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A not-so-ordinary 'Sister'

Imagine being Emily Dickinson's sister. Not an easy job. Her father, her brother and Emily were all celebrated in their Amherst, Mass., hometown. But Lavinia was considered by her family to be "ordinary," the workhorse, the keeper of secrets, the drudge.

Such is the premise of Latin American writer Paola Kaufmann's meticulously researched novel. Kaufmann, who died in 2005, won the Planeta Prize after the publication of her novel, "The Lake" (El Lago). "The Sister" was previously published in Spanish under the title "La Hermana." It is possible that the world would not have had the poems of Emily Dickinson were it not for Lavinia Dickinson, who claims in the novel that Emily wanted her to burn them. She couldn't do it.

After her sister's death, Lavinia worked for years examining the hundreds of scraps of poems unearthed in an old secretaire. Ultimately, she handed them over to her worst enemy, Mabel Loomis Todd, to be prepared for publication. Mabel had access to a newfangled typing machine (a typewriter), and Lavinia didn't know where else to turn.

From Mabel they went to Colonel Higginson for their first real publication. (Higginson had earlier indicated that they were not worth publishing.) Mabel included her own name on Emily's books, and Lavinia strove for ever after to have that name removed.

A new view of Emily Dickinson, and indeed of Lavinia, emerges from the novel. Paola Kaufmann has said that after doing all the research she decided that the "myth of the genius madwoman dressed in white and shut away in her house" was not adequate. "My impression was that of a more rebellious, vital and revolutionary woman than the legend suggests. For me she was revolutionary because she always did exactly what she wanted in an age where such an attitude was not tolerated.

"Emily Dickinson wanted to write, to read, to bake bread, to be left in peace. And this is precisely what she did. But she only managed to do this thanks to the help of her sister Lavinia, who lived an essentially parallel life."

The girls and Austin grew up in a cold home. Their father was a bit of a tyrant and their mother emotionally inaccessible. But the children were happy, sustained by a rich, imaginative life together, which they modeled after the lives of the Bronte children. They created their own Gondal kingdoms and acted out scenes from Jane Eyre.

Emily especially enjoyed being the madwoman in the attic. They read and wrote and played. Lavinia had a close brush with marriage. In her teens she and her brother's friend, Joseph Lyman, fell deeply in love -- and according to the novel consummated their relationship in the woods shortly before he left to seek his fortunes in the South.

Unhappily, he met and married another girl without even properly informing Lavinia. Fourteen years after he left, he paid an awkward visit to the Dickinson home. Lavinia spoke with him briefly, but Emily listened and watched from the back stairs, beginning a lifelong habit of not appearing when guests arrived. The heartbroken Lavinia was never to have another chance at love. From then on, she devoted herself exclusively to family concerns, especially to making Emily's eccentric life possible. She loved her family deeply, but her resentment of the burdens placed upon her by the others sometimes showed.

Late in Emily's life, the poet almost ran off to marry Judge Otis Lord, a widower of her father's age with whom she had fallen in love. But she was stopped by Lavinia and other family members -- and finally by the death of Lord himself. Lavinia later regretted that she had gotten in the way of her sister's happiness.

The truly problematic member of the family was Austin. He married a brilliant and sensitive girl, Susan Gilbert, who was a close friend of Emily's, and he had children who were the joy of Lavinia and Emily's lives. But when his beloved son Gilbert died unexpectedly, something in Austin broke. Soon after, he began a long, scandalous affair with his married neighbor, Mabel Todd. Mabel's husband was fully in the know.

Emily steadfastly refused to acknowledge what was happening, and a rupture occurred in her relationship with Sue. After Emily's death, Lavinia continued the fight to keep Austin from ruining the family. And after Austin's death, she sued Mabel to keep her from having a piece of the family land.

Some might say that Lavinia Dickinson led an unfulfilled life. Indeed, her losses and frustrations were many. But in this stunning novel of vision and self-sacrifice, we see the value of those who do some of the hardest work in the world.

Sally Fiedler is a well-known Buffalo poet and teacher.


The Sister: A Novel of Emily Dickinson

By Paola Kaufmann

Overlook/Rookery, 280 pages, $24.95

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