Book Bag: ‘After Emily’ by Julia Dobrow; ‘Annelies’ by David R. Gillham

Published: 1/10/2019 4:42:14 PM

by Steve Pfarrer


By Julie Dobrow

W.W. Norton & Company

Much has been written about Emily Dickinson and the people who were closest to the famous Amherst poet: her brother, Austin; her sister, Lavinia, known as Vinnie; her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson; and her young friend and supporter of her poetry, Mabel Loomis Todd.

But Julie Dobrow, the director of Tufts University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, has found a new angle to plumb in the much-trodden story. In “After Emily,” Dobrow, a graduate of Smith College, offers an in-depth look at Todd (1856-1932) and Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham (1880-1968), and how both became inextricably bound up with Dickinson’s poetry.

Mabel Loomis Todd moved to Amherst with her husband, David, in 1881 when David became a professor of astronomy at Amherst College. She soon became friends with Susan Dickinson and later was invited to play piano in the Dickinson home for the reclusive Emily and her ill mother. She developed a friendship with Emily, based on letters and a few conversations through closed doors — the two never actually met face to face — and Mabel Todd also began a nearly 13-year affair with the much-older Austin Dickinson.

After Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886, Vinnie entrusted Mabel Todd, a spirited young woman who chaffed against the social constraints of the day, with editing and seeking publicity and a publisher for Emily’s 1,800 poems. It turned into a huge task that Mabel Todd took on with much energy and verve, but it was also complicated, Dobrow writes, by the tangled relationship she had with the Dickinsons, thanks to her affair with Austin.

After some initial publication of Emily Dickinson’s work, for instance, an 1898 lawsuit between the Dickinson and Todd families over a piece of land — the Dickinsons won the case — led Mabel Todd to lock away some 655 unpublished poems and numerous letters by Emily for many years. At the end of 1898, she wrote in her diary: “This wicked, cruel, unjust, perjured old year! Glad I am to see the last of him…. That lawsuit has blackened every sunny day.”

Dobrow also offers a full portrait of Millicent Todd Bingham, who had a complicated relationship with her high-profile mother. She studied science, including astronomy with her father, later taught French, then earned a Ph.D in geography and wrote a number of books and articles. But after her mother suffered serious health problems in the late 1920s, she devoted her time to editing the Dickinson poems and letters her mother possessed — then spent years wrangling with succeeding generations of Dickinsons over copyright issues.

Dobrow spent about seven years researching her book, which involved sifting through letters, diaries and other material in archives at Amherst College, Amherst’s Jones Library, and Harvard and Yale universities. She notes in an afterword that her first interest in the subject came from reading Emily Dickinson’s poems and then walking past the Dickinson homestead when she was attending Smith College.

Though she can’t know what Mabel Todd and her daughter would think of her biography, Dobrow writes, she likes to think their reaction would be positive. “Sometimes I’ve thought that Mabel would be delighted to be known as someone other than Emily’s editor or Austin’s lover. [And] I’ve thought that Millicent … would approve of the work I have done to present both her and her mother through a large number of their writings.”

Publishers Weekly says of the book, “Dobrow authoritatively traces the tortuous editorial and publication process that first brought Dickinson’s work to public attention, and sensitively explores her subjects’ interior lives.”



By David Gillham


At one time a student of screenwriting, Amherst author David Gillham turned to fiction several years ago and scored a hit with his debut novel, “City of Women,” in 2012. The story, set in Berlin in the middle of World War II, focused on the wife of a German soldier who turns to helping the city’s remaining Jewish population hide from the Gestapo. One reviewer called the book “a great mix of the literary and commercial ... with a morally complex, intelligent heroine at its center.”

In Gillham’s newest novel, “Annelies,” Gillham has centered his narrative on another morally complex, intelligent heroine from WWII — but this one is based on a real person. “Annelies” imagines that Anne Frank, author of the famous diary about hiding with her family from the Nazis in Amsterdam, survived the war and returned to The Netherlands in 1945, joining her father, Otto “Pim” Frank, as the only survivors from her family.

Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” first published by her father in edited form in 1947, has since become one of the most iconic memoirs of the Holocaust, and Frank, just 15 when she died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in early 1945, is celebrated both as a symbol of hope and resilience and of literary promise cut short. 

That would seem to make centering a speculative novel on her a risky gambit, but Gillham makes it work, sketching a surviving Anne Frank who’s torn by guilt, rage, sorrow and uncertainty as she tries to make sense of life back in Amsterdam. Her father, too, emerges as a well-formed character who is desperate to see life get back to “normal” — and who can’t seem to understand what has happened to his formerly vivacious younger daughter.

David Gillham will read from “Annelies” on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at











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