Who Is Emily Dickinson?

What do you see in your mind's eye when you hear the name Emily Dickinson? A purse-lipped teenager with severe hair and a velvet ribbon pinned to her throat? Or maybe a slight figure in a white dress peering shyly from an upstairs window? You may see a shadow-woman bent over a desk into the night, scratching ink across pages as she meditates on death, life and the mysteries of nature. The word "reclusive" surely pops into your head to go with whichever image you see and, with that notion of the hidden, might come assumptions about fear, shyness and loneliness.

There is an element of truth to all of this of course -- Emily Dickinson withdrew from public life in her thirties and although she wrote a lot of joyful poetry, she is best known for poems like "Because I could not stop for Death -- He kindly stopped for me --." She chose to be cloistered, but Emily was gregarious, funny and deeply committed to her friendships. Her letters spill over with warmth and love, and she spent happy hours with a small circle of people that included friends, her extended family and her beloved sister-in-law, and next door neighbor, Sue.

A yellow mansion called The Homestead, on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts --
built by Emily's grandfather -- was the poet's home for most of her life. She was born and died there. It's a museum now, and you can stand in the light-filled bedroom where Emily wrote and lowered baskets of gingerbread from her window to waiting children. Sue's house, The Evergreens, is across the garden, and Emily went there and sent letters by her niece and nephews to Sue, who acted as both critic and friend. Emily's letters to Sue were passionate and demanding, but female friendship was different in Victorian times -- overblown declarations of love were normal. An extract from one letter illustrates Emily's intense affections:

Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say -- my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here -- and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.

When Sue married Emily's older brother Austin, and her time was taken up with the social duties around being a respectable lawyer's wife, as well as motherhood, Emily found other friends and turned more fully to writing. She befriended Samuel Bowles, the married editor of The Springfield Republican, and in her letters to him, used language as daring and flirty as she used with Sue. She wrote too to Charles Wadsworth, a married preacher, who may or may not have been the recipient of Emily's much debated Master Letters -- fevered outpourings to an unnamed master. She writes in one Master Letter (of herself?) about "a love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart -- pushing aside the blood -- and leaving her faint and white in the gust's arm."

Describing herself to another married friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had asked for a picture of her, Emily wrote: "I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves." This is forward, flirtatious stuff and typical of Emily's left-of-centre, imaginative approach to her correspondence. She was a writer first and foremost -- words were her domain -- and she didn't necessarily need face to face, or even skin to skin, contact to have deep, personal relationships.

"My friends are my estate," Emily wrote to Samuel Bowles, but perhaps poetry was her truest friend, the place she felt most grounded. The extent of Emily's commitment to writing was a secret; it wasn't until after her death that her sister Vinnie realized that Emily wrote more than the odd verse to enclose with letters to friends -- she had written close to 1800 poems. Emily was sure of her talent, sure of herself and her worth, sure enough to live an unconventional life and write unconventional poetry. She may have been agoraphobic or she may have -- like most writers -- just wanted screeds of time alone so she could write. And think. She was a maverick, after all; she didn't follow the societal or poetic conventions of her contemporaries. That must have taken courage, deep thought and a lot of alone time, in order to get it all right.

Nuala O'Connor is the author of Miss Emily.