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 anatomy 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.

The affair began in 1882. Mabel Todd was twenty-five, new to Amherst, a vivacious hostess and...


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