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.
When the Todds moved into a new house in the autumn of 1885, Mabel and Austin made love there on ten or more Sundays in the presence of, as Austin recorded, “a witness,” who could only have been David. A few months earlier, while Mabel was in Europe and the two grass widowers were constantly together, Austin wrote to her—his letters to her were addressed by David to thwart postoffice gossip—“I think we three would have no trouble in a house together in living as you and I should wish.” David seems not to have objected to Mabel wearing Austin’s wedding ring on her right hand. Like his wife and her lover, he kept a diary, a record of his masturbations.
The Homestead today is “one of this country’s landmarks,” Wolff’s book begins, but Emily Dickinson’s bedroom
is unrefurbished with the lingering personality of its former occupant. It is something of a puzzle…that so many readers regard this House almost as a holy place, making the trek to western Massachusetts as if to a saint’s shrine…. What they ask about is seldom the work. They want to know about the woman.
Is the literary persona not related to the woman who created it, despite artists’ paring fingernails and poetry as an escape from personality, despite the gap between human frailty and the strength of art, mortality and immortality?
And what is so puzzling about the pilgrimage? The Dickinson story, as Wolff herself says, “seems to have become central to American life.” And though the poet’s ever-ascending reputation has already overtaken those of almost every other great American writer, Wolff’s own landmark book, showing that the poems lend themselves to depths, and sometimes merely to tangles, of interpretation, indicates that appreciation is still at a comparatively early stage. Feminist critics are clearly not finished with a poet who, conquering the barrier against women (“America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women,” Hawthorne wrote in 1855), identifying with female novelists and poets, female nature and female love, is a legitimate feminist cause;4 and more will be said, as well, by historians of modernism, for as Oscar Williams and other anthologists of modern poetry understood as long ago as the 1940s, she may have been the first of the movement, while transcending it.
If Dickinson’s “personality” does not haunt her bedroom, the visitor there can still divine her physical presence. The white dress displayed in a glass case, now as much a part of American lore as Melville’s white whale, is even smaller than expected from her own and other people’s descriptions: “I have a little shape”; “I am…small, like the Wren”; “A little plain woman…in a clean white pique”; “A tiny figure in white.” Whether she began to wear white after her father’s death, or because of a religious association—the multitude in white “who stood before the throne in Revelation” (Wolff); white was the dress “of her inner ‘Calvary’ drama of renunciation” (Northrop Frye)—she considered it the proper attire for death:
This sufferer polite—
Dressed to meet you
Some perspectives of Dickinson’s solitary existence can be experienced in her bedroom, too, in the west window view toward the Evergreens and, on the south side, Main Street, where once “a circus passed the house. Still I feel the red in my mind.” (She might have been taking mescaline.) The poignancy of her life as a recluse is most intensely felt at the sight in one of the window sills of a small basket with string for lowering to her niece and other children her gingerbread and cookies. By 1876, Emily “looked ill…white and mothlike,” from “living away from the sunlight,” as Helen Hunt Jackson told her during a visit.
Wolff regards Dickinson’s reclusiveness as both unexceptional and of little significance. There were precedents, she says, and in support quotes George Whicher’s This Was a Poet: “[Reclusiveness] has always been a possible way of life for New England spinsters.” (As well as for J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, and countless others far from there.) Moreover, Emily and Lavinia could, in the monetary sense, “afford not to marry,” and, unmarried, they “would not have to confront the rigors of childbearing”—as if to remain single were strictly a matter of choice.
Susan’s obituary for Emily in the Springfield Republican suggests that their Amherst contemporaries did not see the self-sequestration as ordinary, otherwise her “seclusion,” Susan’s word, need not have been mentioned and excused. By attributing it to the “rare mesh of her soul” and to the realization that “the sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work,” Susan may have been trying to bury speculation about nervous or mental illnesses (“the mad woman in the attic”). Amherst readers who had glimpsed the ghostly woman in white apparently writing by candlelight next to her window must have wondered about the nature of the work. If tongues wagged that “the intimacy existing between [Austin] and Mrs. Todd is as great as ever,” they must also have talked about Emily’s eccentricities. Almost no one, after all, knew that she was a poet.
Emily was no longer “a regular churchgoer” by 1867–1868, Wolff tells us, even though Emily seems to have stopped being a churchgoer at all at a still earlier date. Her absence from her father’s funeral disturbed her niece: “And where was Aunt Emily? Why did she not sit in the library with the family…?” That Emily did not appear at her mother’s funeral can be established from the fact of her invitation to Mabel to attend.
Dickinson seems to have been withdrawing from society—“Society for me my misery”—as early as July 1853: “I sat in Professor Tyler’s woods and saw the train off and then ran home again for fear somebody would see me.” This suggests a physical stigma, blemish or disfigurement, as does her habit of talking to guests from behind a partly closed door or from the top of the stairs; psychological roots and causes are more apparent in later years, in, for example, her wish to have her letters addressed in someone else’s handwriting. But whatever it was, including an experience that exceeds the known facts, something had happened to this twenty-two-year-old girl who had been socially active only shortly before—“Amherst is alive with fun this winter,” she wrote in 1850—participating in church gatherings and cooking contests, attending lectures and concerts. Yet before the end of the decade, she wrote that “someone rang the bell and I ran, as is my custom.” A prison, as she said, “gets to be a friend.”
Recent analysis of the daguerreotype portrait of the teen-age Dickinson5 indicates that she suffered from divergent strabismus (right exotropia), a congenital condition of the eye more prevalent in women than in men: her mother and sister were also afflicted but less severely than the estimated fifteen-degree deviation in Emily. Wolff mentions the diagnosis, but not that the Boston opthalmologist Henry Williard Williams whose patient Emily became in 1864 and 1865 had written papers on the subject, and not in connection with the reclusiveness but solely in relation to the “eye contact deprivation” that is one of Wolff’s theories about the far from perfect relationship between the infant Emily and her mother. The seven-month length of Emily’s first Boston visit—she stayed with her cousins in a Cambridge boarding house—is astonishing in the light of her unhappiness and homesickness nine years earlier during the few weeks with father and sister in Washington.6 Quite apart from what happened in Boston—her doctor asked her not to write (only ten letters represent the entire period) and even not to walk alone—the extended time there must have been traumatic.7
No biographer, not even St. Armand in his comprehensive treatment of the sun and sunset poems, seems to have attached any significance to the lines
Before I got my eye put out—
With just my soul—
Upon the window pane—
Where other Creatures put their eyes—
Incautious—of the sun—
But if Dickinson was walleyed, or had some other very evident eye impairment, why did Austin not mention it to Mabel, and the poet herself to T.W. Higginson in that first letter, as well-known now as any of her poems, in which she mentions the color of her eyes? Clara Green, who saw her in 1877, wrote that “We were chiefly aware of a pair of great dark eyes set in a small, pale, delicately chiselled face and a little body.” Whatever the other factors behind Dickinson’s withdrawal, the decisive one is that her creative genius required it.
Was Dickinson a “Puritan to the last,” as Northrop Frye believed? Wolff’s well-documented argument is that by 1850 the Puritan tradition had been supplanted by Unitarianism, Revivalism, and the Trinitarian belief in “natural theology” that dominated the academic milieu to which the young Emily belonged. However this may be, the reader is obliged to accept Wolff’s conclusion that Dickinson sought “a true covenant of faith…not in…Christianity, but in…the passion between a man and a woman,” both because Dickinson herself says so—
The Sweetest Heresy received
That Man and Woman know
Each other’s Covenant
Though the Faith accommodate but Two—
—and because no other explanation can account for the secrets of the dining room in the Tanglewood tale of Mabel and Austin.
“The Bible was the text she most consistently sought to undermine,” Wolff goes on. Not “the Bible,” one thinks, but its unreliable Christ,
I say to you, said Jesus—
That there be standing here—
A Sort, that shall not taste of Death—
If Jesus was sincere—
and the vindictive, arbitrary, even cowardly God, who, after wrestling with Jacob at Peniel, “retreated from us forever rather than risk combat again.” The upside of this is that “Dickinson was deeply moved by the fact that God, in apparent humility, had elected to become one of us” (“When Christ was divine, he was uncontented till he had been human”). By the mid-1860s or early 1870s a “poetry of faith had emerged.” Looking back, “the poetry described a long pilgrimage to faith.”
Dickinson’s preoccupation with death has been dismissed as a “natural compliment of an intense love of life.” It is more than that, an obsession not found to the same extent in other intensely life-loving poets. Death, the deep Stranger, is her abiding theme, the overwhelmingly predominant one both in frequency of references and in the inspiration of some of her greatest poetry. Her vocation for dying began at an early age:
I noticed people disappearing
When but a little child—
She wrote conventional verse about it, even nodding toward Cymbeline,
This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies
And Lads and Girls—
Was laughter and ability and Sighing
And Frocks and Curls
observed details of burial ceremonies,
And even when with Cords
‘Twas lowered, like a Weight—
Do People moulder equally,
They bury, in the Grave?
She knew the pain of loss: “Father does not live with us now—he lives in a new house. Though it was built in an hour it is better than this. He hasn’t any garden because he moved after gardens were made, so we take him the best flowers, and if we only knew he knew, perhaps we could stop crying.”
She rehearsed her own dying,
To die—takes but a little while—
They say it doesn’t hurt—
It’s only fainter—by degrees—
And then—its out of sight—
and recognized the sensation of it,
A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
You’ll find it—when you try to die—
The easier to let go—
She knew that death and love go together: “is there more? More than Love and Death? Then tell me its name.”
If just as soon as Breath’s out
It shall belong to me
Think of it Lover! I and thee
Permitted—face to face to be—
But the greatest of her poems of death are those from the other side, 8 from within the upholstered coffin with the “rafter of satin—and roof of stone,” in the quiet of the tomb:
Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground—
Here is absolute genius of the word:
I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining Room
And we talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our Lips
And here the persona of the poem and the persona of the poet unite, the mortal Emily Dickinson in her white dress and white casket—Higginson said that the fifty-five-year-old looked no more than thirty, her face without a wrinkle, head without a gray hair—carried “through the grass field to the family plot” by the six Irish retainers who had worked at the Homestead:
‘Twas just this time last year, I died
I know I heard the Corn
When I was carried by the Farms
April 23, 1987
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). ↩
Emily Dickinson (Knopf, 1986), reviewed in the March 26 issue by Christopher Benfey. ↩
Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society (Cambridge University Press, 1986). ↩
See Emily Dickinson by Helen McNeil (Pantheon, 1986). ↩
See “Eyes Be Blind, Heart Be Still” by Richard B. Sewall and Dr. Martin Wand in The New England Quarterly (Fall 1979): “Dickinson frequently read by candlelight; sometimes a line would go off the page, as if she were writing in the dark.” ↩
Emily Dickinson: Letter to the World, published by the Folger Shakespeare Library, establishes the dates of Dickinson’s arrival in Washington and visit to the National Gallery. The booklet also includes a fascinating account of railroad travel from New York to Washington in 1855, and a beautiful poem by Richard Wilbur. ↩
After the second visit she wrote to a friend: “a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble was the shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul—BOOKS.” ↩
See St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, on Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “I Must Have Died at Ten Minutes Past One.” ↩