As many of you probably remember, one of the final pieces of art that we discussed at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum was the photograph entitled, “Emily Dickinson’s White Dress, The Homestead,” by Jerome Liebling. President Pasquerella recently published a brief commentary on the work. She notes that as a philosopher she saw the painting as a discussion of “presence and absence.” She also comments on the current debate on “whether there are minds or souls, in addition to bodies, that can exist independently from our bodies upon death.” Emily Dickinson was most certainly a figure whose mind and soul existed beyond the earthly imprisonment of the mortal body. As can be observed in the Liebling photograph, Emily’s dress, a signifier of her bodily existence, softly disappears into the background. She existed but also existed beyond the visible.
I would like to take President Pasquerella’s commentary a step further. In keeping with our readings that meditate on Victorian domesticity and consumerism, it is interesting to look at this painting and see a potential platform for discussion on Dickinson’s participation and rebellion in the domestic space. In relation to the idea of “presence and absence,” Dickinson was a woman who lived both within and without the Victorian household.
If you ask anyone what comes to mind when they think of Emily Dickinson, they will most likely say the following few words: “recluse,””hermit,””disturbed” and/or “ghost.”Dickinson remains forever, even over one hundred years after her death, confined to her home. It is almost impossible to talk about Dickinson without bringing up her connection to that little yellow house in Amherst, Massachusetts. The photograph emulates this fascination. The white dress, a signifier of Dickinson’s existence, remains, not trapped, but static within the home.The outside reflects itself onto the glass casing, holding it in place. While Emily’s body remained within the home, her mind expanded far beyond the gates of the homestead. It is almost as if the outside is sucking away the material, suggesting that one is not fully part of the other.
If we think of this photograph within the context of our readings, you might be reminded of Lori Anne Loeb’s chapter “Victorian Consumer Culture,” in her book Consuming Angels. Loeb describes the assigned space for the ideal Victorian woman within domestic life:
“The ‘temple of the hearth, ‘the vestibule of heaven’ depended on the redemptive presence of a ‘household God,’ an ‘angel in the house’-immortalized by Coventry Patmore’s famous poem. The woman was expected to act as a moral regenerator. Closeted within the sanctuary, this angel could nurture purity and dependence; she could retain her asexuality and child-like simplicity. Her cheery prettiness and lady-like accomplishments would make her a dutiful companion” (Loeb, Consuming Angels, p. 19).
Based on Emily’s reputation and actions, she fits the majority of these categories. She spent the majority of her life working in the kitchen, cleaning the house (although her least favorite thing to do), and tending to the gardens. The house always had its ‘angel’ wandering the halls, filling the rooms with the fragrance of ginger bread and freshly cut dandelions. How many days did she spend wearing that white dress; a possible declaration of her purity? She does take on this child-like persona, wearing a signifier of purity, living in that bedroom for almost her entire life. When she was alive and far after she had died, Emily was seen as a ‘angel’ or ‘ghost.’ Amherst society called her the “Myth of Amherst,” peaking out through the windows, “closeted within the sanctuary,” of the household.
But while Amherst society saw her reclusive habits as peculiar she also adhered to what Victorian society expected of women, based on the above description. But with one exception. She was no man’s “dutiful companion.” She of course served as a constant companion to her sister Lavinia and parents. Though, she never gave herself completely. Would she have become the poet that we know today, if at all, if she had married?
While Dickinson fit within several of the categories befitting a Victorian woman, she found liberation within the confines of her “sanctuary.” Going back to Emily’s mortal body, performing the tasks within the house, her mind on the other hand, extended far beyond its walls. In that room in that dress Emily wrote her poetry. Writing almost 1,800 poems, her subject matter was far from the realm of purity. She is often seen as is described in Loeb’s article, as an “asexual” angel. Her poetry would suggest otherwise. For example:
Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Angels.