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*Starred Review* Forever vanquished is the pallid icon of Emily Dickinson as the reclusive virgin saint of Amherst. In The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2010), Jerome Charyn imagines the poet as an adventurous, sexy rebel, and now Gordon, biographer of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft, explodes all previous theories in an electrifying family portrait. It wasn't heartbreak that kept the poet sequestered, Gordon argues with high-beam cogency, it was epilepsy, a then-uncontrollable and shameful malady. With one stroke, Gordon recasts Dickinson's entire oeuvre. She then reveals the outrageous treachery of the poet's esteemed brother, Austin, who held his unmarried sisters, wife Susan, and their children hostage to his passion for his ambitious mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, whose scheming husband encouraged the affair. So much for New England decorum and restraint. With trysts in Lavinia and Emily's cherished home and sanctuary, Mabel's escalating demands, and Austin's utter callousness toward his family, a great feud was born. And on it raged long after Emily's death as the irrepressible, multitalented Mabel deciphered, typed, and published Dickinson's poems. Literary bloodhound and superbly eloquent chronicler Gordon follows every twist and kink of the ensuing legal skirmishes, especially the poignant battle between Mabel's daughter and Emily's niece, in a Shakespearean tale of a house divided. A jolting and utterly intriguing watershed achievement.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist
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This biography is informed by two revelations: first, a bombshell that is likely to be debated as long as there are inquiring readers of Emily Dickinson; and second, the effect of a family love affair on the poet's long and complex publishing history. When Dickinson writes "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" and punctuates her work in a spasmodic style, Gordon maintains we are privy to the neuronal misfiring of epilepsy. Gordon unearths compelling evidence: the glycerine Dickinson was prescribed, then a common treatment for epilepsy; her photosensitivity; and a family history of epilepsy. The stigma-packed condition, says Gordon, is at least one source of Dickinson's celebrated isolation. Gordon, biographer of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft, also recounts the fallout from the affair between the poet's straitlaced, married brother, Austin, and the far younger, also married Mabel Loomis Todd. In a literary land grab, descendants of the families of Dickinson and Todd (who edited many of Emily's papers) squared off in a fight to control the poet's work and myth. Although deciphering Emily Dickinson's mysterious personality is like trying to catch a ghost, this startling biography explains quite a lot. 16 pages of b&w photos; 2 maps. (June 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Noted literary biographer Gordon (senior research fellow, St. Hilda's Coll., Oxford; Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life) combed the archival record, including newly available materials, and presents a twofold thesis about her subject: first, that Dickinson's seclusion was due to an epileptic condition; second, that the question of who should manage and present to the world Dickinson's oeuvre and the details of her life has been influenced by a family feud that began in Dickinson's lifetime and continues to color scholarship to this day. The key person in this feud was Mabel Todd, who became the mistress of Emily's married brother Austin, altering the relationships among the remaining principals: Austin, Emily, their sister Lavinia, and Austin's wife, Sue. The first portion of the book, drawing extensively on Dickinson's own words put into context as explanation of her physical and mental state, is speculative and not entirely convincing as proof of epilepsy. The second part, however, on the nature and impact of the feud, is well developed and engrossing. VERDICT This new interpretation of the poet's life is a necessary addition to all literature collections, academic and public.-Gina Kaiser, Univ. of the Sciences Lib., Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.