Massachusetts

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.

Mabel then described Emily as a 'genius' in many respects. "She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago when she went into retirement."

Emily frequently sent her flowers and poems, wrote Mabel, and, '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 2018.  

9 Comments

9 Comments

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  6. Bonnie Jeanne Speeg

    March 26, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you very much for this overview on all things Dickinson-Todd-Amherst. I read the book “Austin and Mabel” by Polly Longworth, containing a great number of letters exchanged between Loomis and Austiin; when it was released, a fan of non-fiction and biographies. Intriguing to say the least, the dynamic between the families, the affair, the complexities in social-cultural norms in that time period. As a regional historian in Cincinnati, Ohio I appreciate the revealing, candid and illuminating overview of the cast of real characters in this human drama in Amherst. All the makings of a novel, but better because it’s true. Money, prestige, academia, poetry, astronomy, a bit of madness, tawdry buggy rides, games in the parlor (all sorts!)…who could make this up!

    • Helen Breen

      July 12, 2018 at 9:23 pm

      “Money, prestige, academia, poetry, astronomy, a bit of madness, tawdry buggy rides, games in the parlor (all sorts!)…who could make this up!”

      Hi Bonnie Jeanne, I agree with your above summary of the weird love story between Mary Loomis Todd and Austin Dickinson. Another book that explains the drama fully is LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS, Emily Dickinson and Her Family Feuds by Lyndall Gordon published in 2010.

      Last summer my daughter and I ventured to Historic Deerfield, but first we stopped at the Dickinson Museum (https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/) in Amherst which includes her home and that of her brother Austin and his family’s next door. Both are imposing dwellings. We had a delightful guide who was an English major at nearby Mount Holyoke College.
      I was particularly interested in visiting the library on the first floor in the main residence since that is where the lovers had their many trysts while Emily crept about upstairs. Austin just walked from his home next door to the family abode and received Mable in the library at different times of days. His humiliated wife fumed across the way.

      These properties are on the main street, directly across from Amherst College. Needless to say, towns folks must have had a full view of their comings and goings. I was also impressed with Emily’s lovely room with flowered wallpaper – rosebuds if I recall. The small writing desks where she composed so many of her poems still sits in the corner. The guide told us that for an additional fee one can sit in this room for an hour and commune with the muse. She said that some Dickinson aficionados are totally overcome when entering this inner sanctum. The room afforded the poetess a full view of the street and the world passing by.

      I would highly recommend the above book and a visit to these two houses where so much drama/pain/creativity flourished. Thanks to New England Historical Society for such an informative article.

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