Emily Dickinson & Susan Gilbert: Historians Will Call Them Best Friends
You remember Emily Dickinson? She’s my best friend. My confidante. My poor little meow meow. But most of all, my girlfriend.
My fascination with Emily Dickinson began in middle school, when my teacher advertised her as a reclusive poet who wrote in solitude, wanting nothing to do with the outside world (1). At the time, this felt very me-coded; not to mention, Dickinson’s writing is so incredibly visceral that it’s impossible not to feel some type of way reading it. And, at least for me, that type of way is very gay, and also, very in love with her. Doubly so with her letters.
So you can imagine how the closest person to her, Susan Huntington Gilbert, felt when she read such lines as, “To own a / Susan of / my own / Is of itself / a Bliss — / Whatever / Realm I / forfeit, Lord, / Continue / me in this!” and “Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper Good bye, again.” God. That hits. Get you a girl that writes about you like Emily Dickinson writes to and about Susan.
While it’s not clear when the two first met, it’s generally agreed that their earliest known correspondence is from the early 1850s. It is to Susan that Emily penned the most of her letter-poems, a form of letter-writing in which the letter is told through poem form, instead of in the typical format. Additionally, though Emily later became an extreme recluse (not even meeting with people visiting her house), she still had frequent face-to-face contact with Susan. Susan later married Emily’s older brother, Austin; even later, Austin had an affair with one Mabel Loomis Todd, who also had a fascination with Emily Dickinson and ended up being an editor for a lot of her poetry. As a result, mentions of Susan got scrubbed from a lot of Emily’s published poetry. Todd later went on to be a leading lecturer on all subjects Emily Dickinson, and so, Susan’s influence on her life was made out to be much less than it really was. Thus, the image of an asexual and lonely Emily Dickinson who languished away melancholic days in her room was born.
Now, this perception of her is not true. Even a cursory glance at letters penned by her shows that she feels every emotion strongly: take, for example, her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an author and a fierce abolitionist. In his article published to The Atlantic in 1891, he transcribed one of the letters Emily had written to him: “I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue.” The depth of this emotion, as well as her use of language to convey it, is incredible. Emily Dickinson is not someone who could only feel sadness, could only wallow away time writing poems in her room: she was someone that actively engaged with people, in person or through letters, and felt the whole spectrum of emotions associated with being alive. She also does not hide how she feels in her correspondence with others, and especially not with Susan. Take this passage:
Now farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her’s, and I add a kiss
shyly, lest there is somebody there!! Dont let them see, will you Susie?
While it’s not clear when the two first met, it’s generally agreed that their earliest known correspondence is from the early 1850s. It is to Susan that Emily penned the most of her letter-poems, a form of letter-writing in which the letter is told through poem form, instead of in the typical format. Additionally, though Emily later became an extreme recluse (not even meeting with people visiting her house), she still had frequent face-to-face contact with Susan. Susan later married Emily’s older brother, Austin; even later, Austin had an affair with one Mabel Loomis Todd, who
Despite her tone and her words, Emily is not shy about admitting to Susan that she’d like to kiss her. In Emily’s letters to other family members and even to a later romantic interest, she is not so upfront about any physical intentions such as she is to Susan — in the quote above, Emily is very shy about this kiss, indicating it must be something special. Something forbidden, perhaps. She notes often in letters between the two of them that she would like to share kisses (2). Susan also later writes, sometime in the 1860s, “I send / you this, lest I should seem to / have turned away from a kiss —”
Susan married Emily’s older brother, Austin Dickinson, in 1856, and although it took them three years after getting engaged to be married, it seemed they were happy enough for a while — they had three children in total, though after the death of the first, Austin began an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,
also prompting Susan to isolate herself. Emily wrote this, presumably around the time that Susan and Austin were engaged:
You love me — you are sure —
I shall not fear mistake —
I shall not cheated wake —
Some grinning morn —
To find the Sunrise left —
And Orchards — unbereft —
And Dollie — gone!
In this first stanza of a longer poem, Emily invokes her affectionate pet name for Susan, “Dollie,” and laments a fear that one day she might be without Susan, in the same ways that one might be insecure about a lover leaving them.
All this is to say, the letters between Emily and Susan, as well as their history together, hint at a relationship likely deeper than just friendship — something that might have been romantic in nature.
Now, it’s important to remember that it’s impossible for us, being so far removed from Dickinson and her life, to ascribe any sexual and/or romantic label on her and her relationship with Susan. Although it’s fun to think about the feelings they may have had for each other and unravel the narrative that people have built up over the years, in the end, people are messy; it would be disrespectful to try and form-fit Emily and Susan into a predetermined category.
Is this an important point to remember? Yes. Will I continue to love Emily Dickinson and her relationship with Susan? Absolutely.
Emily and Susan have an extensive history and a fascinating relationship characterized by witticism and intellectual discussion, and, as an addition to it, a romance sizzling beneath the surface. They grew into each other like a pair of trees, planted right next to each other, roots intertwining. We may never know what their relationship was like in full, but all that matters is this: in the end, they loved each other, in their own unique ways.
(1) Closer to an obsession, but I digress.
(2) As much as I love kissing the homies, at some point it really does just become gay.
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Higginson, T. W. (1891, October). Emily Dickinson's Letters. The Atlantic. Retrieved Fall 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1891/10/emily-dickinsons-letters/306524/.
Kelly, Hillary. “Master Narrative: Who Did Emily Dickinson Write Her Love Letters to?” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 22, 2012. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/master-narrative-who-did-emily-dickinson-write-her-love-letters-to/.
“Mabel Loomis Todd, the Adulteress Who Made Emily Dickinson Famous.” New England Historical Society, February 3, 2021. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/mabel-loomis-todd-adulteress-made-emily-dickinson-famous/.
Rombes, Nicholas. “The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson's ‘Master’ Letters.” The Rumpus, May 2, 2021. https://therumpus.net/2011/05/the-dark-mystery-of-emily-dickinsons-master-letters/.
“Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913), Sister-in-Law.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Retrieved Fall 2021, from https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/susan-huntington-gilbert-dickinson-1830-1913-sister-in-law/.