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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  855 ratings  ·  200 reviews
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, ...more
Hardcover, 491 pages
Published June 10th 2010 by Viking Books (first published November 1st 2009)
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Average rating 3.81  · 
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Aug 09, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
I don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems...

Lyndall Gordon seems to be a trustworthy guide through the Dickinson thicket of mythology and legend...She focuses on the family and the rifts(s) that ensued with brother Austin's fourteen year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (he was married to Dickinson's girlhood friend Susan Gilbert). She also surmises that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which given the
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
If you think a novel about a staid 19th-century New England familyincluding an sickly maiden poet daughtertorn apart by a swinging couple, its wife seducing the married brother while the spinster poet writes and writes and glowersthe married woman largely responsible in the most vindictive of ways for establishing the poets posthumous famesounds good, well this literary biography of Emily Dickinson and her feuding family is for you. Completely riveting! ...more
Sep 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Even if you have never read a line of Emily Dickinson and have no intention of doing so, this is an important and engrossing, if not a salacious read. If you have read her, this is a must in order to understand what her amazing poems are saying. And, I say this believing fully that I understood many of her poems beforehand.

Any images you've imbibed of Emily as a chaste, sexless, recluse will be shattered by Gordon, who bases her conclusions not only on an exhaustive study of Emily's poetry, but
Anne Tommaso
Jun 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
Two stars is really my fault. I was looking for a book about Emily Dickinson. Instead this is the messy story of her family in her lifetime and far beyond. According to Gordon, the events in the Dickinson/Todd saga don't seem come from love or passion but more from jealousy and what becomes a desire to possess the right to edit and publish Emily Dickinson's work. What began as a passionate affair (AD+MT) seems quickly overshadowed and sullied by petty jealousies over land and rights as the ...more
James Murphy
Jun 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lyndall Gordon is a terrific biographer. She consistently brings fresh ways of seeing to her subjects. Previously I'd read her biographies of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and because I knew her study of Emily Dickinson would be informative I began Lives Like Loaded Guns with an avid, keen eye. Gordon doesn't disappoint, but it's not exactly biography. Though the seminal biographical events of Dickinson's life are touched on, the book is first a deep character analysis of her, and second the ...more
Jan 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
...just finished reading the Emily Dickinson biography and will never think of the dash in the same way again!
Idiosyncratic punctuation aside, what vile people! From what I've read about the artists I greatly admire, I wouldn't want to meet most of them; I'd rather stick to their work. Emily, with her long-standing reputation as the white dress clad virginal recluse, is here portrayed as a killer of kittens who leaves their putrefying corpses in a bucket, who is too self absorbed to stray from
Katharine Holden
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was ok
Most of the information in this book was new to me. It was interesting to read of the falling-out between two families who then continued their feud through generations of fighting over control of Emily Dickinson's fame and life story. However, Gordon seems to be channeling Dickinson's poetry style in writing this biography, especially in the first half, and it makes for some annoying and choppy prose. At times the author verges on sappy New Age-y type prose. After a while I started skimming.
Dec 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a great, great book. I suggest stopping what you are doing now and reading it instead.

I had not the slightest interest in Emily Dickinson until a few years ago, around the age of 50, or perhaps, this year at the age of 53. Until then I read her, and shrugged. Then, suddenly, I was ready, and she began to speak to me. Go figure.

It was on NPR that I heard Lyndall Gordon's thesis that Dickinson may have had epilepsy. As the father of a young man with epilepsy I found the evidence of
Jul 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A comprehensive and riveting biography of Emily Dickinson, though she dies midway through the book. Gordon is primarily concerned with how the tangled relationships of the Dickinson family , namely Austin Dickinson's adulterous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,affected the legacy and myth of the poet, the consequences of which are still felt today. Gordon chronicles the family feud which began in E.D's lifetime, resulting in two camps: the Todds, supported by Austin Dickinson, and Austin's wife ...more
Jee Koh
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and a book about who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous ...more
Jun 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I'm rather surprised by some of the low ratings regarding this book. I'd read the Guardian's rave review of it when the hardcover was published and was anticipating the paperback, which was released right about the time when I realised that the A level English Lit exam specification was changing and that I'd be teaching Dickinson next year -- for the first time since the '90s when I was still in the US teaching American literature. This book was a must read.

It's quite impressive. Gordon's

This book has been on my physical shelves for some time and my digital shelves for even longer, and after reading and loving to the point of declaring a favorite The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, it's almost like coming home to delve into a nonfictional piece that comes closer to the truth than so many that came before it. I say almost because, much like what happened with Comfort Woman, the sensational almost became too much by the end, exacerbated by an escalation as well as the
Jenny McPhee
Oct 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
At the end of Lyndall Gordons Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Familys Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poets genius as: ...a hidden life like a Bomb in her bosom. The poetry it fueled, she advises, must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. Its more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, ...more
Mar 18, 2013 rated it did not like it
To borrow some 19th Century phrasing, this book was not impassioned. Worse, this book reads like the writings of someone who has had a stroke: repeatedly, the author starts with a whisper of an idea, gains a bit of momentum, and then suddenly trails off again into a multitude of disparate thoughts, all as ephemeral as a spider's webbing

There are many valuable scholarly contributions hidden within this maddening biography: for the first time, we see what truly went on behind the closed doors of
Apr 20, 2011 rated it liked it
Emily Dickinson's poetic genius is hardly in dispute, but for anyone with patience wanting to read a whole lot more detail about Dickinson's life and times, this might be the book for you. Its strength and weakness is that it is really two books in one. Much of this book leaves Emily herself lost in the background as the focus shifts to family and others -- and what happens once Emily is dead. Some of that story is fascinating in a soap opera style way and hovers around the poems Emily has left ...more
Sarai Walker
Mar 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best biographies I've read. It reads like a thrilling novel. Lyndall Gordon is a master of the form. Now that I'm finished I miss being immersed in the world of Emily Dickinson's Amherst, despite the death, drama and back-stabbing. (Poor Emily!)
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I knew next to nothing about Emily Dickinson, when I came across this fascinating-looking work in a charity shop!
An extremely erudite and well-researched account (the author is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford); the book takes us back to Emily Dickinson's young life, living in Amherstwith her correct parents and an unmarried sister; next door lives upright brother Austin and his wife, Sue. We see a very different Emily from the simple recluse of popular mythology; Gordon describes a flirtation
Jan 07, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
After I saw the film about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, I decided to read about her life. This book did have some information about her, but was more focused on the scandalous affair her brother had with a much younger woman. After Emily's death, the focus is on lawsuits, scandals, bitter rivalries, jealousy, and animosity about who would edit Emily's work. It was surprising that despite the fact that both Mr. Dickinson senior and junior were well-respected attorneys, so many seemed to die ...more
Jun 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, poetry
WHEW. This book was a long, hard SLOG. I don't know if I was simply easily distracted while I read this book, but it really felt like WORK to make it through to the end. As ever, it is impossible to write a solid biography of Emily Dickinson, so by necessity, any book about her actually becomes a biography of the people around her. The story of her brother's infidelity is thoroughly examined and discussed, and actually that part of the book was quite fascinating--Gordon has definitely done her ...more
Laura C.
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
After reading this book, by the scholarly Lyndall Gordon, who in her other life is a senior research fellow at St. Hildas college in Oxford, England, I realized I was still reading Emily Dickinsons poetry like the Jr High kid I was when I was first introduced to her works. Ms Gordon gives us a much more complicated portrait of her than the one I had imagined of a shy recluse hidden away in frustration at the limitations of 19th century women. Most interesting to me is Gordons advocacy of ...more
Oct 10, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a slow, slow book--so much detail to digest; apparently the author researched thoroughly. The digressions and asides along with the author's writing style make me rate the book lower. The book seems aimed at those studying Dickinson, not those who just want to know more about her.

The most important development in the book is the author's suppositions that Dickinson's reclusiveness was not a personality quirk but rather a family attempt to hide her frequent seizures resulting from
Oct 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Lives Like Loaded Guns

Essentially, what I am getting from this multi-person biography is that if you are a writer, publish your own works or else family members, and people who think they know you as a family member, will cause a stir, deface and change your work, and cost your family a lot of money.

Focusing on the lives of the people around Emily Dickinson, primarily her brother, sister, sister in law and brothers mistress, Lives Like Loaded Guns is like a non-fictional soap opera, complete
Gayla Bassham
Jul 31, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010-reads
An odd and not entirely successful book. There are really two books here: one a biography of Emily Dickinson, featuring a provocative thesis that she suffered from epilepsy; another an account of what happened to Dickinson's literary estate and legacy after her death, featuring the machinations of Mabel Loomis Todd. Gordon might have done better to pick one of those topics and expand it rather than try to fit both into the same book. As it is, both feel underdeveloped and in the second half, as ...more
Jul 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literary-bio
This unusually well-researched and -written biography gave me so much about Emily Dickinson and her work. I knew from reading E's poetry that she was no posy-holding wallflower, but Gordon rounds Emily out, into a three-dimensional woman who is a passionate, wily, genius. The condition that allowed her privacy is also well evidenced, and explains a lot -- as do the descriptions of all other family members and characters. Gordon's interpretations of their behavior are based on analysis of ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Aug 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sept-oct-2010
Despite a host of books about Dickinson and her work, Lives Like Loaded Guns is full of surprises regarding the poet's life and influences. Although Gordon reaches for conclusions to some of the bigger questions--among them Dickinson's possible epilepsy, her love life, and the complicated relationship she had with her brother, Austin, his wife, and his mistress (who aspired to edit the poet's work)--the author's research into Dickinson's medical records and correspondence breathes fresh air into ...more
Apr 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
If you like Emily Dickinson, this book is a must. Throw away all the stuff you've heard about her before, and see the Dickinson family as one more dysfunctional mess where adultery, avarice, blind ambition, and debilitating illnesses play against a backdrop of puritanical beliefs falling apart as women begin to emerge as more than mere property of husbands. One more piece must be thrown in--Emily's sheer genius and how she revealed it to friends, family, and others. The result is a spider web of ...more
Aug 17, 2010 rated it liked it
I would give this book a 3.5. It's hard to drop into an Emily Dickinson controversy without having read other books about it, but I think this author does a great job of presenting all the sides of the family feud. The reason I gave it a 3 instead of a 4 is that it took me about 150 pages to get used to her writing style, which is to drop chunks of Emily's poems and letters into the middle of the author's sentences making for a very disjointed prose. I was constantly rereading sections for ...more
May 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Interesting book delving into the family dynamics of Emily Dickinson, her sister Lavinia, brother Austin and his wife Sue, and Austin's mistress Mabel. The author claims to have delved deeper into their relationships, and came to different conclusions than previous biographers. Gordon claims Emily had epilepsy, which is what kept her housebound, and that she did have lovers but didn't marry because of her epilepsy. Gordon also differs from others in her analysis of Sue, Austin's wife, and Mabel, ...more
Jan 11, 2011 rated it liked it
Absolutely fascinating. I never knew that so much popular knowledge about Emily Dickinson is false and that her family feud over ownership of her writing continues to this day. The most enlightening part of the book was the author's theory about Dickinson's chronic illness and the family dynamics surrounding her father's home while Dickinson was alive. My only criticism is the author's writing style. Her ideas twist and turn in some strange ways that make them difficult to follow at times. It ...more
Jan 30, 2012 rated it liked it
This book would be sensational if it weren't so complex and academic. The author shows no hesitation in voicing her opinions, premises, guesses, etc. as she delves deeply and bravely into the morass of Dickinson lore. I walked away feeling thankful that this was not MY family, and liking ED just a little less, as the author portrays her as sort of a passive aggressive character who bound others to her and manipulated those she cared for. Who knows what the truth is, but this book certainly ...more
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Lyndall Gordon (born 4 November 1941) is a British-based writer and academic, known for her literary biographies. She is a Senior Research Fellow at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

Born in Cape Town, she was an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, then a doctoral student at Columbia University in New York City. She married the pathologist Siamon Gordon; they have two daughters.

Gordon is the

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