Posterity hasn’t had much trouble knowing what to do with Emily Dickinson; it has revered her as a poet and sentimentalised her life. The reclusive spinster published fewer than a dozen of almost 2,000 poems she had stashed in her room and after her death it was easy to mythologise her as an unworldly, unrecognised genius, an image that persisted right up to and beyond the 1976 stage show The Belle of Amherst. This view of Dickinson as the ultimate amateur predisposed the public to think well of her and to attend sympathetically to works of challenging unconventionality: the first selection of Dickinson’s verse that appeared posthumously, in 1890, was reprinted eleven times in its first year and by 1914, when almost all her poems and many of her letters were in print, she was firmly established as an American classic.
Lyndall Gordon, the distinguished biographer of T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Henry James and Mary Wollstonecraft, takes Dickinson’s image of ‘a loaded gun’ as the central motif in this explosively revisionist book. Gone is the slightly daffy New England dreamer developing her genius in genteel solitude; Gordon takes