Women in History: Emily Dickinson

Sometimes when times are especially tough poetry becomes a somewhat of a morale booster and means of escaping the reality for a brief moment. So in the light of this idea, we’d decided to discuss the life and works of Emily Dickinson, a famous American woman- poet who had lived in the 19th century.

SOURCE TIME: This is one of the few contemporary photo of Emily Dickinson. Based on your knowledge about women of 1830s in either Europe or America, what can you tell either about Emily Dickinson or the value of a photograph. Think about how popular the photos were at the time.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think photographs can tell a historian about a specific period? Do they only tell about individuals on them?

“He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none”

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, a second child to Edward and Emily Norcoss Dickinson. Emily’s father was a lawyer and served as a Treasurer of Amherst College. Little is known of Emily’s mother; only that she had received a good education and that she was prone to depressive episodes throughout her life, something which had probably left a mark on little Emily. Indeed, our protagonist wrote in a letter that she had “always ran Home to Awe [Austin- her older brother] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none”, thus demonstrating distance between herself and her mother. However, overall, Emily Dickinson had a happy childhood thanks to the warm relationships with her father and siblings.


In 1840 Emily and her sister Lavinia were enrolled together at the prestigious Amherst Academy, which emphasised the value of girls’ education. Emily was a diligent student who, according to the Academy’s principal Fiske, was “very bright” and “an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties“. Emily was particularly happy there given that he had found a group of likeminded people with whom she was able to share her ideas with. Dickinson was particularly interested in botany, which was influential on her works given that through scientific observation Emily had been able to develop powerful descriptions which could be found in her poetry.

Nevertheless, such intellectual stimulation had ended when Emily was enrolled into Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 to continue her education. This transition marked the start of her continuous self-isolation, which continued throughout her life. Some biographers, site that the establishment couldn’t give Dickinson any new knowledge and was spiritual stifling for her. Indeed, the school record, inspired by the teachings of John Calvin, categorised Emily as “without hope” for salvation.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think education was open to every women during Emily Dickinson’s time? Why do you think so?

Returning home and death

After only one year there, Dickinson had left the school and returned to her parents’ household. As an unmarried woman, Dickinson was expected to take up household tasks, to which she opposed strongly finding the housework dissatisfying. For example, in her letter from the early 1850s she says “God keep me from what they call households,” thus demonstrating frustration and dislike for the domestic work. Dickinson reflected her attitude towards traditional womanhood in her poetry. Opposition to the traditional roles is a distinct theme that runs throughout most of Dickinson’s poetry. For example, in I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that— the narrator is evidently frustrated at her relationship with her husband. Maybe this is the reason for why she had never married (another reason was that Dickinson almost definitely loved women and not men, but that’s still, is disputed by literary historians and biographers).

From about mid 1850s Dickinson grew more and more isolated due to her mother’s declining health and the consequent need to look after the household. Nevertheless, the period from 1855 to about 1880 had proven to be the most fruitful for Dickinson as she had wrote the majority of her works at that time. Although Emily Dickinson’s works weren’t published during her lifetime, soon after her death her poetry had been rediscovered and had a massive success both in the USA and in Europe. 

As usual BBC 4’s In Our Time comes in to save a day with their podcast about Emily Dickinson being available for you to listen to on your way to school, college, or work!

Contextualising Emily Dickinson

Emphasis on the beauty of the natural world shouldn’t come as a surprise. Early 19th century saw the rise in discussion of what human nature actually was and whether human nature was a distinct, classifiable thing. Indeed, scientists like Charles Darwin and Lincoln were challenging the religious dogma ingrained into contemporary European society by the theory of evolution and classification of species.

Although this program seems a bit old and a bit long, it is very useful for understanding the relationship between philosophy and science in the Enlightenment England.

Just as the scientists asked a question about human nature, so had the literary circles. In 1838, famous American poet, Emerson told his Harvard audience, in his The Divinity of School Address ,“Always the seer is a sayer”; thus acknowledging human need for classification. However, differently to his scientific colleagues,  he emphasised to his listeners and readers’ that the word “definition” can be defined as one wishes and thus liberating the writer or a poet from strict definitions to explore different forms of poetry.

And here is a quick video about Emerson and his influence on American literature of 1830s.

Think like a Historian:

Can you think of any other ways in which the context in which Emily Dickinson lived allowed her to write her poetry?