In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons and reveals Emily to be a very different woman from the pale, lovelorn recluse that exists in the popular imagination.
Thanks to unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson to reveal the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion and presents a woman beyond her time who found love, spiritual sustenance, and immortality all on her own terms. An enthralling story of creative genius, filled with illicit passion and betrayal, Lives Like Loaded Guns is sure to cause a stir among Dickinson's many devoted readers, listeners, and scholars.
You may well be wondering what the big deal is about the legacy of innovative American poet Emily Dickinson, and how the controversy over this legacy could possibly stay interesting for 15 hours of audiobook. No matter what your level of knowledge about the poet’s life and work might be, here is a strangely compelling tale that will ideally put a full century of literary demons to rest once and for all. Between Lyndall Gordon and Wanda McCaddon, there is a confluence of writing and narration that is sure to delight biography fans of all kinds.
A career biographer of influential literary personalities, Gordon has won awards for her work on T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Brontë. There is no researcher more capable of weaving a cohesive final truth report on the conflicts in Dickinson’s family, and no writer more skilled at keeping the tale interesting without stooping to a licentious tabloid tone. Wanda McCaddon, who has won awards for her voice work on other biographies as well as period classics like Sense and Sensibility, is the perfect choice to render this unusual and drawn-out battle for publication credits with dry British wit and the perilous dignity for which the Dickinson family was famous.
In the beginning of the book, Gordon is occupied with answering questions that have long plagued Dickinson scholars: What was the precise nature of the poet’s relationship with Susan Dickinson, wife of her brother, Austin? Was Dickinson indeed an epileptic? Is there any evidence that the “Master”, to whom the poet often wrote love letters and essays, was a real person? Why did Dickinson wear white for years, and never leave her father’s house? But the more delicious core concern of the book is to settle the question of how Austin Dickinson’s adulterous affair with Mabel Todd impacted Emily while she was living, and then the control of Emily’s work once she was dead.
McCaddon is in fine lively form when sharing the direct quotations from Emily herself, from the vast supply of letters, poems, and legal documents increasingly seeing the light of day. Gordon comes down squarely and consistently on the side of the Dickinson women through the generations from Emily, to sister Lavinia, to sister-in-law Susan, to Susan’s daughter Mattie who each tried to protect the publication rights from encroachment by Austin’s mistress and then Mabel’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham. Whether or not you find yourself agreeing with how the hundred years of infamously shady literary antagonism shakes down, one thing is clear: with all the drama this complex love affair provoked, the Dickinsons were wise not to have kept actual loaded guns in the house. Megan Volpert
"Although deciphering Emily Dickinson's mysterious personality is like trying to catch a ghost, this startling biography explains quite a lot." (Publishers Weekly)
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Take the Subtitle Literally
Great first half, but what a slog in the 2nd
- Paul Sas