Amorous in Amherst

Polly Longsworth’s Austin and Mabel,1 which includes more than 250 of the one thousand or so extant love letters between Emily Dickinson’s brother and Mrs. David Todd, is one of the most explosive books ever published about social and sexual mores in nineteenth-century America. Not surprisingly, its scandalous revelations have been ignored by protective Emily-ites. Richard B. Sewall, the poet’s principal biographer, is an exception: “Since it happened close to Emily Dickinson, it is important.”

Almost none of the publications timed to the centenary of Dickinson’s death discusses the Mabel and Austin episode and few even mention it. Cynthia Griffin Wolff,2 not naming Longsworth’s book, issues the verdict that “this all-too-well documented love affair” is “entirely irrelevant save for one fact: Mabel Loomis Todd played a crucial role in getting Emily Dickinson’s poems into print.” (The role, surely, since Mabel accurately transcribed the poems from the manuscripts, a feat in itself, and persuaded her by no means convinced coeditor, T.W. Higginson, of their worth.) Precisely because, as Wolff writes, Dickinson’s life offers so little “in the way of striking occurrence,” her brother’s liaison has to have been a larger episode in her life than it would have been in almost anyone else’s.

Sewall goes on to say that the diary of Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel’s daughter, takes us farther:

The effect on Emily? She was glad that Austin had found some comfort after his all but ruined life. In my mother’s words, “Emily always respected real emotion.”

“Some comfort,” translated, amounts to twelve crowded years of sexual intercourse. But the statement was written sixty-five years after Emily Dickinson’s death, and it was Bingham herself who for so long suppressed the Austin–Mabel correspondence.

Sewall also assures us of the solid basis for Longsworth’s comment that “the Dickinson sisters not only were aware of their brother’s intimacy with Mabel, they became accessory to it.” No supporting evidence is offered, however, either here or in connection with the claims that “Emily, fully aware of what was occurring in her home, rejoiced in Austin’s renewed happiness,” and that “dozens of notes and attentions exchanged…attest to Emily and Mabel’s mutual affection.” At least one such note might have been vouchsafed, especially since, in the only one given, Emily greets Mabel as “Brother’s and Sister’s Friend,” not as her own. Of the fewer than a dozen published communications from Emily to Mabel, five are single sentences or incomplete sentences and only two can be called letters.

Mabel was determined to meet Emily. After playing the piano and singing in the Dickinson Homestead, September 10, 1882, she wrote: “Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word…I know I shall see her.” She did not see her until, four years later, Emily was in her weird white casket. That Mabel asked Austin to arrange a meeting can be safely inferred, partly because it is in Mabel’s character to do so and, the more concrete part, because…

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