Virago £20 (491pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Lives Like Loaded Guns, By Lyndall Gordon

"Unanswered and unanswerable questions resonate in the wake of lives, and no one more elusive than Emily Dickinson," Lyndall Gordon writes. Women writers of the 19th century who were reclusive, little published in their lifetime, had secret sorrows, and found it hard to leave their fathers' houses, have long fascinated readers. The Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson have all appeared as vulnerable wounded geniuses. The task of recent criticism and biography has been to foreground the intellectual strength, confidence and anger of these writers.

Gordon's title for this book about "Emily Dickinson and her family's feuds" recalls one of Dickinson's most quoted poems, which begins, "My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -/In Corners – till a Day/The Owner passed – identified - /And carried Me away – ". There was a whole community of "loaded guns" waiting to explode in all directions, especially after the poet's death. The poet's "force-field" of control "deploys as well as holds down secrets surging to the surface". Images of volcanoes, drawn from the poet's scientific education, proliferate in her poems.

The "letter to the World/That never wrote to Me" of this self-willed and passionate woman was at the centre of familial, sexual and public rivalries, ambitions and forbidden desires. The narrative is one of an extraordinary feud that begins in two neighbouring houses and spreads across the literary world – fuelled by a central adulterous relationship and the mutual hostility of women drawn into a net of secrecy and lies. Who would have guessed that the apparently tranquil setting of New England's Amherst would boast so many drama queens?

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) published only ten poems in her lifetime, but left behind 1,789, stitched into little books or on scraps of paper, and a cache of letters to be fought over by generations of heirs and would-be executors. She was born into one of Amherst's most distinguished families, and lived the privileged if limited life of an unmarried woman of the time.

She received a college education at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she astonished her teacher with an oblique approach to geometry and remained seated when all Christians were urged to rise. She returned home with an unnamed illness which this biographer suggests was epilepsy, a condition then regarded as shameful.

Whatever the nature of her "illness" (and Gordon produces convincing evidence for Dickinson's condition), she retreated to a domestic space in her father's house where she was free to read, write poetry and letters, garden and cook – while entertaining visitors and responding to the affections of various men and women.

The "still – Volcano – Life" Dickinson describes is seen by Gordon as far from stillness. She argues that it enabled the poet to exercise a form of control over her family, the head of her college, and powerful figures in the publishing world. As the feminist poet Adrienne Rich punned, the original and private Dickinson "chose to have it out on her own premises".

Her niece Mattie was to describe her aunt as the modest Emily who "trembles beneath her little dimity apron" rather than the determined figure of considerable learning who argued long before Virginia Woolf that a room of one's own was crucial for a woman: "Just a turn [of the key] – and freedom, Mattie".

She was, after all, the heir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose Self-Reliance inspired her rejection of Christian orthodoxies and whose call for words that, if cut, would bleed, and language as a "shower of bullets", gave her confidence to express herself as she wished – and rivalled for linguistic innovation her contemporaries Walt Whitman and Gerald Manley Hopkins.

Emily's beloved sister Lavinia remained a support and – after her death – great cheerleader, but her finest reader was Susan Gilbert, her older brother Austin's wife. This confidante who encouraged and inspired Emily was ousted from Austin's affections by the "Queen of Amherst", as Mabel Loomis Todd dubbed herself, or the "Lady Macbeth of Amherst", as Gordon calls her.

A long affair between Mabel and Austin, which lasted until his death, caused a rift in the family, but ironically brought an ambitious and hard-working editor to bear on the posthumous publication of Emily's poetry. Todd's work as a literary agent prefigured and tried to trump the family's own editions – and the sad truth of all the editorial jostling and rivalry is that neither party recognised the truly original and transgressive nature of the poetry itself. Both acted to distort and sentimentalise the poet's life and legacy.

This is a familiar story in the history of women's publication, and it makes for a damned good dramatic tale. Theatricality infuses this book, and the melodrama of these intertwined lives and dramas gives Gordon a trope she relishes as she pulls rabbit after rabbit out of her hat.

We learn that the Rev Charles Wadsworth, one of Dickinson's candidates for an erotic persona, "Master", withdrew from his congregation by trapdoor after a theatrical sermon. Austin and Mabel had a "script for a threesome" while offstage was the ousted wife. In 1952, "the next scene" opens at a women's club, introducing Thomas H Johnson, the new editor of Dickinson papers.

The problem for this biography is that Emily dies halfway through the book, and begins to fade in memory as the least interesting of the dramatis personae. The woman whose complex life emerges most vividly is Mabel Loomis Todd, the flamboyant, mendacious, ambitious and ruthless mistress and editor in her stylish black hat surmounted by two white birds' wings. Emily herself becomes the backdrop for a thrilling story of literary battle.

This "loaded guns" story of the two daughters – Susan's Mattie and Mabel's Millicent – fighting to the death over papers, royalties and the "truth" about the poet produces some of Gordon's most compelling writing. The result is reflected in the dispersal of Dickinson's work across notable libraries – Harvard, Yale and Amherst – as well as the hitherto-unknown deposition before one of the two trials held between the parties: the Dickinson sisters's servant Maggie Maher, who testified to the adulterous affair that no-one hitherto had the courage to speak. As Alison Light and Carolyn Steedman have shown, the role of servants in unlocking truths about writers and human history is well demonstrated here.

Dickinson was once remembered more for her eccentricity than her poetry. The white dresses, refusal to leave the house, strange punctuation, elliptical lines, startling and concentrated images and "slant" rhymes, created a myth that prevented readers from encountering her challenging and exhilarating poetry.

But as the woman remains enigmatic, the work has been recognised for its astonishing power, and has received new life from poets such as Hart Crane and Marianne Moore, choreographer Martha Graham, theatre director Katie Mitchell, pop star Pete Doherty and composer John Adams. Gordon's biography is a remarkable study of a multi-layered family saga, and a salutary lesson to all unpublished as well as published writers to write a foolproof will.

Helen Taylor is Professor of English at Exeter University

Modern-day Dickinson disciples

The rock musician Pete Doherty has cited Dickinson as an influence, saying he "nicked one or two of her lines" for his lyrics, while the choreographer Martha Graham infused her work with Dickinson's poetry and the theatre director, Katie Mitchell, spliced lines from Dickinson's poem, "Dying" in between scenes of her play based on Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot' at the National Theatre in 2008. The composer John Adams has set Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and "Wild Nights".

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