During my vacation back in the good ol’ USA, on May 10th, as a one day late Mother’s Day gift, I treated my sister by having her drive me to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Located at 280 Main Street, the museum includes tours of both Emily’s house (The Homestead)
and her brother, Austin’s house (The Evergreens).
My sister acted quite delighted to go even though the only thing she knew of Dickinson was that, “she was a hermit who wrote strange poetry.” Of course, this might also have been her way of apologising for her demonic cat attacking me the night before. I kid not. Warning: if that cat purrs at you it is not a sign that it is a loving, warm animal who wishes for you to pet it. It is a sign that it is about to leap into the air cartoon-style and claw at your face if you don’t jump out of its way in the nick of time.
But I digress.
Our tour group (led by a vey lovely and informative woman) began inside the Homestead. Emily’s grandfather built the Federal style home circa 1813.
After being shown Emily’s portrait, we were told that Emily’s family and Emily, herself, hated it because it didn’t resemble her at all. Evidently, the artist had dressed her in a style similar to that of her mother, so that the two portraits could appear almost twin-like.
Instead of the studious pose this picture suggests, Emily preferred wearing her hair loose and free.
Later in life, Emily preferred wearing all-white. It is unknown whether this was due to spiritual convictions or if she had been influenced by one of her favorite novels, The Woman in White. In the upstairs hallway, her white daydress is showcased behind glass. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the museum. The simple, elegant dress indicates that she stood about 5’4 or under, and was extremely slender.
Inside Emily’s bedroom is a 17 inch writing desk at which Emily penned her thousands of poems. Our tour guide informed us that these tiny desks were designed so the writer wouldn’t have space to put things on it, and thus be distracted by them. (yes, I did make a mental note to myself at that point)
Emily’s austere bedroom:
(thanks to pbs. org)
On the walls, hang pictures of two of Emily’s favorite writers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. Our guide asked us if we could identify the two ladies. She was surprised when I immediately recognized Mrs. Browning, as evidently most don’t. I would have assumed Eliot would be more difficult. (another woman in our group guessed her correctly)
After reading some of Emily’s poems, we walked along the path to The Evergeens. Emily’s father built the Italianite style house for her brother Austin and his wife, Susan Gilbert.
The socially-inclined Susan Gilbert, entertained such notable figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Webster, and Thoreau. Some speculate that these parties may have been part of the reason that the already private Emily withdrew herself completely from society.
After Emily’s death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, brought a bunch of Emily’s poems to Mabel Loomis Todd and asked her help in getting them published. Mrs. Todd (who had been conducting a quiet, yet very well-known love-affair with Austin) had never met Emily in person. Instead, they had corresponded for a few years through letters. Mabel spent several years organizing and editing Emily’s poems. The resulting volumes were published in 1890, 1891, and 1896.
Mrs. Todd went on tours in which she played up Emily’s mystical, secluded nature and eventually sealed her reputation as the mysterious poet from Amherst.
In Emily’s own words:
“I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”