A Touch of Class

February 14, 2000

Emily Dickinson’s poems, collected and published after her death, are listed in what scholars believe is the chronological order of their creation and identified by numbers, since she did not indicate titles. Two collections are considered standard: that prepared by Thomas H. Johnson in the 1950s, and a newer arrangement by Ralph Franklin which attempts to correct some distortions and omissions present in the Johnson.

Both editors regard as “Number 1” a 40-line poem written in 1850, just before the poet turned twenty. It is dated, in her hand, “Valentine Week,” and celebrates the exuberance of youth. Full of Victorian sentiments and standard nature images, it is atypical of her mature work and rarely studied by any except the most serious Dickinson scholars. In the spirit of today’s holiday, there was brief discussion of it among the members of the electronic forum dedicated to Dickinson that I frequent. But far more space was devoted this week to discussing Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and his relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor.

Briefly, Austin Dickinson was in the twenty-fifth year of his marriage to Susan Gilbert when he met Mabel Loomis Todd, who had been born the year he and Susan were married. The Dickinsons and the Todds had many social contacts and spent a good deal of time together. Eventually Austin and Mabel developed a romantic attachment and entered into a physical affair which would last thirteen years, until Austin Dickinson’s death. This relationship is documented in the diaries each kept and in the letters they exchanged.

Their story is further chronicled in Austin and Mabel, a book by Polly Longsworth which draws on both published and unpublished materials. I confess to a certain fondness for this book, if only for the circumstances of my acquiring it. It came out in paperback in 1985 and was the first book I bought after my daughter was born that was not about parenting or child development.

The book is part scholarship and part tabloid gossip. “Scandalous Lovers, They Defied Every Tenet of Victorian Morality — and Got Away with It!” proclaims the back cover blurb. Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said of the primary material, “The letters are written in a white heat of passion….The very single-mindedness of the correspondence wins us over.”

I don’t know what Eder means by “wins us over.” I find these two, Austin and Mabel, remarkably self-absorbed, interested in little beyond their own sensual indulgence. Mabel congratulates herself on her ability to love and sexually serve two men simultaneously. Austin’s letters to Mabel denigrate his wife and make fun of her, particularly in the extent to which she chooses to mourn her son Gilbert, who died at the age of eight in the fall of 1883.

By then Austin and Mabel were fully involved emotionally, and a few months later
consummated their affair physically. Although Austin had evidently ceased sexual
involvement with his wife, Mabel continued to serve both her husband and her lover in this regard, keeping meticulous records in her diary of physical encounters with each. (David Todd was an aware and willing participant in the conduct of the affair.) 

Longsworth calls Mabel’s journal a record of  “the considerable range of emotions, growth, and change within the union,” and labels as “truth” Mabel’s own words from 1888: “We should  have been born later, that is all. One or two hundred years from now the world would rejoice with us.”

Well, here I am, writing just a little more than a hundred years after what Mabel called her “heaven-born, heaven-guided” love affair, and I have to say that I don’t rejoice with them, I judge them as immature, self-centered, and untrustworthy, hardly deserving of a place in the pantheon of great lovers and certainly not to be counted among great people.

No one who knows me would consider me a prude sexually. Nor am I someone who restrains her emotions or shies away from relationships that might prove problematic in the feelings they engender. I came of age in the turbulent sixties, when we were urged to let it all hang out. I danced at Woodstock, lived an east coast version of the summer of love, and engaged from time to time in what would now be termed “risky behavior.”

But just because I learned to crack the rigidity of the generations I was heir to and bend definitions of what was “proper” does not mean that I came into who I am now with no moral guidelines. For me, the morality of love has less to do with sexual limits and more to do with emotional obligations and promises.

I can illustrate my growth in this best by recalling a movie I saw for the first time in 1973.

A Touch of Class is a British flick starring Glenda Jackson and George Segal. In it, Jackson plays a divorcee who begins an affair with a married man (Segal). It is a romantic comedy with some moments of great fun and a bittersweet ending. 

An example of a moment of great fun would be when Segal is accompanying his wife to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall. He excuses himself at the beginning of the second movement, ostensibly to go to the bathroom. Instead, he runs the few blocks to the “love nest” he and Jackson keep. He makes love to Jackson, then runs back and drops into his seat just as the great musical themes, having been intertwined, are reaching their … er … climax. (If you know your Beethoven, you know that this portion of the music has taken just under 23 minutes.) The wife notices that Segal is wearing one dress sock and one white athletic sock, and she chides him for not taking proper care in dressing before going out.

When I saw this movie for the first time, I loved it. I saw it again in 1993 and found my enjoyment compromised by discomfort with the premise — the glorification of an adulterous relationship. Segal’s wife is kept unaware of her husband’s dalliance. Worse, there are young children involved on both sides, as well as an adult couple who, as Segal’s friends, are called upon to facilitate the affair.

What had changed in twenty years? My perspective. In 1973 I was 26, unmarried, still rather bohemian. In 1993 I was married, and more important, a parent. I’d “settled down,” figured out what my core values were, and had developed more of a capacity to see things from more than one point of view.

It’s not that when I was 26 I did not believe that adultery is a moral wrong, it’s that at 46 I was more aware of the pitfalls in trivializing and glorifying a situation whose negatives far outweigh its positives.

Thus when I think about Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd and couples like them, I find I must judge. In my view, Austin Dickinson’s greatest moral failure was not in his genital involvement with Mabel, but in the ways in which he was disrespectful of Susan Dickinson, a woman with whom he had exchanged marriage vows. Mabel’s greatest moral failure was in her inability to be faithful sexually or emotionally to either man she claimed to love, as well as her abdication of responsibility as a role model for her daughter.

To call Austin and Mabel’s affair a “great love story” is to insult those who do their best, despite temptations and disappointments and unmet needs, to honor each other and their promises. And on this Valentine’s Day of the year 2000, in the seventeenth year of marriage to a man from whom Austin Dickinson (and a good many others) could learn a great deal, I salute those of us who keep on keepin’ on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.