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?

Representation of the Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

We’re sure that you’re aware of a fact that certain actions have certain consequences. You stole the last piece of the Red Velvet cake and now your sibling is upset. Or you had an argument with someone and now they’re not particularly keen on talking to you. Or you wrote a subversive piece of literature and you get sent off to a very far away geographical region which your country has been progressively invading for some time. Obviously, we’re exaggerating here slightly about the Red Velvet cakes; but the elements of intrigue, arguments, duels, subversive pieces of literature and most importantly history still stand. In this post we will be discussing Russian Romantic writers and their links to the Caucasus region.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a monarch be willing to send someone very far away from a capital city? Why do you think so?
Here is a modern-day map of the region we will be discussing in our post. (cc: Lermontov, M.Y., ‘A Hero of Our Time’, ed. Penguin Classics)

Russian Romanticism: A Brief Introduction

When academics mention the word “Romantic” or “Romanticism” they are usually referring to a socio-cultural movement that lasted from about 1780s to 1830s. Evidences for Romanticism are wide-ranging, such as paintings, music, and philosophical works. However, this post will solely focus on literary sources, such as poems and novels.

A brief overview of Romanticism and the philosophy behind it

Russian Romanticism was heavily influenced by two strands of contemporary thought: German philosophical tradition, called Naturphilosophie, and British Byronism. Thinkers of Naturphilosophie placed emphasis on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation. Byronism, on the other hand, was tied to aesthetics. Just as Naturphilosophie, Byronism highlights the importance of a special nature of humans in relation to nature. Differently to the German tradition, Byronism also emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two portraits. The one on the left depicts Lord Byron, who is considered to be the founder of the Byronic tradition. This portrait was painted in by a famous contemporary artist Richard Westall in 1813. The portrait on the right depicts A.S. Pushkin, a famous writer of the Russian Romantic tradition. It was painted by an experienced artist Orest Kiprensky in 1827. Can you find any similarities between the two portraits? Think about why these similarities could have arose in the first place. Is it just to make Pushkin’s portrait look fancy?

Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

One of the predominant ways how the Caucasus region is framed in Russian Romantic literary tradition is as a place of exile, veiled in a dream-like atmosphere that verges on a sense of longing. For instance, this is how A.S. Pushkin describes the Caucasian mountains in his narrative poem, A Prisoner of Caucasus: [Mount Beshtau] “Will I ever forget its gritty heights,/ Its gushing springs, its withering plains…The impressions of a young soul?”. In these lines there is a clear focus on a natural beauty and a sense of longing. Although it is possible to argue that Pushkin is exploiting a common contemporary literary trope that describes Caucasian mountains as having a special aesthetic quality, such a position ignores the possible explanation for why such tropes arose. Indeed, such descriptions shouldn’t come as a surprise as some of the Russian Romantic writers and poets were sent away to Caucasus at a young age as part of their punishment for what the State perceived to be subversive behaviour, including writing a piece of literature which undermined the authority of the State. The attitude expressed by Pushkin, who himself was exiled twice in his lifetime, therefore probably reflects the probable stifling effect the State-sponsored censorship had on individual writers as the Caucasus seems to represent a sense of freedom, despite the government officials framing the location as a punishment. Consequently, some Russian Romantics didn’t see Caucasus as the means of punishment but rather as a place of liberation, contrary to the official governmental position.

Unsurprisingly, another common association which the Russian Romantics tended to explore in their works is that of Caucasus as a place of earthly pleasure, and romantic pursuits. Such tropes could be seen in Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus, where the protagonist falls in love with a local woman, but has to leave her in order to come back to mainland Russia. As evidenced by the passage below, the narrator emphasises the overtly emotional attachment the woman has towards the character of the Prisoner. This may suggest that for Russian Romantic writers Caucasus was seen as a place of exotic pleasure which was maybe unattainable or seen as immoral within the elite social circles. However, as one could see in Lermontov‘s passage, the attachment to the region seems to also be in the potential secrecy of the encounters, rather than in the ‘exotic’ nature of locals. Although it is possible to argue that the two concepts are self-supporting as inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret from social circles back in St Petersburg or Moscow, such an argument lacks nuance. This is because it does not follow that socio-cultural inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret. After all, why would Pushkin boast about his long list of lovers in 1830s; and according to some literary critics and historians to have included some gypsy women whom he’d met whilst in exile in Bessarabia province? Consequently, some Russian Romantics, most prominently Pushkin, associated Caucasus with the possibility to lead a morally dubious lifestyle within the standards of their society.

Nevertheless, with hedonistic pursuits came various dangers. Some of such dangers seemed to have stemmed from conflicts that arose due to the subversion of the established social order and often ended up in duels as the means of the last resort to settle the conflict. Such is the case with the protagonist in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Grigori Pechorin, who ends up on duelling grounds to settle a dispute with another young man, Grushnickiy, over the hand of Countess Mary. Yet, a duelling trope seems to be very common to Russian literature of the period and not particularly associated with Caucasus. For example, Pushkin’s characters from Eugene Onegin, Onegin and Lensky participate in a duel in a similar circumstances as Pechorin and Grushnitskiy. As a result, Caucasus was probably not seen as somewhat of a massive duelling ground. Indeed, the descriptions of Caucasus lifestyle seem to focus predominantly on highly localised dangers. For instance, the main trope of Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus is that the character of the Prisoner ends up in a remote Caucasian village because of an unexpected raid by local tribesmen onto his military garrison. This therefore suggests that Caucasus was associated with unexpectant dangers. Consequently,Caucasus was viewed as both a place of hedonistic pursuits and deathly dangers.

SOURCE TIME: This time we decided to make the sources slightly more fun. Here are two distinct duel scenes. The one at the top is taken from a film adaptation of Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’. The one below it is taken from a film adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Assuming that both duels are somewhat grounded on original authors’ life experiences and that the film-makers of the adaptation did an excellent job at reconstructing the duels that took place in 1830s Russia what can you find out about duels and culture around them? Think about what kind of people participated in duels and most importantly why would the duels occur in real life? Would they be solely focused on resolving an argument?

Think like a Historian:

Based on the information in this post, why do you think there was such differing interpretations of Caucasus in Russian Romantic literature?

Important vocabulary

  • Aesthetic: the way an artist or a writer choses to portray their work according to what they think is beautiful.
  • Romanticism: a socio-cultural movement that lasted from 1780s to 1830s.
  • Naturphilosophie: a strand of philosophical thought that originated in Germany and focused on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation.
  • Byronism: a socio-cultural phenomena that later developed into its own philosophical thought that emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

To explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the way Romanticism was incorporated into Russian philosophy and thought, we strongly recommend reading Marlene Laruelle’s Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Although it doesn’t focus on Russian Romantic thought throughout the entire book, there are several chapters that discuss it in detail.
  • If you’re generally interested in Romanticism generally a good place to start is N.V. Riasanovsky’s The Emergence of Romanticism. It’s a comprehensible read and the author gives the reader an in depth introduction to Romantic movements in Britain and Germany.
  • If you’re interested in finding more about Lermontov, we’re attaching an article about him to this bullet point.
  • If you’re interested reading both ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘Prisoner of Caucasus’ that are mentioned in the posts we’re attaching a pdf copy of the latter and a web-link to this bullet point.