In the year 1857, women didn’t have careers, but were expected to marry, partake in the mandatory semi-annual baby birthing, and bake bread. If they had not achieved those milestones by a certain age, they were considered spinsters. The life of a spinster was the life of an outcast.
Thus was the life of Emily Dickinson who was most likely suffering from a social disorder, and begin dressing only in white, and talking to visitors through closed doors so she didn’t have to speak to them face to face. During the last fifteen years of her life few neighbors saw outside of the house, and when they did she was dressed entirely in white. Consequently, she became ‘the woman in white’; the recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts.
After speaking of ‘a great darkness coming’, she fainted while baking bread. After a two year’s illness, she died but not before extracting a promise from her sister, Lavinia, also a spinster, to burn her papers, and was laid to rest in the family plot.
That would have been the end of the story of the strange lady in white except Lavinia after burning her sister’s personal correspondence found a locked trunk in Emily’s closet, and the 1800 poems of Emily Dickinson were pulled from the closet. Lavinia spent the duration of her life getting Emily’s poems published, and they have been in continual publication since that time. In 1899, Lavinia died at age sixty-six.
It’s a strange story, one sister writing in the closet, and the other sister sheltering her strange ways. It does raise the question of what would Lavinia have done had she known about the closet horde when she made the promise? Thankfully, she didn’t find the trunk for two years, and realized its value; a story to be told.
It seems to me, this tale presents a great moral to women everywhere; ‘Get out of that closet, and go where you heart takes you.’
photos: U.S. Creative Commons (Wikimedia Commons)
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)