Monday, April 11, 2011

More on ED

In 1896, Lavinia Dickinson, sister of Emily, took the stand as witness and plaintiff in a court case against Mabel Loomis Todd, the editor of E.D.s first three books, and long-term mistress of her brother, Austin. Lavinia, while not quite as withdrawn as her sister, was nevertheless a reclusive character, not given to leaving home much in later years. Like her sister, she was regarded as strange by the Amherst townsfolk; in one authenticated story, local children came to sing for the Dickinsons, but were asked to do so downstairs, while the two sisters listened, unseen, from an upstairs room. So how did Lavinia cope with the very public arena of a court-room? To quote Lyndall Gordon's biography:

"Her junior counsel, Henry Field, remembered Miss Vinnie 'distinctly' in after years when he himself had become a judge. He'd feared cross-examination might confuse her. 'But not at all. On the witness stand she appeared perfectly natural and composed, not in the least bit disconcerted by an array of opposing counsel and a Court-room filled with curious spectators'."

In fact, Miss Vinnie put on an impressive and assured display, with not a small amount of guile, and she won her case - about the disputed ownership of a strip of land - despite having, on a purely factual basis, the weaker case. To me, this is interesting as it lends weight to the increasingly-held opinion that Emily Dickinson's withdrawal from the world was not due to diffidence or timidity - attributes absent from the accounts of those who actually met her - but was a conscious decision that the independence (from social and marital expectations) provided by seclusion in her father's house was necessary to allow her to practice her chosen profession of poet. Just as Lavinia impressed on the witness stand, so Emily impressed those who met her with her wit and verbal intelligence; often leaving them feeling upstaged and shaken; as was the case with T W Higginson, who famously declared 'I have never met anyone who drained my nerve power so much'. Many reasons for ED's seclusion have been suggested; but while there may have been contributory factors - medical or psychological perhaps - it does seem that artistic independence may have been the primary one.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


it is almost unthinkable these days for poets to go the route of "voluntary seclusion" as Dickinson did. I wish we could find more of those "mute inglorious Miltons" out there who've shunned the spotlight for the sake of their art.

I've enjoyed reading your Dickinson posts. Thank you.

Alan Baker said...


Thank you.

The more I find out about Dickinson, the more exemplary she seems, both in her work and in her life. She could have published many more poems during her lifetime if she'd been prepared to compromise and fit the poems to contemporary taste.

It's worth remembering though that she did maintain a huge network of correspondents, and in that respect, she wasn't isolated at all. She just liked to play the game according to her rules, so to speak, and not others'.

Ed Baker said...

when first I saw your title

"More on ED" I just k n e w it wasn't gonna be a
bout "me"

I mean the rules aside She swamps me

though I do feel as though we (ED & EB) are either 'cousins' or (at least) Neighbors

do you happen to know if she ... read Sade ?

Alan Baker said...

Ed, maybe 'more on EB' will be a later post :-)

I don't know if she read Sade, but somehow I doubt it - she didn't read Whitman because someone told her he was obscene (or something like that).