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If you're looking for a book about Emily Dickinson's life, this may not be it: she dies about halfway through, and the rest of the book focuses on the bickering over who should edit her works and letters, who owns the copyrights, who should get the royalties, who knew her best and is therefore entitled to do lecture tours about her, where the archives should be housed, etc. Some of this is very interesting, some not so much.
Most of the quarrels and lawsuits involve Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited the first selection of Emily's work. This is not surprising, since Mabel was also the mistress of Emily's married brother, Austin Dickinson, and had never met or even seen Emily, although they did correspond. After Austin's death, Mabel and his widow, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, engaged in a series of legal and social battles. Susan had been a true friend to Emily, who had written many of her poems specifically for Sue's perusal and comments, and she contested Todd's right to edit (and profit from) the collected poems and letters. After Sue's death, Emily's sister Lavinia, who initially sided with Mabel, picked up the fight.
The feuds continued until the 1940s, eventually involving Emily's niece and great nephew and Mabel's legitimate daughter, Millicent Todd (who had a breakdown of sorts when she found letters that revealed the true nature of her mother's "friendship" with Austin Dickinson).
If you know nothing about Emily Dickinson's life (i.e., you haven't read one of the more authoritative biographies), you might find the first half of the book interesting--although much of it sets up the 'characters' in the family's feuds over her work. If you've read a good biography and are a Dickinson afficiando or scholar, you may find some intriguing information about the history of the promotion and publication of her work and letters and the creation of the image of the ethereal recluse in a white dress. I fall somehere in between.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
The account of the family feud amongst Emily Dickinson's brother & others is fascinating. Who knew that someone in the 1870s could be virtually polyamorous? Austin Dickinson was in a marriage that cooled, due to his fear that his wife Susan would be harmed by any additional pregnancies. Although their marriage was not dead, it was gravely wounded when an astronomer, David Todd, came to Amherst, with his wife Mabel. The marriage between the Todds was decidedly odd. David was a louche, who angled to get other women into bed. He encouraged his wife to pursue a symmetrically open attitude. When she encountered the charismatic Austin, she swooned, and they eventually consummated their "marriage" of true minds. She did continue relations with her weasel husband, David, and he actively encouraged this affair, since it greatly aided his standing within Amherst College, where Austin was the treasurer. There's a sad, and somewhat sordid, quality to this affair, since 3 of the parties were enthusiasts, but the 4th, Susan Dickinson, was greatly aggrieved. While Lyndall's book fascinates in its first half, focused on Emily Dickinson, and her family milieu, the second half is a serious slog. Very few people can be expected to care about the posthumous manipulation of Emily Dickinson's oeuvre with anything like the intensity of attention lavished upon it by the author. It's certainly fascinating the Mrs. Mabel Todd succeeded in controlling a great deal of the manuscripts left by Emily, notwithstanding the apparent fact that Emily never once deigned to speak to her, and could plausibly be viewed as being quite chilly toward this usurper. If the second half had been compressed by a factor of ten, it might have been a great story. But the endless dilations on the manuscript wars can only be of interest to a very small number of scholars. I write this as someone who has a great appetite for academic feuds. The former magazine Lingua Franca could have made hey of this in an incisive 10 to 15,000 word essay, which could have been delicious. But to spend more than 5 times that many words on something so dusty is ultimately a misperception of the audience that could possibly exist for such a work.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful