After her first visit, Mabel plunged into a passionate love affair with Emily’s married brother Austin Dickinson, who lived next door to his sister.
They continued the affair for 13 years, until Austin’s death. After Emily died, Mabel edited and published her poems.
And then after Austin died, she campaigned to save trees from loggers.
Mabel Loomis Todd
She was born Nov. 10, 1856, and grew up in straitened circumstances, though she had Mayflower ancestry. She spent her youth in boardinghouses in Concord and Cambridge, Mass., and in Washington, D.C.
They had an open marriage. She knew about his philandering, and he knew about her affair with Austin Dickinson soon after it started.
Two years into their marriage, the couple moved to Amherst, Mass., so David could take a job at Amherst College as astronomy professor.
Austin Dickinson was 53 years old when he and Mabel confessed their love for each other. She was 25. He was a leading citizen of the town, a lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College. He and his wife and children lived next door to his invalid mother and reclusive sisters, Lavinia and Emily, who Mabel called “the climax of all the family oddity.”
On Sept. 10, 1882, Austin Dickinson took his mistress-to-be to sing and play the piano for his two reclusive sisters and mother. Emily listened to Mabel from the shadows of the hall, but she never appeared. Her mother listened from upstairs. Only Lavinia – “Miss Vinnie” – met Mabel face-to-face, taking her hands and complimenting her singing.
Wrote Mabel, “It was odd to think as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word.”
When Mabel stopped singing, Emily sent in a glass of sherry and a poem she wrote during the concert.
Elysium is as far as to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom—
What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot—
The opening of a Door—
After the visit Mabel wrote,
Emily is called in Amherst “the myth.” She has not been out of her house for fifteen years…She writes the strangest poems, & very remarkable ones.
Mabel then described Emily as a genius in many respects. “She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago when she went into retirement.”
Emily frequently sent her flowers and poems, wrote Mabel, and, “we have a very pleasant friendship in that way.”
The next night, Austin and Mabel paused on their way to a whist party and confessed their love for each other. “Rubicon” Austin wrote in his diary afterward.
Pretty soon everyone in town knew about the affair. Mabel’s husband didn’t mind. Austin’s wife Susan was devastated.
Austin and Mabel called their love “overwhelming,” “God-inspired,” “beyond any love that ever was.”
“No love story approaches it,” wrote Mabel.
She liked sex and described it in her diary: “Sweet communions. Oh joy! Oh! Bliss unutterable” and, “A little Heaven just after dinner.”
In 1887, Mabel began wearing Austin’s wedding ring.
After Emily died in 1886, Lavinia destroyed her letters and asked Austin’s wife to make sure Emily’s poems were published. Susan didn’t show much interest in the project, so Lavinia asked two family friends – Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson – to publish the 40 manuscripts Emily left. The two made alterations to Emily’s poems.
The Roberts Brothers published the first volume, Poems, in 1890. Within two years, 11 editions were printed. Mabel began a 15-year lecture career about the mysterious poet of Amherst, fixing her image in the public’s mind.
A second volume of poems was printed in 1891, but Higginson didn’t like Mabel Todd’s alterations and quit.
On her own, Mabel Loomis Todd extensively changed Emily Dickinson’s poems for a third volume.
Austin died of overwork in 1895. He had bequeathed a piece of land to Mabel and David Todd, who had remained a friend to Austin despite his affair with his wife. Lavinia challenged the bequest in court and won. As a result of the falling out, the Todd and Dickinson families split Emily’s manuscripts.
Austin’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, produced four books of Emily’s poems and two biographies between 1913 and 1937.Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent published more of Emily’s poems between 1931 and 1955.
In 1908, Mabel Loomis Todd took on a new project: saving Hog Island from clearcutting. She had visited the island off the coast of Maine after Austin died, and saw that logging had begun.
According to her daughter, the clearcutting shocked her. Millicent Todd Bingham wrote:
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “they must not destroy any more of it! This island is too wonderful, it must be preserved, what CAN we do about it?”
She began persuading friends to buy up parts of the island, and bought some herself. Eventually David and Mabel Loomis Todd gained majority ownership of the island, and they built a summer camp there.
Mabel Loomis Todd died on Hog Island, Maine, on Oct. 14, 1932. Her daughter believed a permanent environmental preserve would serve as the most fitting tribute to her mother. She donated the land to the Audubon Society in 1936, and together they established an ecology camp on the island.
Photos: Austin Dickinson courtesy Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database; Mabel Loomis Todd from American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits; Emily Dickinson courtesy Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Bald Eagle by Fyn Kynd, CC by 2.0. With thanks to Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd by Polly Longsworth.
New England Historical Society updated this story in 2022.