As the Friday commuters pound the pavement on their way to eateries and drinkeries to brush away the cobwebs of the working week, the oak-panelled Becker Room of the Manchester City Library is filling to the brim with eager spectators.
We are all here to see prize-winning serial biographer, Lyndall Gordon, to talk about her latest work, an exposé on the real life of reclusive 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson. Senior Research Fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, Gordon has previously penned biographies of writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot (for which she won the British Academy’s Rose May Crawshay Prize) and Virginia Woolf, which won, in turn, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Today’s talk concerning her latest literary subject very much has the air of “setting the record straight”, dispelling the well-propagated myth that Dickinson was a flitting, fragile, ghostly figure and unearthing, perhaps, evidence to explain what the poet, herself, referred to as her “sickness.” And myth-busting becomes a particularly pertinent thread as we learn that “the Myth” was the nomenclator-of-choice that the New England townsfolk coined for this poet in their midst.
In her passionate and empathetic investigation, Gordon ploughs fertile soil, unearthing tales of bitter rivalry, inter-family feuds, adultery and deceit, showering upon this hungry crowd details of the poet’s philandering brother, Austin, and his mistress, a Lady Macbeth figure whose machinations and ambition led to both the posthumous publication of Dickinson’s vast oeuvre of 1,780 (untitled) poems, and also to the over-sentimentalised fables (some might almost say lies) that surround her. And because of this, the surviving image of Dickinson is that she locked herself away from the prying eyes of society because of a broken heart; that she was a Miss Havisham figure, happiest only when shut away with her unhappiness.
However, through Gordon’s highly engaging, often humorous insights, an altogether different persona is revealed. For one thing, Dickinson seems to have had a sharp, acerbic comic streak, as illustrated when, having declined an invitation to a party, she explained that, “I am so old fashioned all your friends would stare.”
She also seemed to have a steely determination and powerful moral compass at her core, refusing her brother’s mistress a plot of land gleaned from the family estate. In fact, this controversy also highlights a fundamental love and passion that the poet held for her family, writing to her beloved nephew, Ned, that she would exhibit “no treason”- that she would never allow the young boy’s father to give away part of his inheritance to this woman she openly referred to as “Egypt”, an open and brave comparison she makes to Cleopatra’s sexual manipulation of the doomed Roman general, Anthony. These are all incidents which Gordon avails us with to suggest that Dickinson was no wallflower.
The most fascinating aspect of the talk, however, doesn’t reside within the annals of historical fact, but within Gordon’s educated suppositions with regards to the real cause of the poet’s “sickness”, something she later comes to see as her “ethereal Gain”. Gordon’s theory is that Dickinson could have been suffering from epilepsy (lending even more meaning to her famous poetic phrase, “I felt a funeral in my brain”), a position that is elucidated by the genealogical evidence of the illness being present in other members of the family. Dickinson also speaks of her empathy with Othello’s “affliction”, himself an epileptic. She then draws fascinating parallels with the Russian writer Dostoevsky who talks about the higher plains of consciousness and perception that he was able to tap into prior to a seizure; and of course, these “doors of perception”, to quote William Blake, are precisely the apertures that Dickinson leads us through when we read her existential poetry.
Ultimately, it is her poetry that is left with us today; Gordon reciting, beautifully, from memory, the powerful language and rhythms that Dickinson was experimenting with, her unique punctuation style of only using the hyphen reflective of the syncopation in jazz music.
The event closes with a wonderfully relaxed Q and A and informal discussion about the theories that she raised which emphasises just how Gordon has got to the top of her field – her thirst for knowledge and her overall openness and eagerness for the ideas and theories of all us here. And as we all troop out into the rain and the “certain slant of light” (to quote Dickinson) that washes the city streets, we are all united by a very real need to rediscover this ground-breaking poet, a woman who had many more sides to her than the myth would lead us to believe.
by Matt Colbeck
Matt is currently studying for his PhD in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. He can be frequently seen performing in his band CreepJoint around the Midlands: