But Susan wasn’t the only object of Emily’s passion. The poet had different crushes with teachers and friends along her life and there’s evidence that she had a relationship with Kate Scott Turner, who Dickinson met through Susan in 1859. To complicate things even more, it is probable that Emily considered marriage with her friend Judge Otis Lord at some point during her 30s and there’s a collection of letters addressed to “Master”, who could be a man, multiple man or an invented character. “My own feeling (tentative like everything about Emily Dickinson at present writing) is that she had many enthusiasms, couldn’t live without them, and went from one to another, perhaps even two at a time, but for different reasons”, said Richard Sewall, author of 1974’s “The Life of Emily Dickinson”. Susan wasn’t the only one, but was definitely the only constant.
Emily Dickinson’s Love Story
Famous and infamous romances aren’t usually the most extraordinary. Tragic, unrequited or capricious attachments have nothing to do with unclassifiable love.
Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
If we were to elaborate a list of the greatest love stories of all time, there will be Paris and Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Mary and Percey Shelley, Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII and, of course, Frida and Diego. There will even be Beyoncé and Jay Z, although believing in that one is a matter of faith. Every single story, each one in its own way, have certain epic character and we go back to them searching for relief, hope or simply comfort. The thing is that being the most famous doesn’t mean they are exactly the most extraordinary. Tragic, unrequited or capricious love have nothing to do with unclassifiable love.
Emily Dickinson (Amherst, Massachusetts, 1830-1866) met Susan Gilbert when she was about to turn 20. That summer of 1850 both of them built the foundations of a relationship the way the best relationships are made, from the intimacy that involves sharing interests. Dickinson combined her passion for the written word with botanics and Susan, who studied maths, devoted herself to solve theorems with the same fruition she employed to the lecture of Emily’s poems.
Days turned into months, long walks became pilgrimages and the books exchanged started to carry an incipient correspondence that will keep going until the end of Dickinson’s life. Its tone got bitter when Susan moved to Baltimore for ten months to work as a teacher, but the restlessness that separation caused is now proof of their profound feelings.
“I need her – I must have her, Oh, give
Her to me!”
The feeling of ease caused by the return to Amherst didn’t last long, as Susan announced her engagement with Austin, Emily’s older brother, that same fall. It is convenient to remember that back in the 19th century most women couldn’t afford nor working or being supported by a man as Emily was able to do (more on this topic at Betsey Erkkila’s “Emily Dickinson and Class”). Even so her anger was palpable in this letter addressed to her brother:
“Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I am something of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho’, and I guess we both love Sue just as well as we can”.
Today, with the perspective that brings distance and considering all the unknown facts, we can only say that the marriage brought two children to the family and that it made the two women neighbors for life as Dickinson stayed at The Homestead and Susan moved a few steps nearby to The Evergreens. Around 276 registered poems and uncountable letters traveled the distance between their doors in the upcoming years.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
Every love story has an evil figure, and in this one it wasn’t played by society alone. Dickinson didn’t showed interest on being published until her last years, and then she changed some feminine pronouns for “bearded” ones or used the omitted center tool to preserve her privacy. But it was her posthumous editor, Mabel Loomis Todd (whom, by the way, had a relationship with her brother Austin) the hand that made simple the complicated, giving titles to the untitled, categorizing the uncategorized, and putting rhymes where they weren’t before. In that way, poem 84 started to be addressed to the “Springfield Republican” newspaper’s owner and editor-in-chief, Samuel Bowles, so the “Her breast is fit for pearls” could be assumed as a friendly reference to his wife. Later it would be her niece Martha (Susan’s and Austin’s daughter) the one who perpetuated this conduct by altering letters and poems. “… Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?” turned into “… Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday?”. Emily Dickinson’s unedited work didn’t see light until 1950, 64 years after her death.
Besides censorship or manipulations, writers and artists are used to the fact that their work, once made public, is the subject of public interpretation, so the sense the piece is made might change according to the viewers own experiences. The enduring nature of Emily Dickinson’s work, the mystery of her isolated existence and her unsolved personal life have triggered theories, studies and investigations that have only produced more questions. Susan was muse, editor, reader and partner for Emily. She was her “Only woman in the World”. As none of them put a tag on their relationship, we can only try to guess what kind of tie kept them close as they lived the ups and downs along their 36-year relationship. Guided by the poet’s words, written even in the tiniest piece of paper found around her home, we can only conclude it was sustained by love. And love is love, right?
There is no first, or last, in Forever –
It is Centre, there, all the time –
To believe – is enough, and the right of supposing –
Take back that “Bee” and “Buttercup”`
I have no Field for them, though
for the Woman whom I prefer,
Here is Festival –
Where my Hands are cut,
Her fingers will be found inside –
Take the Key to the Lily, now,
and I will lock the Rose.”
Photos: Emily Dickinson Museum / Emily Dickinson Collection