Friday, April 16, 2010

Lives like Loaded Guns

Our former colleague John Fanagan has just finished reading Lyndall Gordon's new biography Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds, and writes:

Emily Dickinson died in 1886 and only about 1% of her 1775 known poems were published in her lifetime. Today she is recognised as one of the most original poets who ever wrote in English and her work is enormously popular, not least among generations of Leaving Certificate pupils.

Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a marvellous book. Its title is taken from one of her first lines:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

This is not only about Dickinson's life. It is about her family, notably her niece Martha, her father Austin and his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. After the poet's death, Mabel and Martha ('Mattie') battled for years over ownership of her poems. Mattie was the legal heir, but Mabel had been the first person to collate and edit many of the poems. That battle lasted well into the twentieth century.

The book is beautifully written. Gordon knows the poems intimately and presents a fascinating, persuasive reason for Dickinson's reclusive adult life. She thinks that the poet was probably subject to epileptic attacks: a loaded gun inside her own brain. She supports this by detailed reference to the history of epilepsy in the Dickinson family, as well as medical records of the poet's medication.

The book is not only an impressive literary biography (Gordon refers liberally to great authors like Shakespeare, Dickens and James), but a great read too. The Dickinson family and their appendages come alive and the reader is always engaged by the unfolding drama. I strongly recommend it.

[Read other reviews in the New Statesman (by Sarah Churchwell), the Irish Independent (by Brian Lynch) and the Guardian (by Elaine Showalter) by clicking on the links].

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