Emily Dickinson: The Myth and Mrs Todd

One of the craters on Phobos, the larger and innermost of the two moons orbiting Mars, is named after the nineteenth-century American astronomer David Peck Todd. He is in good company. Other craters on the satellite share the names of characters and places from Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth-century satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels. Todd and his wife Mabel can also lay claim to having had asteroids named after them: 511 Davida and 510 Mabella. Impressive: yet the couple are most remembered today for having arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1881, for Todd to take up his appointment as director of the Amherst College Observatory. If this had not happened, the world at large might never have known that another Amherst resident, Emily Dickinson, had ever written poems.

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Mabel Todd had studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was also a talented actress and artist, as well as being knowledgeable enough to co-author books on astronomy with her husband and also independently pen a history of New England witchcraft. Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson, a legal man and Amherst’s most prominent citizen, was married, fifty-four years old, and twenty-seven years Mabel’s senior. However, he was quickly smitten. He wasted no time in issuing invitations for her to sing and play the piano at “Homestead”, the Dickinson property in which his two sisters lived—Austin and his own family choosing to reside at the adjacent property known as “Evergreens”.

At Homestead, Mabel met Lavinia, the younger of the two sisters. Lavinia described herself as “the family inflater”, since, as she once explained, “one by one the members of my household go down, and I must inflate them”. Later she elaborated: “She [Emily] had to think—she was the only one of us that had that to do … Father [had] believed; and Mother [had] loved; and Austin had Amherst; and I had the family to keep track of.” Emily’s view of Lavinia fell in with this: “I don’t see much of Vinnie—she’s mostly dusting stairs.” Yet she also acknowledged Lavinia’s ability to offset the family’s general inclination towards introspection and brooding.

Mabel would never meet Emily, however. Emily always preferred to listen to the piano-playing and the singing from the shadows of the hallway that she wryly referred to as the “North-West Passage”. Nevertheless, at the end of each performance, Mabel would be presented with a glass of sherry on a silver salver which had been sent on instruction from this hidden but attentive listener. After the first concert, a poem accompanied the sherry. According to Mabel, it had been written impromptu during her performance and read:

Elysium is as far as to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom—

What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot—
The opening of a Door.

Emily had long been a recluse. It is often overlooked that the familiar daguerreotype portrait of her—wide-eyed and erect in posture, and which she said reminded her of an image she had once seen of a kangaroo—was taken when she was only sixteen years old. Mabel wrote to her parents:

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, & seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years, except once to see the new church, when she crept out at night, & viewed it by moonlight … She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her … isn’t that like a book? So interesting.

In her own journal, she went further:

She writes the strangest poems, & very remarkable ones. She is in many respects a genius … She wanted me to come & sing to her, but she would not see me. She has frequently sent me flowers & poems, and we have a very pleasant friendship in that way.

As early as 1883, Mabel herself may well have taken over the mantle of “Amherst’s character”. She and Austin were now consumed by a less than clandestine love affair, in which her husband David was dutifully complicit. Austin’s influence had secured him an increased salary at Amherst College and it seems that “Little dud David”—as Austin’s wife, Susan Dickinson, caustically named him—was content to busy himself with the types of women that Mabel described as “low”. Many of the Austin–Mabel trysts took place at Homestead, behind the closed doors of the dining room or library and with the two sisters, to varying degrees, complicit. On the first such occasion, Mabel noted in her journal, “A most exquisitely happy and satisfactory two hours.” An overwhelmed Austin recorded in his own diary, “never eaqualled [sic]”.

Emily died, aged fifty-five, in May 1886. A week after the funeral, Lavinia discovered, locked in a chest, many poems that had been written on loose papers and scraps such as envelope flaps. She also came across more than forty groups of poems on sheets of letter paper through which holes had been punched and the sheets bound with string. Lavinia described the find as “a box (locked) containing 7 hundred wonderful poems carefully copied”. Mabel ultimately decided that these bound collections should go by the term “fascicles”. Neither the fascicles nor any individual poems had titles. Nor were there page numbers or any distinguishing features of a kind that might indicate a chronology. None of the poems were arranged alphabetically and there were no contents lists or indexes of any kind that might assist in locating any one poem. It seemed that the intention was for them to be browsed at random.

The material in the box has kept legions of Dickinson scholars busy ever since. Lavinia’s find constituted much of the complete Dickinson oeuvre of close to 1800 poems and contained what are considered some of the greatest poems in the Western canon. The poem referred to as “706”, and now thought to have been written around 1863, reads:

From Blank to Blank—
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet—
To stop—or perish—or advance—

Alike indifferent—
If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinites disclosed—
I shut my eyes—and groped as well
’Twas lighter—to be Blind.

Expressing the sense of hopelessness, yet acknowledging the dogged necessity to put one foot in front of the other that we meet in the work of Franz Kafka half a century later and Samuel Beckett some forty years further on again, Harold Bloom once noted, “To pack this much into forty-one words and ten lines ought not to be possible.”

Though Lavinia had already—on her sister’s instructions—burned what she knew of Emily’s correspondence, it became abundantly clear to her that the poems needed to be published. The question remained as to how this was to be achieved amid the ever-expanding soap opera that was the extended Dickinson family. Lavinia had originally wanted her sister-in-law Susan to present the poems in a state fit for publication. Susan herself had been the recipient of nearly 300 of Emily’s poems and at one point, before her marriage to Austin, the two had been the closest of confidantes. Indeed, Emily had remarked in a letter to her: “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than anyone living.”

Susan, however, repeatedly expressed doubts as to whether there was a reading public for the poems. Her procrastination, combined with a general lack of enthusiasm for the project, ultimately led Lavinia to approach Mabel. Mabel’s journal explained it thus: “Vinnie came to me. She knew I always had faith in the poems and she begged me to copy and edit them—put them into shape … So I took them.” Mabel also offered Lavinia this advice: “No publisher will attempt to read the poems in Emily’s own peculiar hand-writing, much less judge them. I should have to copy them all.”

Susan, having refused to attend Emily’s funeral because Mabel did, was unsurprisingly infuriated to hear that her husband’s lover was now being engaged to edit the poems. Lavinia’s name was banned within the walls of Evergreens and its inhabitants were instructed not to speak to her. According to Mabel, Susan’s “crowning atrocity” in “a family quarrel of endless convolutions”, was to claim that the poems had been bequeathed to her and that Lavinia’s actions were in fact illegal. But this claim was never pressed.

Mabel’s acceptance of the challenge to edit the poems speaks volumes not only for her capacity for work, but also her ability to juggle a complex personal existence. Quite aside from the scale of the task and the minefield of difficulties inherent in it, she was already ensconced in her own writing, giving lessons in art and music as well as painting her own pictures. She was also making arrangements for a trip to Japan to assist David in his never-ending quest to photograph a solar eclipse. A journal entry at this time reads: “I have a strange sort of life, it is not like anybody else’s.” Her journal also reveals that she is disheartened by her failed attempts to conceive a Dickinson child and that she and David are considering entering into a permanent ménage à trois with Austin.

By the end of 1890 she recorded that Emily’s poems were “having a wonderful effect on me, mentally and spiritually”. She later recollected that they had opened a door

into a wider universe than the little sphere surrounding me which so often hurt and compressed me—and they helped me nobly through a trying time. Their sadness and hopelessness, sometimes, was so much bitterer than mine that:

I was helped

As if a Kingdom cared.

Having quoted poem 260, she further notes that she had been “strengthened and uplifted” and that she had also become convinced, unlike Susan, that the poems might have the same effect on others.

She was right: there were six printings in as many months of the first edition of poems that were submitted for publication. Sales and the general public’s interest were further fuelled by Mabel’s popular talks on what she called “Emily’s poetic genius”. A Boston reporter described Mabel as:

an almost girlish figure in her black lace dress whose sole adornment was a small bunch of her favourite jonquils—every tone and gesture revealed not only the intelligent critic but the loving friend.

Be that as it may, during the Todds’ 1887 Japanese trip—where Mabel’s unbounded energy made her the first Western woman to ascend Mt Fuji—Susan discovered that her husband had altered his will. A parcel of family-owned land was now, in the event of his death, to be left to Mabel and David. The discontent caused by this simmered until Austin’s eventual death in 1895. Lavinia instigated legal proceedings in 1898. She felt she had been fooled by Mabel, and enlisted a conspiratorial lawyer at one point into signing a legal document relating to the land. The court case became the talk of Amherst, as evidenced by the recollections of one of its residents, Alfred E. Stearns:

What means were employed to bring [Lavinia’s] change of heart to pass can only be guessed. Town gossips played with the topic, suggesting such devious devices as hypnotism, threats, blackmail, and deceit, but these notions were the product of minds too much accustomed to thinking in terms of unsupported evidence and hence were not taken seriously. But whatever they were they proved immensely effective, and Lavinia, turning against her former friend and helper, allied herself with her belligerent relatives.

The case went against the Todds. Worse still, the Austin–Mabel trysts had become the trial’s focus. Mabel’s consequent embarrassment, as well as the loss of the prospect of the Dickinson land, made her vow to have nothing more to do with the family. As a consequence, the unpublished manuscripts still under her care, amounting to some 665 poems, were locked in a camphor chest, where they remained until 1929. A professionally edited collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, including those in the possession of Susan, did not eventuate until the venture undertaken by Thomas Johnson in 1955. What would Emily herself have made of all this? Poem 1012?

Best Things dwell out of Sight
The Pearl—the Just—Our Thought—

Most shun the Public Air
Legitimate, and Rare—

The Capsule of the Wind
The Capsule of the Mind

Exhibit here, as doth a Burr—
Germ’s Germ be where?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson assisted Mabel in editing the first volume of poems. He received a letter from Samuel G. Ward, an early transcendentalist and regular contributor to the literary magazine the Dial. Higginson felt compelled to send the letter to Mabel with a note to suggest that he felt it to be “the most remarkable criticism yet made on E.D.” Perhaps it still is?

I am, with all the world, intensely interested in Emily Dickinson. No wonder six editions have been sold, every copy, I should think to a New Englander. She may become world famous, or she may never get out of New England. She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of the puritan descent pur sang. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder. Ascetics of course … conversed with our own souls till we lost the art of communicating with other people. The typical family grew up strangers to each other, as in this case. It was awfully high, but awfully lonesome. Such prodigies of shyness do not exist elsewhere.

After Emily’s death, the indefatigable Mabel formed an Amherst chapter of the organisation known as Daughters of the American Revolution. She was also instrumental in the formation of the Amherst Woman’s Club and the Amherst Historical Society. She continued to paint and write, though she ceased singing publicly at the age of forty. She also embarked on highly successful lecture tours related to the regular Todd field astronomical trips to far-flung places. Mabel died in 1932 on Hog Island, in Lincoln County, Maine; now a nature reserve that she and her husband had saved from clearcut logging. David outlived her by seven years.

Asteroids 510 Mabella and 511 Davida continue to orbit the sun.

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote “Life and Death in the Soviet Union” in the June issue and “Springtime for Stalin and Harmony” in July-August

2 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson: The Myth and Mrs Todd

  • padmmdpat says:

    One of my favourite James Thurber cartoons shows a a woman picking flowers observed by two other women, one of whom is saying, “She has the Emily Dickinson spirit, except she gets fed up occasionally. “

  • STD says:

    “Nevertheless, at the end of each performance,
    Mabel would be gifted with a glass of sherry,
    On a silver salver
    Which had been sent by instruction from,
    This hidden,
    But attentive listener”.

    Ah, the latent dignity and divinity of the mind- truly gifted, greatly admired.
    I need not to see you ,to know the sense of my heart.

    What an intrigue ,thanks Barry

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