THIS BRIEF TRAGEDY by John Evangelist Walsh


Unraveling the Todd-Dickinson Scandal
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 Walsh, novelist (The Man Who Buried Jesus, 1989) and literary detective (Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, 1988, etc.), now brings his impressive speculative powers to bear on the scandals surrounding the closing years of Emily Dickinson's life. The critical year was 1883: Emily's beloved eight-year-old nephew died; 70-year-old Judge Otis Lord, whom Emily hoped to marry, suffered a fatal stroke; failing health confined her to her room; she lost hope of publishing her poems; and her brother, Austin, entered a mÇnage Ö trois with Mabel Todd and her husband, David (who later suffered a nervous collapse from their irregular lifestyle). According to Walsh, Emily, influenced by Romeo and Heathcliff, then committed suicide by strychnine ingestion. Susan Dickinson, the poet's sister-in-law, discouraged posthumous publication of Emily's poems to avoid attracting attention to the sordid living arrangements of the mÇnage, but Vinnie, the poet's sister, asked Mabel to copy them, with Mabel's name ultimately joining Colonel Higginson's as editor and friend of the poet, even though she had never been allowed in Emily's presence. In 1930, when Emily's poetry was rediscovered, Mabel, as the only survivor, become the source of biographical information, which she altered to establish her own reputation as expert and confidante. Her daughter Millicent published Ancestor's Brocade: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson, permanently establishing Mabel as a literary heroine and Susan Dickinson and Vinnie, who had challenged Mabel's claim to a piece of Emily's property, as villains. It is difficult to say how much of this story is true. Mostly, it has the quality of a fascinating piece of historical fiction--in part because of Walsh's emphasis on the sordid (Austin was allowed ``a place in the family bed,'' and David was allegedly allowed to watch Austin and Mabel making love on Sunday evenings), and his neglect of precise citations, referring to other biographers without naming them or the works he claims to be refuting.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-8021-1119-X
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1991


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