Miles's Reviews > Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord

Emily Dickinson in Love by John Evangelist Walsh
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Jan 07, 13

Read in January, 2013

This brief study of "The Sex Life of Emily Dickinson" is best read from a position of deep familiarity with Dickinson's biography, such as provided by Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns" or other extensive biographies. Walsh's unique contribution is to track the Otis Lord relationship in isolation, so that everything that can be connected to the Lord - Dickinson romance is brought into sharp relief. If you retained any illusions about Emily Dickinson as some kind of abstractly passionate but ethereal and asexual spinster, indeed, any idea that she was committed to her seclusion above all else, this book provides a needed counter-narrative.

We watch the relationship with Otis Lord develop over time, from first meeting (Emily was 18 months old, he a law student), to later meetings when as a young woman Emily would be drawn to him. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are invited to imagine, through the vehicle of the poems and letters and external evidence, the relationship developing over time, illuminated by the barely visible footprints that remain, marking where they walked, suggesting what was possible, what was said, and what, perhaps, could not have been said, or thought, or touched.

There are moments of astonishing specificity when we read Emily's teasing and frank sexual innuendo directed toward Lord, mixed with metaphors obscure and powerful, which Walsh helpfully explicates. There are also episodes for which the evidence is all but non-existent. Walsh, for example, points to the propinquity of Emily's 15 month stay in Boston to be treated for an unknown eye problem with Otis Lord's choice to hold court in Boston during that time period. They were in the same city! At the same time! On that slender thread, the author hangs a tale of imagined liaisons and evenings spent together reading Shakesepeare by the fire. It seems silly at first, but given everything we know that came before and after, perhaps the surmise is not so absurd. These were 19th century lovers, working something out, within the confines of 19th century society... unless of course they were not.

(I should note that the 15 month stay in Boston also troubled Lyndall Gordon in her "Lives Like Loaded Guns" biography. Gordon used it to very different purpose, arguing that Dickinson was being treated for epilepsy in this period by a Boston specialist. Between the two, I think I rather prefer, as a matter of plausibility, the idea that her extended uncomfortable stay in faraway Boston was about the pursuit of love, and proximity to the object of her desire, Otis Lord, while the treatment was in part, perhaps, a cover story.)

But, beyond the Boston period, the evidence is very suggestive indeed. Emily loved someone, and no candidate fits better than the married Otis Lord. She wished to be his bride, realized that this was not to be, took to wearing white (arguably a symbol of her desired status as his bride) and entered a life of reclusion which she might have reasonably supposed would be hers until death. This plan was interrupted by the death of Elizabeth Lord. Soon she was bubbly (read the letters!) with plans to marry the widower Otis Lord. The marriage did not occur because of Lord's stroke, the illnesses of several family members, and then Lord's death.

Following her death a few years later many letters were burned by Emily's protective family, and others may remain hidden to this day by the descendants of Otis Lord. The truth of how two lovers arranged their bodies in 19th century parlors, what they permitted themselves and what they denied themselves is something that cannot be known at this remove. But the letters and poems and other documents make a strong case that these two knew each others' touch, felt the warmth of their bodies against each other, and that Otis Lord was the passionate love of Emily Dickinson's life.

I highly recommend this, if you enjoy biography or are a fan of Emily Dickinson.

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