Monday, 14 June 2010

Lyndall Gordon on Emily Dickinson

Heidi Büchner writes: 

It was with the maximum interest that I was privileged to listen at the West Lane Baptist Church to Lyndall Gordon from St Hilda's College in Oxford on the Saturday of the Brontë Society's annual weekend in June, because she was speaking of her recent work on one of the greatest American poets Emily Dickinson, who can be profitably observed in parallel with the other Emily -  Brontë. In a space which is like a small theatre, she spoke of mystery and secrecy, at a time when the illness epilepsy was 'unmentionable' in families, like so many other items in the nineteenth century, but she was certain that Emily Dickinson was not the helpless creature who rejected the idea of living that popular myth maintains. Epilepsy, in fact, was considered as in the same box as syphilis, and related to insanity and female hysteria. The famous men who were afflicted were considered differently, to give examples Julius Caesar and the Prophet Mohammed.

Her retiring was a pose, and in real life she was energetically opinionated and a little sharp. The pose was so successful that the citizens of Amherst actually referred to her as 'the Myth'. She lived her life according to what she wanted. She was not an ordinary New England puritan. Even as a young student at Holyoke College she stood up to the authoritarian pressures from the principal, Mary Lyon, who wanted a strict and rigid acceptance of her view of Christianity, refusing to be 'saved'.

Emily was attracted to a scientific outlook, and Lyndall Gordon quoted:

"Faith" is a fine invention

When gentlemen can see -

But microscopes are prudent

In an emergency

She wanted to be clear and truthful, and rejected social chatter and formal piety, responding to The Soul's Superior instants.

Sickness appears in many places, especially when she was in her thirties, with mention of convulsions: I dropped down, and down. She might not have had a severe form, just suffering from a mild petit mal, but the epilepsy was in her family, so it could have been a genetic matter. Did cups and plates slip from her hands because of it or for another reason?

Lyndall Gordon knows she does not have final pieces of the evidence, but it was a reasonable gamble to claim the theory. She treated the questioning members of the audience with a friendly spirit, because she is not the sort of academic one is unable to approach.

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