Emily’s secret love
Following her father’s death, poet Emily Dickinson did something unthinkable in his lifetime: She began to romance her father’s best friend. This excerpt from a new book reveals a woman so unlike the lovelorn recluse who exists in the popular imagination.
By the 1870s, the existence of poems by Emily Dickinson had got about, and Miss Emily, then in her 40s, had begun her long career as “the myth.” Curiosity grew about the recluse. The poems were secreted away in the Homestead, the Amherst home she shared with her parents and her devoted younger sister, Lavinia, known as Vinnie.
After the death of their father, Edward, in 1874, the sisters stood closer than ever. In business matters, they now leaned on their brother, Austin, who lived next door and took over his father’s partnership in a law office. He had already assumed his father’s post as treasurer of Amherst College, a position commanding all college decisions.
Another man on whom to rely was Otis Phillips Lord, Edward Dickinson’s old friend and a judge on the Massachusetts supreme court. Lord had studied law at Amherst just before Emily was born and during the first 18 months of her life. He had graduated in 1832, and Amherst had conferred on him an honorary doctor of laws in 1869. He was married to Elizabeth Farley, a high-minded descendant of John Leverett, president of Harvard. They were childless and lived near the Witch House in Salem. The Lords used to stay at the Homestead, and after Edward died, “the dear Lords,” as Emily wrote, continued to visit. The judge appears to have come on his own for a week in October 1875, when Emily, far from reclusive, spoke of his visit as being “with me.”
Since Lord had known Emily all her life, he did not hesitate to inquire after her health in a fatherly way. She was dreaming of her father every night and prone to forget what she was doing during the day, “wondering where he is.” This absence of mind may have troubled her sister, since it was with Vinnie that Lord raised his concern: “. . . Knowing . . . how unwilling [she is] to disclose any ailment, I fear that she has been more ill, than she has told me. I hope you will tell me particularly about her.” Unsure what her sickness was, he wished Vinnie to report fully, though he respected Emily’s reticence.
“Emily never thinks of herself,” he remarked to Vinnie in March 1877. He thought her an angel, like his wife, who had rheumatism and other ills. Mrs. Lord died in December 1877, on Emily’s 47th birthday.
Over the next few months, Emily turned to the handsome widower – not as a father but as a suitor of sorts. Later, a granddaughter of Dickinson’s confidante Elizabeth Holland suggested that Lord’s tenderness had “long been latent in his feeling for her.” Dickinson expert and Mount Holyoke College professor Christopher Benfey has asserted this possibility more strongly, suggesting in his book A Summer of Hummingbirds that the attraction went back to the summer of 1862, when Lord came to Amherst as commencement speaker.
Eighteen years her senior, his gray hair was shading into white; his expression calm and contained – not a man to exact attention, though his grave and upright bearing subdued others, not only the guilty, as he passed judgment. Lord looked stern “as the Profile of a Tree against a winter sky,” Emily ventured to say. He appeared as rigid as Emily’s father, but she had a way with elders of this sort, breezing through their barest branches. Her amusing darts disarmed men of law who were accustomed to wither lesser beings; the drafts of her letters to Lord are witty, confident, open, and playfully physical – hardly the way modest women were meant to behave. Gossip had it that Emily’s sister-in-law, Susan, had been taken aback to break in on the supposed recluse, the image of white-frocked chastity, in the judge’s arms.
Lord’s niece Abbie Farley claimed to have heard Susan deplore that embrace. Emily, the niece is reported to have said, had not “any idea of morality.” She was bound to take this view, for Miss Farley, aged 35, was the judge’s heir. She and her mother, Mrs. Lord’s sister, were due to inherit jointly $23,000. Together with another niece on the Farley side (due to inherit $10,000), they kept house for the judge. If he remarried, he would have new claims. “Little hussy,” Abbie fumed over a copy of Emily’s Poems decades later when questioned about the celebrated poet Abbie had once known. “Loose morals,” Abbie remembered. “She was crazy about men. Even tried to get Judge Lord. Insane too.”
To Emily herself, Lord’s love was “Improbable.” It would have been unthinkable in her father’s lifetime: his carefully protected daughter permitting such license, and with his old friend. The voice of judgment, “I say unto you” thundering through the startled air at morning prayers, had cleansed impurities from the minds of Edward Dickinson’s listeners. As Emily put it humorously, “Fumigation ceased when Father died.” Now, four years on, that voice no longer ruled. In her late 40s and early 50s, she found herself free to partake of the forbidden tree.
With Lord, Emily was unafraid to speak up, inviting a glint of humor she called “the Judge Lord brand.” A smile broke when she teased him with the solemnities of courtroom language. “Crime,” “confess,” “punish,” “penalty,” “incarcerate” were the words she applied to his supposed trial of her as a wanting lover. “I confess that I love him,” she has to admit, but cannot pay the “debt” she owes him. Can her “involuntary Bankruptcy” be a crime? Will he “punish” her? “Incarcerate me in yourself – that will punish me,” she makes bold to suggest.
Flashing repartee of this sort exploded into intimacy within months of Mrs. Lord’s death. That year, 1878, there’s immediate talk of consummation. She wasn’t shy when she drafted her letters to Lord: “lift me back, wont you, for only there [in your arms] I ask to be. . . .” He was her “lovely Salem”; she, his “Amherst.” Weekly letters, directed to arrive on Mondays by the judge’s habits of punctuality, bonded Salem and Amherst. Emily’s “little devices to live till Monday” – attempts to concentrate on work – gave way to “the thought of you.” So she said to herself, if not to Salem, in a penciled scrap that breaks into verse celebrating the nature of love (fleet, indiscreet, wrong, and joyful).
As a single man, it was no longer proper for Lord to stay at the Homestead on his now more frequent trips to Amherst; he and Emily met in the parlor. There, they held each other while the air about them fanned the question of marriage. In August and September of 1880, he practically lived in Amherst. During this time, they may have entered into some kind of private engagement. Softly, her thin hand is offered to him in response to what she calls “your distant hope.” He leaves saying it had been a “heavenly hour.” How sweet was his candor, she wrote. It was important for her to convey that she would not take advantage of this intimacy; he was not to be used as material for poems. This was strictly a private pleasure.
Was she too frank for her own good? The fear did cross her mind, and it’s possible that she edited the surviving drafts or didn’t send them. Whether she did or not, her father’s friend gave her emotions a “fair home,” replacing the vacancy in what she still called “my father’s house.” And yet he was not like her father. His racy talk, familiar to colleagues on the bench, called out an unfamiliar side to Emily. “I will not wash my arm,” she said, “twill take your touch away,” and again: “It is strange that I miss you at night so much when I was never with you – but the punctual love invokes you soon as my eyes are shut – and I wake warm with the want sleep had almost filled. . . .”
Wafting through Emily’s poems is a woman playing a counter-role: This purified creature has to freeze the life of the “Ethiop within.” Abandoned to solitude, she retires from existence, puts on purity in her white dress, assumes “Cobweb attitudes,” and hangs her head in ostensible submission. In this poetic role, she enacts the appealing helplessness and self-effacement of 19th-century womanhood, but a cutting voice finds the role absurd: “such was not the posture / Of our immortal mind.” All the same, the white legend was to linger: As late as 1976, in the Broadway play The Belle of Amherst, a “shy,” “chaste,” “frightened” poet charms the audience with her feminine winsomeness. The playwright called it an “enterprise of simple beauty.”
The sentiment of this cult invites satire. A 60-foot puppet of the Belle of Amherst, in the signature white dress, pops out in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich. Demurely, book in hand, this famous “Nobody” decries “Somebodies” who croak about themselves the livelong day. Then, in 2008, “EDickinsonRepliLuxe,” a futuristic tale by Joyce Carol Oates, imagines the mass-marketing of a Dickinson robot half the poet’s size. This diminutive Belle in her dimity apron is designed to be a harmless pet, a consolation for wives buried in suburban deadness – so unlike the ardent woman who flung out her lassoes.
The question of marriage came up more seriously in November and December 1882, after Emily’s mother, also named Emily, had died. Eyeing the poet’s thinness, Lord teased her as “Emily Jumbo” (the famous elephant, Jumbo, in Barnum’s circus had recently appeared near Amherst). She tossed the joke back.
“Sweetest name, but I know a sweeter – Emily Jumbo Lord. Have I your approval?”
He assumed that she was now freed to live with him. He replied, “I will try not to make it unpleasant.”
She was touched that he could invite her into his “dear Home” with “loved timidity.” Her answer, as often when she was moved, almost falls into verse.
“So delicate a diffidence, how beautiful to see! I do not think a Girl extant has so divine a modesty. You even call me to your Breast with apology! Of what must my poor Heart be made?”
Her “No” to marriage was never final. She “lies near” his “longing”; she “touches” it but then wills herself to move away. Emily likely had epilepsy, and it would have been natural to hope that her condition would lessen as she grew older. But she’d had a blackout, perhaps a seizure, in April 1881, brought on by a nearby fire, with a wind blowing the burning shingles. Afterward, she had lain on her pillow for more than a week. At that time, marriage for epileptics was discouraged. She saw herself “by birth a Bachelor.”
In the end she did not tell Lord why she could not “bless” their union, only that not to do so “would be right.” To keep epilepsy the secret it had to be, she must remain at home as long as she lived. But she may have had other considerations as well: The incursions of the spirit are often associated with a particular place, and Emily’s room may have been for her thus hallowed. All that’s certain is that she had to control the tie with Lord. The forgiveness she asks for refusing to consummate their union addresses a divine Spirit rather than a leader of men.
Was Lord vital to Dickinson or was he an aftermath to her soaring? Was this a comfort after her father’s death, the slow fading of her mother, and the premature death of Samuel Bowle – who published some of Emily’s works in the early 1860s – on January 16, 1878, a month after Mrs. Lord died? It’s telling that Lord does not enter her poetry. From that point of view, he was a latecomer, competent, humorous, honorable, and devoted, who offers the woman – not the poet – a new drama. For the first time she experiences a man’s touch and reexperiences it at night in her imagination. Lying in the dark, she thinks of Lord’s need and goes to meet it with a readiness. At 47, 48, 49, and into her 50s, she tried out a prospective husband; his desire held up a mirror to a “want” of her own but she could not forget the red “Fire rocks” of her “volcano” that bound her still to “solitude.” By now, solitude was her habit. In the haunted house of her imagination, a bridegroom would mount her stair at midnight. He’s her poetic “Future”; the consummation she anticipates is posthumous. No ordinary bridegroom could compete with the footfall of the afterlife. All her days she heard it coming.
Lyndall Gordon is a senior research fellow at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford, England, and the author of biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, and others. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon. Copyright © 2010 by Lyndall Gordon.
Walk in Dickinson’s Footsteps Learn more about the poet by visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum, housed in her family’s homes, the Homestead and the Evergreens, in Amherst. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays, March 31 through December 31, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and until 5 p.m. in June, July, and August. For details, call 413-542-8161, or go to emilydickinsonmuseum.org.