How an Affair Gave Us the Emily Dickinson We Love

Why her brother's trysts with Mabel Loomis Todd matter
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 3, 2010 5:05 AM CDT
American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886).   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – Salacious things were afoot in Emily Dickinson's family home: During the last two years of her life, her married brother, Austin, would leave his house next-door under the pretense of calling on his sisters—but instead would have sex with the also-married Mabel Loomis Todd on the dining room couch while the poet stayed squirreled away in her bedroom. We know this because the lovers kept detailed diaries—and we know more about how the affair shaped Dickinson's legacy by way of a new book.

Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family Feuds, provides a "fascinating" and "good, gossipy" account of the role Todd played in Dickinson's afterlife, writes Adam Kirsch for Slate. Todd, who Dickinson somehow managed to never lay eyes on, was the one who is most responsible for finding, transcribing, rigorously editing, and carrying the late Dickinson's work to publication. Gordon's book also salvages the reputation of Sue Dickinson—Austin's wife, Todd's rival, and Emily's confidante—who was, at Todd's hand, both erased from Emily's work and villainized by later biographers. Click here for more tidbits from Gordon's book.

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