Emily Dickinson continues to fascinate, not only for her brilliant, sui generis poetry but also for the reclusive life she lived. Yet just beyond the door of her self-constructed hermitage, all manner of intrigue and scandal was afoot, as her married brother, Austin, carried on an affair with his also-married neighbor, Mabel Loomis Todd, for more than a decade. At the time, this not-very-well-hidden indiscretion rocked close-knit Amherst, Massachusetts, but the true historical and literary significance of the connection rests in the fact that Todd, along with her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, would become central forces in bringing Emily Dickinson’s work to the public posthumously and therefore shaping how we continue to understand the poet’s work. In After Emily, Julie Dobrow tells the full story of this remarkable mother and daughter for the first time.
Emily Dickinson is a shadow figure in the events of After Emily.
Todd pushed against the parameters erected for women of her time, applying her intelligence and talents to music, painting and travel writing. Her diaries indicate that she was comfortable with the sexual aspects of love, and her marriage to David Todd, an astronomer, seems to have been remarkably open, with each aware of the other’s flirtations. After her husband took a teaching job at Amherst College, the Todds enjoyed the patronage of their influential neighbors, the Dickinsons. Mabel Todd was soon engaged in an emotional—and ultimately physical—affair with Austin Dickinson, who was twice her age. Dobrow suggests that this pair truly were soul mates, trapped in unhappy, or at least unfulfilling, marriages to others. Yet Todd also appears to have been quite self-centered in her pursuits. Her only child, Bingham, was raised by her grandparents until she was 8 years old, and when she came to live in Amherst with Todd, she was a victim of the damaging atmosphere generated by her mother’s affair—even if she didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time.
Emily Dickinson herself is a shadow figure in the story told here, much as she remained largely in the shadows of her own home in life. Indeed, Todd never met the poet face-to-face, despite living across a meadow from Dickinson and maintaining an intimate relationship with her brother. After the poet died, Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered the trove of poems the poet had never shared with the world, and she entrusted Todd with the task of getting them published. Todd found new purpose in this mission, but some of her decisions—including what Bingham would later call “creative editing,” such as changing some of Dickinson’s singular syntax and grammar—remain controversial. Still, Todd and Bingham’s role in preserving this great American poet’s writing is immeasurable. Their commitment to publishing and promoting their erstwhile neighbor’s work continued well into the 20th century, even as the family weathered personal crises.
This narrative of Todd’s and Bingham’s lives is elegantly and movingly told, if overly detailed at times. Both women were perhaps pack rats, and Dobrow encountered the blessing and the curse of 700 boxes of primary source material—hundreds of thousands of pages—among their private papers. She has done an admirable job sifting through the detritus to distill the essence of these women, their work and the world they inhabited.