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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 of a remark in her journal: “No one has seen her in all these years except her own family.” Austin would have had to give this untruthful excuse, since Emily received the people she wished to receive. After December 13, 1883, a face to face encounter would have been unthinkable, but the reasons for Emily’s refusal before that date can only be conjectured. Did she sense that worldly, gregarious, self-assured, literary-dabbling Mabel was her exact opposite?

On that December 13, Austin Dickinson, fifty-four, married for twenty-six years and the father of three became the lover of Mabel Loomis Todd, thirty years younger, married for four years and the mother of Millicent. The consummation took place in Emily’s and her sister Lavinia’s dining room, in which Emily sometimes wrote. The diaries of Austin and Mabel reveal that their extramarital rites were repeated thereafter about twelve times a month, then somewhat less frequently from 1886 until Austin’s death in 1895. The testimony of Maggie Maher, the sisters’ housekeeper, in Lavinia’s 1896 lawsuit against the Todds, places a higher estimate on the number of rendezvous and adds that they took place “sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes in the fore-noon…. Sometimes for three or four hours just as their consciences allowed them.” (Who said anything about consciences?)

On two occasions, Maggie apparently stumbled on the pair in flagrante delicto. Why Austin’s wife Susan never did the same can only be attributed to fear of her husband and to the powerlessness of a wife at the time. Susan rarely crossed the yard from her home, the Evergreens, to the Homestead, only a few hundred feet away, but to enter or leave the latter unobserved from the window of the former must have been even more difficult a century ago than it is today. Guarded by Emily and Lavinia, the Homestead dining room was to remain the scene of the assignations, except for Austin’s carriage, during an occasional turn in the great outdoors, and, when his and Mabel’s spouses were away—and for a time when hers was not—in each other’s houses. Even before the love affair was consummated, Emily wrote, perhaps not without irony: “My brother is with us so often each Day, one almost forgets he passed to a wedded Home.”

The correspondence monotonously supports the true-love view of the affair as well as its—what Yeats said the worst of us can be full of—passionate intensity. But Mabel’s diary, which also records her continuing, some eight-times-a-month, cohabitation with her husband David blights any aura of romance, at least for non-Mormon readers. Since she usually confined her sexual activity to the “safe” last ten days of her menstrual cycle, Mabel was perforce entertaining both men on several of the same days. Longsworth straight-facedly calls attention to Mabel’s “energetic physical commitment,” but does not elaborate on her remark that Mabel’s diary—destined, no doubt, to appear in a lurid paperback with preface by Peter Gay—is less specific about lovemaking with Austin than with David. Nor are particulars given of arrangements in the Homestead dining room (was the table used, or would this have inhibited the saying of grace at mealtimes?), except that the pious lovers recited a prayer in unison.

Home is a Holy Thing,” Emily once wrote to Austin, and “nothing of doubt or distrust can enter its sacred portals.” Lares and penates. Love, moreover, must be “consecrated,” and laws obeyed. “We die, said the Deathless of Thermopylae, in obedience to the Law.” So Emily wrote to Mabel, after brother and brother’s friend had broken the Seventh Commandment, upheld by law, society, religion, and private moral codes.

At a precocious age Mabel had discovered that she “was born with a certain lack of something in my moral nature.” She was quick to recognize, as well, that her “strength & attractive power & magnetism” were “enough to fascinate a room full of people.” In addition to being a talented painter, actress in amateur theatricals, musician—she had studied at the New England Conservatory—Mabel was endowed with a sense of literary discernment, perhaps cultivated by her father, who had known Thoreau and Whitman. She read and she wrote, publishing short stories and accounts of her travels—she was the first woman to climb Mt. Fujiyama. Whereas Emily, in Washington; DC with her congressman father, avoided every social function, Mabel, thirty years later, was a hostess at a reception in Chester A. Arthur’s White House.

Unlike Mabel, Austin had no inkling of his sister’s genius. Said to be Emily’s “closest confidant” (“Tho all others do, yet I will not foresake thee,” she wrote to him, but what were foreseen as provocations from the others?), he nevertheless wrote irritably to Mabel, when she was about to leave for Boston in connection with the publication of Emily’s poems, inquiring what she meant by “the poems” and dismissing them as of “no consequence.” And when Emily was grieving over the death of her friend Judge Otis Lord, Mabel, but not Austin, seems to have had compunctions about using the dining room. Still, Austin must be believed when, expressing reservations about the publication of Emily’s letters, he said that she “posed” in some of them.

Barton Levi St. Armand’s chapter3 on Austin as an art collector reveals that his father, Edward Dickinson, while executor of his brother-in-law’s estate, “loaned” himself more than enough from the trust to pay for expensive renovations in his own house and to construct a new one for his son. As St. Armand says, Dickinson père played “fast and loose” with his sister’s money. Or call it extortion. Longsworth’s statement that Edward Dickinson “had the most irreproachable”—like most unique?—“record in the region” only indicates what the region did not know.

Austin bequeathed half of his patrimony to Mabel but instead of making the gift part of his will relied on Lavinia to carry out his wishes—this after he had described her to Mabel as “utterly slippery and treacherous”—evidently failing to realize that his death would unleash his wife’s vindictiveness toward Mabel and that families in such situations traditionally close ranks against the outsider. Lavinia went back on her word—and on her promise to burn Mabel’s letters to him—then relented to the extent of giving Mabel and David a plot of Dickinson land; whereupon Susan convinced her to sue the Todds on grounds that they had obtained her signature on the deed by misrepresentation and fraud. The Todds lost the trial, Mabel unaccountably failing to produce Austin’s note to her confirming his intentions, but the Dickinsons lost too, morally, for Lavinia repeatedly perjured herself.

Dickinson biographers agree that Susan became “spiteful” with age, which raises the question of whether Austin might in some way have contributed to this unhappy development. Before the inaugural date in the dining room, Mabel said that Susan “stimulates me intellectually more than any other woman I ever knew,” but soon after, disappointed that Susan did not surrender as David had done, prayed for her demise. Emily, as well, held Susan’s intellect in good opinion and, over the years, sent her nearly three hundred poems. Longsworth classifies Emily’s communications to Susan as “love letters” that “do not far exceed”—i.e., they exceed, nevertheless—“the nineteenth-century tolerance for intimacy between unmarried females.” But to form a firm impression of Susan is as difficult as Emily’s unflattering verse about her warns:

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

David Todd, the oddest character of the quadrangle, a direct descendant of Jonathan Edwards and of the New England of scarlet letters, was perversely, perhaps kinkily, acquiescent, even taking into account a history of mental illness in his mother’s family. (Like her, he was eventually institutionalized.) During the last three days of the countdown to December 13, he and Mabel decided together that she would become Austin’s mistress. David may have been concerned about his tenure as professor of astronomy at Amherst College, where Austin was all-powerful, but the main consideration was that as a philanderer himself, during as well as before his marriage, he was not in a position to insist on the fidelity of his spouse. Mabel noted in a journal of 1890 that he was capable of “falling immensely in love” and of “having a piquant time out of it.” Three years earlier he had begun to receive other women in the Todd home, and he once used “lustful language” in a letter to one of them that he failed to seal so that Mabel could read it—which somewhat redeemingly suggests that he might have been jealous.

  1. 1

    Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair & Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, preface by Richard B. Sewall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984).

  2. 2

    Emily Dickinson (Knopf, 1986), reviewed in the March 26 issue by Christopher Benfey.

  3. 3

    Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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