A bomb in her bosom: Emily Dickinson's secret life

Emily Dickinson was a great poet whose life has remained a mystery. The time has come to dispel the myth of a quaint and helpless creature, disappointed in love, who gave up on life. I think she was unafraid of her own passions and talent; that her brother's sexual betrayal and subsequent family feud had a profound effect on the Dickinson legend that has come down to us; and perhaps most significantly, I believe that Emily had an illness – a secret that explains much.

It was Emily herself who helped to devise the blueprint for her legend, starting at the age of 23 when she declined an invitation from a friend: "I'm so old-fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare." In place of the tart young woman she was, she adopted this retiring posture. Born in 1830 into the leading family of Amherst, a college town in Massachusetts, she never left what she always called "my father's house". Townsfolk spoke of her as "the Myth".

On the face of it, the life of this New England poet seems uneventful and largely invisible, but there's a forceful, even overwhelming character belied by her still surface. She called it a "still – Volcano – Life", and that volcano rumbles beneath the domestic surface of her poetry and a thousand letters. Stillness was not a retreat from life (as legend would have it) but her form of control. Far from the helplessness she played up at times, she was uncompromising; until the explosion in her family, she lived on her own terms.

Her widely spaced eyes were too keen for the passivity admired in women of her time. It's the sensitive face of a person who (as her brother put it) "saw things directly and just as they were". At 17, as a student at Mount Holyoke in 1848 (the same year that the women's movement took a stand at Seneca Falls), she refused to bend to the founder of her college, the formidable Mary Lyon. At this time Massachusetts was the scene of a religious revival opposed to the inroads of science. Emily, who had chosen mostly science courses, makes her ­allegiance clear:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

When Miss Lyon pressed her students to be "saved", nearly all succumbed. Emily did not. On 16 May, she owned, "I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it." It seemed that other girls desired only to be good. "How I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can." When Miss Lyon consigned her to the lowest of three categories – the saved, the hopeful and a remnant of about 30 no-hopers – she still held out.

During a creative burst in the early 1860s, she invited a Boston man of letters to be her mentor, but could not take his advice to regularise her verse. Helpful Mr Higginson, a supporter of women, who thought he was corresponding with an apologetic, self-effacing spinster, was puzzled to find himself "drained" of "nerve-power" after his first visit to her in 1870. He was unable to describe the creature he found beyond a few surface facts: she had smooth bands of red hair and no good features; she had been deferential and exquisitely clean in her white piqué dress and blue crocheted shawl; and after an initial hesitation, she had proved surprisingly articulate. She had said a lot of strange things, from which Higginson deduced an "abnormal" life.

There was an increasing divide between people she wished to know and those she didn't. Her clarity could not endure social talk instead of truth; piety instead of "The Soul's Superior instants". Her directness would have been disconcerting if she did not "simulate" conventionality, and this was "stinging work". But a more threatening challenge, deeper below the surface, fired the volcanoes and earthquakes in her poems – an event, as she put it, that "Struck – my ticking – through –".

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