Susan Huntington Dickinson (Gilbert) (1830 - 1913)

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Birthdate:
Birthplace: Deerfield, Massachusetts, United States
Death: Died in Amherst, MA, USA
Cause of death: heart disease
Managed by: Michael Reid Delahunt, art teacher & lexicographer
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About Susan Huntington Dickinson (Gilbert)

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Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913) was poet Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law.

“"With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise"

- Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, about 1882 (L757)

Susan Huntington Gilbert was born on December 19, 1830, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of seven children of Thomas and Harriet Arms Gilbert. After the death of her mother in 1835, she was raised with her sisters in Geneva, New York, by her aunt Sophia van Vranken. As a girl of sixteen she visited Amherst, where her eldest sister resided, and attended Amherst Academy during the summer of 1847. Thereafter she attended Utica Female Academy in New York through 1848, then returned to Amherst for the rest of her life. Susan was a vivacious, intelligent, and cultivated woman, a great reader, a sparkling conversationalist, and a book collector of wide-ranging interests. Late in life she traveled in Europe several times before her death from heart disease on May 12, 1913.

In 1850, Susan and Austin Dickinson, the poet's brother, began courting. They announced their engagement on Thanksgiving Day in 1853 and were married three years later on July 1, 1856. At their newly-built home, The Evergreens, next door to the Homestead, Susan enjoyed entertaining friends and the numerous literary figures attracted to the town, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the early years of Austin and Susan's marriage, Emily Dickinson would often visit The Evergreens and enjoy the company she found there. Susan and Austin had three children: Edward ("Ned"), born in 1861; Martha, born in 1866; and Thomas Gilbert ("Gib"), born in 1875.

The Evergreens was the setting for two family tragedies. After a time, Austin and Susan's marriage gradually deteriorated, and in the fall of 1882 Austin began a thirteen-year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that caused great rancor and bitterness within the family. Then, in the fall of 1883, eight-year-old Gib, beloved of all the family, died of typhoid fever. The child's death crippled both houses, leaving Susan desolated and the poet ill for weeks.

Susan had become close friends with Emily Dickinson in 1850. Their intimate correspondence, occasionally interrupted by periods of seeming estrangement, nevertheless lasted until the poet's death in 1886. Susan, a writer herself, was the most familiar of all the family members with Dickinson's poetry, having received more than 250 poems from her over the years. At least once she offered constructive criticism and advice. Susan wrote the poet's remarkable obituary, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886. After the poet's death, her sister Lavinia asked Susan to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia soon grew impatient with Susan's slow editorial pace, however, and transferred the poems into the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd, who published three volumes during the 1890s with the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Susan's friendship helped expand the poet's horizons, and their sharing of books and ideas was a vital component of her intellectual life. In her later days, Emily Dickinson wrote to Susan, "With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise" (L757).

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Susan H. "Annals of The Evergreens." Writings by Susan Dickinson, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. http://www.emilydickinson.org/susan/table_of_contents.html. Original manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dickinson, Susan H. "Obituary of Miss Emily Dickinson." Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886. Reprinted in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. II, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 472-474.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Mudge, Jean McClure. “Emily Dickinson and ‘Sister Sue.’” Prairie Schooner 52 (1978). 90-108.

Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters." The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 51-73.

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Austin had an affair with neighbor and Amherst faculty wife Mabel Loomis Todd, an affair conducted fairly openly in each of their homes, with only the most superficial attempts to hide what was going on.

Todd's daughter, Millicent, a child of eight or nine, witnessed Austin and her mother going into her parents' bedroom on numerous occasions, and was neglected while the two were behind closed doors, pacified with a pat on the head then left to fend for herself. Curiously, despite all this, Millicent defended her mother's activities years later. Lavinia, Emily's sister, allowed her brother and Mabel to meet in the Dickinson home.

Austin Dickinson held a leadership position at Amherst College.

Mabel Todd's husband David taught at the college, which made his position all the more problematic. To further his scientific research, David wanted to get an observatory built. David apparently never voiced an objection to his wife's affair with Austin Dickinson. David's relationship with his wife appears not to have been very happy, but it was not ended by by the affair.

Austin's wife, Susan Dickinson, was well aware what was going on and fumed. She held onto the marriage nevertheless, opting to avoid the scandal of divorce. Their relationship was highly compromised, but Austin always came home to her, even though Mabel Todd repeatedly begged Austin to marry her, but Susan never let go.

Amidst all this, Emily Dickinson continued to write her poetry, living the life of a reclusive artist. Apparently everyone in her little community adored Emily, her reputation never sullied. She was interested in a married man herself, and clearly told him of her attraction to him, though this relationship was apparently never consummated.

After Emily's death, Mabel Loomis Todd, a professional writer and speaker, became engaged with T. W. Higginson in editing the first compilation of Emily's poetry, which was published in 1890.

Through all the mayhem, it seems Susan Dickinson was most concerned with protecting the family's reputation, at least until Austin's death in 1895. Following that all hell broke loose when Emily's sister, Lavinia, got into a land battle with the Todds when she refused to comply with Austin's wish to leave the Todds a parcel of land between their two homes.

He hadn't actually written this directive into his will, but had discretely arranged with Lavinia to carry out this transaction after his death. Austin had deluded himself that Lavinia would comply. A nasty court battle ensued. The Dickinson family's good name was dragged through the mud, with Mabel Todd revealed as the adulteress she was.

Source: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Lyndall Gordon, "Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds," 512 pages, Viking Adult, 2010, ISBN-10: 0670021938

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Susan Dickinson's Timeline

1830
December 19, 1830
Deerfield, Massachusetts, United States
1856
July 1, 1856
Age 25
1861
June 19, 1861
Age 30
1866
November 30, 1866
Age 35
1875
August 1, 1875
Age 44
Amherst, MA, USA
1913
May 12, 1913
Age 82
Amherst, MA, USA
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