There is some element of banality in any love affair that makes it difficult for the outsider to appreciate the full force of other people’s passions. Even the steamy, complicated adultery of Austin Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s beloved brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a professor of astronomy at Amherst College, is more interesting to read about in Polly Longsworth’s lengthy introduction to Austin and Mabel than in the selection of the love letters the couple wrote during their thirteen-year affair. It is from the clandestine correspondence (a thousand or more letters and notes) as well as relevant passages from private diaries and journals that Longsworth has constructed this absorbing chronicle of one of the more revealing cases of late Victorian sexual behavior.

Mabel slipped hers between the pages of her diary; Austin kept his in his wallet until the day he died.

The affair began in 1882. Mabel Todd was twenty-five, new to Amherst, a vivacious hostess and accomplished painter, writer, and singer; Austin Dickinson was fifty-three, a married man, a respected lawyer, a trustee of the college, and a leading citizen in the community. Passion moved cautiously in those days; it was not until more than a year later, on December 13, 1883, that Austin and Mabel found sexual fulfillment behind the closed doors of the dining room in the Dickinson family home where Austin’s unmarried sisters, Emily and Lavinia, lived. The couple commemorated the event with two dated slips of paper on which they braided their first names together in a code word: AMUASBTEILN. Mabel slipped hers between the pages of her diary; Austin kept his in his wallet until the day he died.

There was, it seems, something epistolary in the very nature of the Dickinson’s relations with the world.

The Todd-Dickinson affair has come in for a good deal of recent attention, most notably in the first volume of Peter Gay’s revisionist study of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, Education of the Senses. In it, Gay devotes a chapter to Mabel Todd and her “exhaustive record of her erotic life,” which he regards as a boon to the social historian. The affair is intriguing on other counts as well. Both families seem to have readily cooperated in the liaison. Lavinia and Emily Dickinson, who adored their brother, approved of the relationship, seeing it as a reprieve from Austin’s soured marriage and his vindictive wife. Lavinia’s post-office box, number 207, served as a convenient address for Mabel’s secret love letters. The reclusive Emily, equally approving, never met her brother’s mistress face to face, however. On Mabel’s first visit to the Homestead on Main Street, Emily listened from the shadowy hallway while Mabel sang and played the piano. By way of appreciation, she sent the young guest a glass of sherry and a poem written on the spot. Thereafter the two communicated by letter. (Austin, wanting to acquaint the two women on some more intimate basis, once considered showing Emily one of Mabel’s love letters to him, “that she may know of what stuff you are,” he wrote his mistress.) Emily’s poems, her “letters” to the world beyond the Homestead gate, were later rescued and edited for publication by Mabel Todd. There was, it seems, something epistolary in the very nature of the Dickinson’s relations with the world.

“I was made for a wife,” she admitted with candid selfishness in her diary, “—for a mother, truly, no.”

Mabel’s husband, David Todd, also connived in the affair. After discussion, he had even given his blessing to Austin and Mabel’s first sexual encounter. Thereafter, the two men, husband and lover, became friends for life. Austin visited Mabel at the Todd house—for private meetings upstairs. David, when he came home, whistled a tune from Martha to alert the loving pair. Mabel entertained her husband’s transient mistresses as well. When she was away, visiting relatives or travelling abroad with friends, she sent her letters to her lover unsealed and undercover in her equally ardent letters to her husband. It was a cosy ménage à trois. All three kept journals and diaries in which they recorded or commented on their sexual activities, often using coded symbols. Even Mabel’s menstrual periods were noted as a means of determining what she regarded as her safe, or “auspicious,” times for intercourse. After the birth of a daughter, Millicent, in 1880, Mabel clearly wanted no more children. “I was made for a wife,” she admitted with candid selfishness in her diary, “—for a mother, truly, no.”

Peter Gay refers to Mabel Todd’s “engaging garrulity.” That trait is certainly evident in her letters. She had the gift of egocentricity and exaggeration combined. “It is of God,” she writes Austin about their affair, “—true and marvelously tender and rare . . . You understand me. You appreciate every little fineness. You bring out every truest part of my nature.” His letters give the impression of a man released—voluble, easy, overflowing with enthusiasm: “I have found in you what a woman may be to a man, hope, courage, joy, inspiration, rest, peace, religion! . . . Conventionalism is for those not strong enough to be laws for themselves.” Photographs present them as an ill-matched pair. (But who understands sexual attraction, anyway?) She is diminutive, with a nose that is too large and eyes that are too vivid; he looks like a giant with a shaggy mane, ugly sidewhiskers, a stony brow, and an even stonier stare. There are moments of fiery ardor in their letters, but there are also long stretches of tedium, the usual clichés and terms of endearment, the inevitable assertions that no one else in the world and time has loved as they have loved. The word love turns up so frequently that, by the end of the book, it has been worn thinner than a well-thumbed dime.

Photographs present them as an ill-matched pair. (But who understands sexual attraction, anyway?)

But love and passion—literary, epistolary, or otherwise—is not what one remembers most about Austin and Mabel. Instead, it is Longsworth’s shrewd and sharply defined character studies of the four principals, including Sue Dickinson, the embittered wife who tried to use her social position to have her husband’s mistress ostracized from polite society. The manner in which Longsworth weaves the themes and counterthemes—pride and physical passion, social status and private rationalization, odd psychological motivations, blatant egotism, and the sense of civic duty—among four individuals in a presumably puritanical New England community is masterful. Austin and Mabel is a thoroughly enlightening study of provincial life and love in nineteenth-century America, one that challenges our conventional notions about bourgeois morality and the total subjugation of women in the Victorian age.

Mabel Todd, no doubt, suffered the slights and grievances of the family warfare; she referred to Sue Dickinson as the town’s “Great Black Mogul.” But Amherst seems to have tolerated the adulterous affair: Austin was never banished from any of his important civic offices; Mabel continued to chaperon fraternity dances, attended Sunday services (though avoiding communion, which she did not believe in, at all costs), kept up her backroads carriage rides with her lover. As a celebrated writer and lecturer—on Emily Dickinson, and on Japan, which she had visited with her husband—she remained a respected, if not altogether respectable, figure in a community in which appearances counted, although not so much as we once believed. After Austin died in 1895, despite the misgivings of friends, Mabel, dressed in widow’s black, rode around town on a fiery red Columbia bicycle that had turned up at her door on the day after Austin’s death. (It was the gift of a friend.) She is another of the nineteenth-century renegade women who were not quite such exceptions to the rule, one of those lesser lives that change our opinions about an age.