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Mabel Loomis Todd, the Adulteress Who Made Emily Dickinson Famous

Mabel Loomis Todd often visited Emily Dickinson’s home, but never laid eyes on the poet except in her coffin.

Mabel Loomis Todd

Mabel Loomis Todd

After her first visit, Mabel plunged into a passionate love affair with Emily’s married brother Austin Dickinson, who lived next door to his sister.

They continued the affair for 13 years, until Austin’s death. After Emily died, Mabel edited and published her poems.

Mabel Loomis Todd

She was born Nov. 10, 1856, and grew up in straitened circumstances though she was descended from Priscilla Alden. She spent her youth in boardinghouses in Concord and Cambridge, Mass., and in Washington, D.C.

Mabel was charming, pretty, smart and artistic. She studied music at the New England Conservatory, and in 1879 she married the astronomer David Peck Todd.

They had an open marriage. She knew about his philandering, and he knew about her affair with Austin Dickinson soon after it started.

Two years into their marriage, the couple moved to Amherst, Mass., so David could take a job at Amherst College as astronomy professor.

The Affair

Austin Dickinson was 53 years old when he and Mabel confessed their love for each other. She was 25. He was a leading citizen of the town, a lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College. He and his wife and children lived next door to his invalid mother and reclusive sisters, Lavinia and Emily, who Mabel called 'the climax of all the family oddity.'

On Sept. 10, 1882, Austin Dickinson took his mistress-to-be  to sing and play the piano for his two reclusive sisters and mother. Emily listened to Mabel from the shadows of the hall, but she never appeared. Her mother listened from upstairs. Only Lavinia – ‘Miss Vinnie’ – met Mabel face-to-face, taking her hands and complimenting her singing.

Wrote Mabel, “It was odd to think as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word.”

When Mabel stopped singing, Emily sent in a glass of sherry and a poem she wrote during the concert.

Elysium is as far as to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom—

What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot—
The opening of a Door—

After the visit Mabel wrote,

Emily is called in Amherst “the myth.” She has not been out of her house for fifteen years…She writes the strangest poems, & very remarkable ones. She is in many respects a genius. She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago when she went into retirement. She wanted me to come & sing to her, but she would not see me. She has frequently sent me flowers & poems, & we have a very pleasant friendship in that way.

Rubicon

Austin Dickinson

Austin Dickinson

The next night, Austin and Mabel paused on their way to a whist party and confessed their love for each other. “Rubicon” Austin wrote in his diary afterward.

Pretty soon everyone in town knew about the affair. Mabel’s husband didn’t mind. Austin’s wife Susan was devastated.

Austin and Mabel called their love ‘overwhelming,’ ‘God-inspired,’ ‘beyond any love that ever was.’

“No love story approaches it,” wrote Mabel.

She liked sex and described it in her diary: "Sweet communions. Oh joy! Oh! Bliss unutterable" and, "A little Heaven just after dinner."

In 1887, Mabel began wearing Austin’s wedding ring.

Genius Recognized

After Emily died in 1886, Lavinia destroyed her letters and asked Austin's wife to make sure Emily's poems were published. Susan didn’t show much interest in the project, so Lavinia asked two family friends – Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson – to publish the 40 manuscripts Emily left. The two made alterations to Emily’s poems.

The Roberts Brothers published the first volume, Poems, in 1890. Within two years, 11 editions were printed. Mabel began a 15-year lecture career about the mysterious poet of Amherst, fixing her image in the public’s mind.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

A second volume of poems was printed in 1891, but Higginson didn’t like Mabel Todd’s alterations and quit.

On her own, Mabel Loomis Todd extensively changed Emily Dickinson’s poems for a third volume.

Austin died of overwork in 1895. He had bequeathed a piece of land to Mabel and David Todd, who had remained a friend despite his affair with his wife. Lavinia challenged the bequest in court and won. As a result of the falling out, the Todd and Dickinson families split Emily's manuscripts.

Austin’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, produced four books of Emily’s poems and two biographies between 1913 and 1937.Mabel Loomis  Todd and her daughter Millicent published more of Emily’s poems between 1931 and 1955.

Mabel Loomis Todd died on Hog Island, Maine, on Oct. 14, 1932.

Photos: Austin Dickinson courtesy Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database; Mabel Loomis Todd  from American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits; Emily Dickinson courtesy Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. With thanks to Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd by Polly Longsworth.

New England Historical Society updated this story in 2017.  

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