Emily Dickinson: Scandalous Spinster?

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In 1882, a young bride new to Amherst, Massachusetts asked her neighbor about the mysterious sisters who lived next door. "You will not allow your husband to go there, I hope," said the neighbor. "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man. What can you say to that?" The spinster neighbors, the gossip continued, "[had not], either of them, any idea of morality."

Intriguing stuff for Victorian New England—and even more intriguing considering that the woman getting it on was Emily Dickinson, a poet often painted as virginal and antisocial. But the story of Emily's love life is more complicated than a forbidden moment on a divan. It involves a family feud, flirtatious letters, and probably a bit of making out.

Scholars have long puzzled over the romantic dichotomy presented by Emily's seemingly reclusive existence and her passionate poetry. True, Emily became more mysterious and secluded as she got older, but she also led a social, if sheltered, life. That extended to romantic relationships, too: Recent scholarship seems to point to a thwarted engagement with George Gould, who became a lifelong friend. And historians have asked themselves whether Emily's close female friendships were platonic or sexual. In fact, one of Emily's rumored hook-ups may have been her sister-in-law Sue—the very woman who warned her neighbor about Emily's wayward behavior. 

But the web of Emily's wild nights doesn't end there. Though she became more and more socially withdrawn as an adult (for example, she refused to go downstairs for her father's funeral, preferring to listen through the door), Emily seems to have fallen in love again in her mid-forties. This time, her lover was Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a close friend of her father's. During her father's life, she could never have openly pursued Lord. Freed by her father's death, the two seem to have deepened their relationship. Soon after Lord's wife died, Emily was writing him letters like this:

Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

And this

While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us?

But despite Lord's long visits, despite Emily's apparent desire to marry him, even despite Lord's passionate overtures and the "heavenly hours" they spent together in the parlor, a marriage never came to pass. Perhaps Lord's niece and heir discouraged her uncle from making it official. (The niece, Abbie Farley, was even more spiteful than Sue when it came to describing Emily Dickinson—she preferred phrases like "little hussy," "loose morals," and "crazy about men.") Perhaps Emily refused to cross the line due to epilepsy or another illness. Or did Sue, hurt by Emily's neglect, spread more rumors about her sister-in-law's morality to prevent the match?

If she did, it came back to bite her: The young bride whom she had warned away became fascinated with the Dickinson family in the end—so fascinated that she became Emily's literary champion after her death ... and seduced Sue's husband as part the bargain. Now, over a century later, it seems easier to paint the "virgin recluse" woman-in-white brush. Perhaps we'd do better to chuck out our misperception of Emily as shy spinster and envision her as a self-assured lover instead—unashamedly Rowing in Eden—/Ah! the sea!/Might I but moor—/Tonight in thee!

Sources: Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson; Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds; "Emily Dickinson's Love Life," via The Emily Dickinson Museum); A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade; Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives