“The Sue Cycle”
One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, the woman who married Dickinson’s brother Austin and became Dickinson’s sister-in-law and life-long correspondent. We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Susan chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is undeniable.
Sue was born nine days after Dickinson on December 19, 1830 and died twenty-seven years almost to the day of Dickinson death on May 12, 1913. From a struggling family and with dreams of betterment, Sue loved books, reading, art and poetry. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her aunt and came to live in Amherst in 1850, where she met Dickinson, and for the next decade their intimacy flourished.
Dickinson’s early letters to Sue are nothing short of delirious. In one of the most thorough considerations of their association, Judith Farr speculates that Sue took the place of Dickinson’s girlhood friend and crush, Abiah Root, when Abiah married and stopped responding to Dickinson’s eroticized importunings.
Then, on July 1, 1856, Sue married Austin, Dickinson’s brother, a match Dickinson encouraged, thinking it would bind Sue more firmly into the family, especially when their father built the couple an Italianate villa dubbed “The Evergreens” next door to the Homestead. Dickinson’s upstairs window faced both the road and the Evergreens where she could watch Sue’s comings and goings.
Sue was a fit interlocutor for Dickinson and there is evidence that they shared profound interests in reading, writing, gardening, recipes and even acted as editors for each other’s poetry, as in the case of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” detailed below. But Sue was mercurial, worldly and socially ambitious, and soon became busy with the birth of her first child. Scholars differ on just what happened, but in the Fall of 1861, as Farr narrates it, Sue sent a letter to Dickinson, folded up tight and marked “private,” apologizing for her silence, commiserating with Dickinson’s suffering (the “terror” she tells Higginson she experienced “since September”) and disclosing her own
sorrow that I never uncover. If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?
she asks. This note captures the literary quality of their relationship.
In a message Dickinson sent across the lawn to the Evergreens later in 1862, Dickinson included the poem, “Your Riches – taught me – Poverty” (F418, J299), with the words, “Dear Sue– You see I remember––Emily.” It’s as if their deep love and profound importance to each other exist now in memory, but they provided Dickinson with her great themes of loss and suffering. We will discuss this poem and others from the “Sue Cycle” of poems Farr identifies in the poems section in order to plumb the vast and sometimes underplayed importance of Sue in Dickinson’s artistic life.