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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, By Lyndall Gordon

Emily and the scarlet woman

This superlative biography is a book of two halves.

The first shows Emily Dickinson shutting herself away, possibly because she suffered from epilepsy rather than because she was unduly modest and shy. The second depicts the battle, after she died aged 55, in which her family fought for control of her poems and letters. Linking the two halves is the fascinating figure of Mabel Todd, her brother Austin's mistress.

All great writers need champions of their lives and works after they have gone. Charlotte Brontë had Elizabeth Gaskell; George Eliot had John Cross. It's startling to realise how many of those writers who fade from view are those who have no dedicated family to keep their light burning, or who alienated their family through selfish or harmful behaviour. Emily Dickinson was loved by hers. Her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, was the first to try to edit her work but, as Gordon points out, she was inexperienced and too easily hurt when the first publisher's rejections came through.

Todd was made of sterner stuff. A sometime actress, she had divided the family when she began her affair with Austin, and after Emily's death she sought to establish her position by editing her work. A Lady Macbeth type who was not to be diverted, she edited the letters well, according to Gordon, and was not put off by fearful editors. Emily can thank the "scarlet woman" she always refused to meet for a large part of her literary legacy.