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Editorial Reviews

You may well be wondering what the big deal is about the legacy of innovative American poet Emily Dickinson, and how the controversy over this legacy could possibly stay interesting for 15 hours of audiobook. No matter what your level of knowledge about the poet’s life and work might be, here is a strangely compelling tale that will ideally put a full century of literary demons to rest once and for all. Between Lyndall Gordon and Wanda McCaddon, there is a confluence of writing and narration that is sure to delight biography fans of all kinds.

A career biographer of influential literary personalities, Gordon has won awards for her work on T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Brontë. There is no researcher more capable of weaving a cohesive final truth report on the conflicts in Dickinson’s family, and no writer more skilled at keeping the tale interesting without stooping to a licentious tabloid tone. Wanda McCaddon, who has won awards for her voice work on other biographies as well as period classics like Sense and Sensibility, is the perfect choice to render this unusual and drawn-out battle for publication credits with dry British wit and the perilous dignity for which the Dickinson family was famous.

In the beginning of the book, Gordon is occupied with answering questions that have long plagued Dickinson scholars: What was the precise nature of the poet’s relationship with Susan Dickinson, wife of her brother, Austin? Was Dickinson indeed an epileptic? Is there any evidence that the “Master”, to whom the poet often wrote love letters and essays, was a real person? Why did Dickinson wear white for years, and never leave her father’s house? But the more delicious core concern of the book is to settle the question of how Austin Dickinson’s adulterous affair with Mabel Todd impacted Emily while she was living, and then the control of Emily’s work once she was dead.

McCaddon is in fine lively form when sharing the direct quotations from Emily herself, from the vast supply of letters, poems, and legal documents increasingly seeing the light of day. Gordon comes down squarely and consistently on the side of the Dickinson women through the generations — from Emily, to sister Lavinia, to sister-in-law Susan, to Susan’s daughter Mattie — who each tried to protect the publication rights from encroachment by Austin’s mistress and then Mabel’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham. Whether or not you find yourself agreeing with how the hundred years of infamously shady literary antagonism shakes down, one thing is clear: with all the drama this complex love affair provoked, the Dickinsons were wise not to have kept actual loaded guns in the house. —Megan Volpert

Publisher's Summary

In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons and reveals Emily to be a very different woman from the pale, lovelorn recluse that exists in the popular imagination.

Thanks to unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson to reveal the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion and presents a woman beyond her time who found love, spiritual sustenance, and immortality all on her own terms. An enthralling story of creative genius, filled with illicit passion and betrayal, Lives Like Loaded Guns is sure to cause a stir among Dickinson's many devoted readers, listeners, and scholars.

©2010 Lyndall Gordon (P)2010 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Although deciphering Emily Dickinson's mysterious personality is like trying to catch a ghost, this startling biography explains quite a lot." (Publishers Weekly)

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  • Cariola
  • Chambersburg, PA USA
  • 12-04-10

Take the Subtitle Literally

If you're looking for a book about Emily Dickinson's life, this may not be it: she dies about halfway through, and the rest of the book focuses on the bickering over who should edit her works and letters, who owns the copyrights, who should get the royalties, who knew her best and is therefore entitled to do lecture tours about her, where the archives should be housed, etc. Some of this is very interesting, some not so much.

Most of the quarrels and lawsuits involve Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited the first selection of Emily's work. This is not surprising, since Mabel was also the mistress of Emily's married brother, Austin Dickinson, and had never met or even seen Emily, although they did correspond. After Austin's death, Mabel and his widow, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, engaged in a series of legal and social battles. Susan had been a true friend to Emily, who had written many of her poems specifically for Sue's perusal and comments, and she contested Todd's right to edit (and profit from) the collected poems and letters. After Sue's death, Emily's sister Lavinia, who initially sided with Mabel, picked up the fight.

The feuds continued until the 1940s, eventually involving Emily's niece and great nephew and Mabel's legitimate daughter, Millicent Todd (who had a breakdown of sorts when she found letters that revealed the true nature of her mother's "friendship" with Austin Dickinson).

If you know nothing about Emily Dickinson's life (i.e., you haven't read one of the more authoritative biographies), you might find the first half of the book interesting--although much of it sets up the 'characters' in the family's feuds over her work. If you've read a good biography and are a Dickinson afficiando or scholar, you may find some intriguing information about the history of the promotion and publication of her work and letters and the creation of the image of the ethereal recluse in a white dress. I fall somehere in between.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Great first half, but what a slog in the 2nd

The account of the family feud amongst Emily Dickinson's brother & others is fascinating. Who knew that someone in the 1870s could be virtually polyamorous? Austin Dickinson was in a marriage that cooled, due to his fear that his wife Susan would be harmed by any additional pregnancies. Although their marriage was not dead, it was gravely wounded when an astronomer, David Todd, came to Amherst, with his wife Mabel. The marriage between the Todds was decidedly odd. David was a louche, who angled to get other women into bed. He encouraged his wife to pursue a symmetrically open attitude. When she encountered the charismatic Austin, she swooned, and they eventually consummated their "marriage" of true minds. She did continue relations with her weasel husband, David, and he actively encouraged this affair, since it greatly aided his standing within Amherst College, where Austin was the treasurer. There's a sad, and somewhat sordid, quality to this affair, since 3 of the parties were enthusiasts, but the 4th, Susan Dickinson, was greatly aggrieved. While Lyndall's book fascinates in its first half, focused on Emily Dickinson, and her family milieu, the second half is a serious slog. Very few people can be expected to care about the posthumous manipulation of Emily Dickinson's oeuvre with anything like the intensity of attention lavished upon it by the author. It's certainly fascinating the Mrs. Mabel Todd succeeded in controlling a great deal of the manuscripts left by Emily, notwithstanding the apparent fact that Emily never once deigned to speak to her, and could plausibly be viewed as being quite chilly toward this usurper. If the second half had been compressed by a factor of ten, it might have been a great story. But the endless dilations on the manuscript wars can only be of interest to a very small number of scholars. I write this as someone who has a great appetite for academic feuds. The former magazine Lingua Franca could have made hey of this in an incisive 10 to 15,000 word essay, which could have been delicious. But to spend more than 5 times that many words on something so dusty is ultimately a misperception of the audience that could possibly exist for such a work.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Great ending

Well researched, vindicating and thought provoking. Enjoyed very much. Would have liked more poems, but there can never be enough

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Well worth the read

The interplay between Emily and her family, Mabel Todd and the Dickinson family, and how the poems came to be published is a fascinating read. Very well researched. Loved the narrator, could listen to her all day.

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The Hatfields and McCoys! :)

Where does Lives Like Loaded Guns rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

I've been on an Emily Dickinson obsession as of late, moreso of Mabel Loomis Todd and Austin Dickinson and their love affair. Though this book just touched on the affair, it did have quite a bit of information after Emily's death about the feud that ensued because of her poems.

What did you like best about this story?

That back in the 1900's naughty stuff took place! :) And, that a woman stood her ground and did not conform to society's expectation. That's my kind of gal.

Which character – as performed by Wanda McCaddon – was your favorite?

She read the whole book, not really changing voices for characters.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

15+ hours....def could not! :)

Any additional comments?

Loved it! :)

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Why is the book being read by a Britisher?

What made the experience of listening to Lives Like Loaded Guns the most enjoyable?

It is a fascinating biography, which I have not yet finished. However, the reader has a heavy British accent that I at moments find hard to penetrate. Am baffled by why she was chosen.

Would you be willing to try another one of Wanda McCaddon’s performances?

No.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No.

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Can't go wrong with Dickinson

I loved this book. Worth a read and a listen. A great biographical depiction of the poet.

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Best when not using poems as biographical evidence

although the author warns against using poems as biography she can't seem to help herself, immediately launching into some of the poems as actual evidence. It's hard to blame her though. But where this book really is outstanding is with her use of the letters and other legal documents and journals from all the many different players involved. I feel like I have learned so much more about Dickinson and her family. And though I'm happy to have done so, I can't help but feel that the poems have now become that much more inaccessible.