bond with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Austin’s wife and Todd’s rival. But Gordon remains scrupulously even-handed, acknowledging Todd’s insights into Dickinson’s genius and her heroic editorial work on the first editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters.

Few books are perfect: Gordon’s use of Dickinson’s poetry as biographical evidence is sometimes dubious, and her own prose, though often delightfully personable, can be overwrought. Still, those are minor flaws in a brilliant and breathtaking book.

 

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