Peter Gay, from Education of the Senses (1984)

Transcribed from pages 71-108 of Peter Gay's Education of the Senses, Oxford University Press, 1984.

An Erotic Record

I. Mabel Loomis

For reasons that are only too obvious, sexual consummations, among the most intimate and the most important of all experiences, are also among the most scantily documented. This holds with particular force for a culture that takes exceptional pains to keep its private concerns private. Hence, when the historian finds someone like Mabel Loomis Todd, leisurely and uninhibited enough to keep an exhaustive record of her erotic life and leave it to posterity intact, he can only express his gratitude and quote at length. Her blessed precision, engaging garrulity, and never-flagging interest in herself are not Mabel Todd's only charms for the student of nineteenth-century middle-class culture. Cheerful, talented, sociable, popular enough to arouse jealous gossip, she was capable of sustaining affectionate and amorous ties; effective as a writer, lecturer, and editor, as wife, hostess, and lover, she constructed for herself, more than most, an enviably robust and resilient character. When she died in October 1932, at seventy-five, her daughter Millicent, her only child, mourned most of all Mabel Todd's indefatigable energy and her infectious gaiety.

Yet even she — and this makes Mabel Todd all the more interesting — had to wrestle in maturity with conflicts both concealed and open. A certain aroma of transference, of unfinished oedipal business, hangs over her adult loves: she found herself driven to act upon repressed emotions, inappropriate in their intensity and their targets — emotions that had survived from childhood and now intervened in her choice of attachments. But in success and in failure, Mabel Todd's encounters with her unconscious wishes and her conscious ambitions link her to other—she was inclined to think, lesser—mortals.

"On the morning of the fifteenth of May, 1879, my darling and I came up from breakfast, at 1234, Fourteenth St., and had a very happy few minutes of love in our room." The diary may have become a commonplace in the bourgeois century, but this was not a commonplace entry. It was an effort to recapture, in a retrospective journal, the moment when a child had been conceived. The episode she was reconstructing was certainly not esoteric; its vicissitudes are, of course, the subject of this book. But the mind recording it was remarkable.

Admittedly, and instructively, Mabel Loomis was, in most respects, wholly at home in the nineteenth-century middle class. Like other proper young women, in the United States and across the Western world, she played the piano and sang, wrote poetry and painted. Her accomplishments were, to be sure, more polished than those of the average amateur. Drawing on a fund of seemingly inexhaustible yet patiently disciplined animal vitality — she often practiced the piano two or three hours a day — she played and sang well enough to perform in public, wrote well enough to be published, and painted well enough to be paid for her watercolors and screens. At times she felt flooded by words burning "with the intenseness of their birth," by a "power," a "terrible sacred flame" which "throbs so through my whole being," an erotic investment in her gifts rare among girls of her time and station — or, at least, rarely acknowledged. She was handsome without being beautiful; her eyes were too prominent and her nose a little too heavy for that. But she radiated vivacity and good health. When she lost weight, she worried; like most of her contemporaries, she did not like to be too thin. Her waist, she knew, would remain slim even when she was, as she put it with some complacency, "fat." Her splendid figure, which she cultivated with care, struck her and her many admirers as most satisfactory. But it was her talents, her perseverance, her emotional energies, her artless sensuality that made her exceptional.

Still, Mabel Loomis shared most of the aspirations, and many of the prejudices, that characterized the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. The family in which she grew up in Washington, D.C., at the time of the Civil War was, like thousands of other families, devoted, intrusive, proud of its ancestry, ambitious far beyond its financial resources, socially anxious while professing freedom from anxiety —in short, average in its very claim to be above average. Mabel Loomis remains, for all her cherished individuality, with all her sacred flame, a recognizable specimen of the cultivated nineteenth-century middle class.

In the manner of other proper American girls, she indulged in fantasies of social success, voraciously devoured novels, idolized her father, and, unlike some of her Continental counterparts, married for love. She took romantic walks and moonlight rides, invited confidential conversations and exchanged noncommittal letters with eligible young men, staying by and large within the bounds of the permissible in her stumbling, awkward, touching rehearsals for life. Typically, she came through nearly all of these titillating trials unscathed. There was one brief, dangerous flurry with an "older man," one Ezra Abbot — he was thirty and she eighteen — from which she was rescued, much to her relief, by her parents' objections. But David Peck Todd, whom she married when she was twenty-two, was wholly eligible; like her father an astronomer, he was promising, busy, bursting with far-reaching schemes, and, she was delighted to discover, "thoroughly well bred." And precisely like thousands of nineteenth-century literates, both as a single girl and a married woman, she kept a diary for compressed, often highly charged accounts of her day's doings, and a journal for elaborated reflections and recollections, about flowers and forests, about her modest triumphs at the piano and in the drawing room, about her suitors and, principally, about her ever-fascinating self. In the manner of diarists everywhere, she addressed both her journals and her diaries as living beings, as trusted friends. Her very first effort, dating from 1871, a little stilted still in the early pages, experimental and tentative, is her "dear journal"; a year later, already freer, she can prepare her dear journal, jocularly, for a revelation: "I will tell you something, old journal." And she concluded her second journal in precisely the same manner: "Good bye little book—your loving and grateful friend, Mabel Loomis." It was her wedding day.

While the stream of her autobiographical musings makes Mabel Loomis typical of her class and her age, their introspective candor and their fine lucidity set her apart, memorably. When, on the fifteenth of May, 1879, she came up from breakfast to have, with her "darling," those "very happy few minutes of love," minutes she recorded in precious detail, she had been married for three months. She was to have such happy episodes often, across the years, and not with her husband alone.

Mabel Loomis, I must repeat, was a most proper girl, of a most reputable family. The child of her parents in this as in so much else, she took marked pleasure in her family coat of arms, "which I have—a fine one on both sides, thank Heaven." She had a solid, slightly snobbish feeling for the fine distinctions that discriminated each level of the middle class from its neighbors. And, partly because money was not abundant in her parents' household, family and breeding were, for Mabel Loomis, the stigmata of authentic respectability. She worries, in 1873, still a teenage schoolgirl, over attending a sociable at the house of a family that "is not as high in the social scale as many in town, and we felt a natural repugnance to associating with them." At times, her verdicts reflect her own claims to cultivation: "I want to get out of this commonplace Georgetown society as much as possible," she writes in early 1874; "I have grown far above any of them." As far as she could judge the matter, she belonged among the "best people." Her efforts to distance herself from the ordinary American did not cease in her later years. In 1885, observing her countrymen on a trip to Europe, she makes her disdain emphatic: "I do not wish to be classed with the average American travelers, (who, I must say, are the vulgarest people we meet) and no amount of money, or even great kindness of heart, can cover up the vulgar & common tone of an American self-made business man." The show of money always irritated her: in 1890, when one of her oldest friends, Caro Andrews, presented some friends to her, she recorded, not without a touch of envy: "She introduced me to none of the women of my sort—but only to four large-breasted women who sparkled in diamonds." David Todd had, she quickly perceived, impressive assets to commend him, notably looks and brains, but it was his being "a perfect gentleman" which first raised him above the many men clamoring for her attention. "Aside from his mind," she wrote in her journal in the early spring of 1878, after she had come to admire him, "he is a direct descendant from Jonathan Edwards, so has good blood." Such things counted.

Unlike her social certainties, her moral certainties yielded to the pressure of her experience—her erotic experience, to be precise. Indeed, as we shall see, it was the very firmness of her snobbery that permitted her to be flexible about her morality. But in her formative years, she was wholly conventional; as a girl, however sincere her pose of independence, she felt no impulse to defy, or even question, her family's view of things. She recognized the boundaries fencing in bourgeois behavior, and respected them. After listening to a brotherly young man recount his "love affairs and flirtations," she reflected: "I suppose I do not know much about the world, but I have always supposed that any girl who considers herself a lady would resent any familiarities on a man's part until she was engaged to him. Promiscuous hugging and kissing is something I never could stand even to hear of, and I have always thought it an indication of a low tone in a girl to permit it, or a man to suggest it." She was sure that "it is only common girls, plebeian, truly, who indulge in such things." And she added, with one of those flashes of perception that make her introspection so rewarding: "I have always kept my circle of personal magnetism entire and to myself." She was speaking of her vivid, expressive sensuality of which she became only too aware, and which gave her that striking ascendancy over social gatherings and, more dangerously, over men. To open the circle of her magnetism was to invite passionate declarations in response to her potent, if at least partly unconscious, invitations.

Her surviving narcissistic impulses, and her unalloyed enjoyment of men once she had discovered them, made it improbable that she would keep the magnetic circle of her sensuality permanently inviolate. It was in the summer of 1872, when she was nearing sixteen, that she first became fully conscious of her erotic needs and powers. "Every body stared at me," she noted in July 1872, after a picnic, "but I rather liked it." A month later, on vacation in Charlton, Massachusetts, she was bored until a "man" arrived: "Joy to the world, a boy has come." He was the brother of one of her friends, and a valuable acquisition. "Indeed scarcely in the whole village can there be found one of those wonderful creatures." By mid-November, after she had turned sixteen, she confessed the plain truth to her journal: "I begin to think that I am very fond of gentlemen." She was. In mid-winter, after rehearsing some musical pieces at church, she recorded ingenuously: "It was ever so much fun, for all the boys were there." Her adolescence was, for her as for other normal human beings, a trying time, in more ways than one. These were years for experimentation, for playing with roles and identifications, and years of revived inner struggles with oedipal wishes, both amorous and aggressive. It was a time for repetitions and farewells.

For Mabel Loomis, adolescence proved an opportunity for discovering her talents as a gifted performer and her vocation as a passionate wife. During the three or four years that followed puberty, as she entered young womanhood, her diaries and journals increasingly center on men. She speculates whether she could be happy with any of her suitors, finds several of them attractive but all of them wanting in refinement, taste, or intellectual freedom. Confident that she was special, she felt under obligation to choose with exceptional care. The man she sought must be "good, true, intellectual & tender," and to say nothing of having a good family tree.

But Mabel Loomis's confidence was a little tremulous, for her impulsiveness spelled danger. Her appetite for love was insatiable; it seemed as though she was making up an old deficit, whose origins had long been forgotten. Like many other young women—and men—she was in the grip of unresolved conflicts, not acute enough to paralyze her, but endemic, vaguely troubling. "If people will only just love me," she had written a little pathetically when she was not yet sixteen, "I will do anything for them." She continued to insist that she wanted a career, and rejected the role of "clinging vine" to which some of her school friends were cheerfully submitting. "But," she mused, "I have such an immense capacity for loving that when I let ever so little a stream start out, & then check it, I am nearly suffocated with the overpowering rush of something indescribable which comes over me." These are florid if unintended metaphors. Love, Sigmund Freud once said, makes things wet. It also suffocates. On the day that Mabel Loomis confessed to her conflict over releasing and then checking the stream of her sensuality, she felt bound to note that while she had developed rather slowly, "I have come to a point now where the intensity of my feeling is simply immense." While she categorically denied that she could have married any of the men crowding about her, and complacently allowed that she was, at twenty-one, "all the fashion," she craved "affection so much, that I really believe a weak man would make me happier than no man at all." She recognized the risks to which her clamorous appetites exposed her: "I am not in a safe position, for the next man who comes to me lovingly would not find it hard to make me love him." As she frankly diagnosed her case, she was suffering from "a mental, or no an affectional starvation." She was waiting for the right man, but too impatient to wait long.

Mabel Loomis's neediness rose to the surface in her most innocuous encounters. Qualifying a Massachusetts fall day, with its glorious foliage, as "delicious," she falls afoul of a friend, John Garland, "uncultivated in the finer points of life & society," who argues for reserving this succulent adjective for "eatables or drinkables." She defends herself indignantly, with a rush of anger, citing "first class authors" in the Atlantic on her side, and the colorful facts, the red and yellow maples, themselves: "but they are delicious, & I will say so." The squabble is pedantic, but her passion points less to her need to be right — though it points to that as well — than to her need to find expressive equivalents for her erotic emotions. It is no accident that other poetic nineteenth-century sensualists used her cherished adjective in precisely this metaphorical way. "What a delicious shiver," Charles Kingsley has his hero, Lancelot, say in his novel Yeast, "is creeping over those limes!" That was the shiver Mabel Loomis had in mind, anticipating greater shivers to come.

Her keen-eyed search for a man and her pleasure in the pursuit itself were, if a little over-eager, appropriate and adaptive in her time, and not in themselves guarantees of bubbling, barely restrained sensuality. It was the assignment of respectable young women to settle down with an eligible young man. "I am becoming ardently matrimonial," Alice James, worthy sister to William and Henry James, sensitive, introspective, and intelligent to a degree, confessed to a friend in the mid-1870s, "and if I could get any sort of man to be impassioned about me I should not let him escape." That sounds bold and is candid, but Alice James herself was rarely in a frame of mind, or shape of health, to be impassioned about any man. Mabel Loomis was quite different: her quest for a suitable partner was inextricably linked to her sensual awakening.

Her awareness of the erotic energy that inhabited her and the erotic ambiance that she generated made the inescapable conflicts between her impulses and her defenses acute. At times they rose to consciousness and gave her some uneasy moments about her conduct. "I wonder if I am a flirt?" she once asked herself in her journal — she was just under twenty—after a discarded admirer had accused her of being one, but comfortably decided, soon enough, that she was not; having seen a pretty sixteen-year-old provoke the glances of men in the street, she concluded: "I myself am very fond of gentlemen, but not quite in the coarse way, she likes her 'beaux' I hope." It was not a self-satisfied posture she could always sustain. She was too excitable and too honest for that. Upon first meeting "Mr. Todd," whom she found "quite charming," she observed that he was "evidently thoroughly at home among young ladies, as indeed," she added, "is every man I know. They are all more or less flirts." Mr. Todd, she found, immediately fastening on his physical attractions, "is very good looking, a blonde, with magnificent teeth, pleasant manners, & immense, though innocent enough, powers of flirting. "Well," she concluded, "so also have I." Yet, with a certain youthful sagacity, she chose to observe the proprieties, often interpreting them in the most literal way possible. Once, after she had come to know David Peck Todd well, she took his arm on a walk and found her gesture unconventional enough to immortalize in her journal: to take a man's arm, she noted, was to acknowledge publicly that one considered oneself engaged, and she had little desire to be familiar out of season.

Public circumspection did not inhibit private experimentation. Until she grew intimate with David Todd, Mabel Loomis seems to have confined much of her excitement to the enjoyment of the great outdoors; her journals swarm with entries recording her "intense happiness," her "great joy," not to speak of her regular "ecstasies," in the presence of wide meadows and dark woods, favorite flowers and dazzling moonlight, calm beaches and stormy seas. "Oh glorious! Oh delightful!" she exclaimed in the late summer of 1872, "to see the dear old ocean again." And, a little more than a year later: "The wind is blowing gloriously and the sky fills me with unspeakable longings and joy," she writes; these entries are typical of her emotional style. Her ecstasies amount to more than the derivative, almost obligatory effusions of a gently raised girl with an ear for poetic prose; like other bourgeois, men and women alike, though more articulately than most, Mabel Loomis eroticized nature. It was only after she and David Todd were securely, as it were officially, in love that she could afford to discard these displacements and seek much of her gratification with a man. Even her journals, which she had "intensely enjoyed" and which had "often inexpressibly comforted" her became less necessary as she concentrated on a living erotic target.

That target was anything but tame or tepid. "Drive in buggy with 'accommodating horse,'" David Todd wrote in his diary some four months before he was to marry Mabel Loomis. "Home about 9. Mabel will remember with pleasure the new sensation I caused her this evening. We may call this our engagement night." About a month later he noted tersely: "First long love — 5-6." In her own diary, Mabel Loomis charted the progress of her love with mounting excitement. As early as April 1878, after taking the customary walk — "we walked, and walked & walked, & had a most congenial time" — David Todd came in to Mabel Loomis's house "for a few minutes"; the couple "walked up and down the room, and, — and he — well, I couldn't help it." But she insisted, some doubts lingering behind her defiant affirmation, "I woke up the next morning very happy though, & feeling not at all condemned." Almost two weeks earlier there had been what she called a "slight passage at arms in which I made a mistake — which worried me much, but the effect of that mistake has entirely disappeared, I'm happy to say." Explicit as she normally was, there are times when Mabel Loomis compels her unauthorized reader to guess at her meaning.

Later, in August, when David Todd was away on one of his astronomical field trips, she confided to her "old friend, this faithful book," bet pressing erotic needs: "His letters have truly a physical effect on me," and she confessed, with just a shred of genteel reticence, "I am going to tell something which I ought not to—I know David is necessary, not only to my happiness, but his presence is absolutely essential to my physical health." In early January 1879, after a long walk with her "David blessed boy," she "sewed buttons on for him" and, after supper, had "another dear sweet few minutes with him & then he—blacked my shoes! At last."

This rather wry entry immortalizes what must have been something of an anticlimactic encounter. The pleasures that the engaged couple took with one another were, though intense, probably incomplete. For Mabel Loomis and David Todd, as for other betrothed couples across the Western world, the period of engagement gave opportunities for sexual experimentation. In 1843, when Julia Ward became engaged to her fellow abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe, Longfellow wrote to him: "The great riddle of life is no longer a riddle to you; the great mystery is solved." A decade earlier, Elias Nason, a student at Brown, asked Mira Bigelow, whom he had been courting for two years, to visit him: "Can you come to me." He could foresee much physical pleasure if she only would: "To see & hear & touch each other every day" and to talk intimately would "make things comfortable." But, evoking past meetings, Nason seemed more intent on recalling and generating excitement than comfort: "My heart loves to dwell on the scenes that we have passed together—all the walks and kisses and larks and sings and thoughts and meetings and partings and clingings." Whether many middle-class girls actually had intercourse before marriage or not—and it would seem not—the time of their betrothal was, for many, a time for exploring and being explored. The "promiscuous hugging and kissing" that Mabel Loomis firmly condemned was, as she cheerfully recognized, permitted to couples pledged to one another: "Of course you would expect it after you were engaged, but I think the line should be very distinct between the friendships which a girl may have with many men, and the one particular kind of affection which she gives the man she is to marry."

This was the line of propriety. In his popular book The Physical Life of Woman, the American physician and reformer George H. Napheys laid it down as axiomatic that "the urgency of man and the timidity of woman are tempered by the period of courtship." He was at least half right: while approved courtship often tempered the timidity of woman, it also, just as often, gave the man's urgency new opportunities. "Oh! that precious boy!" Mabel Loomis wrote in her diary a little more than a week after he had blacked her shoes. "If only he were here at this moment, how I would 'show' him!" What Mabel Loomis couldn't help doing, what happened during those dear sweet few minutes after supper, what she wanted to show her fiancé, must remain matters for conjecture. It is practically certain that, with all her excited premarital play, Mabel Loomis entered marriage at least technically a virgin: at the end of January 1879, when the Loomis family had decided that the wedding should take place early in the day, David Todd wrote his fiancée, with undisguised enthusiasm, that he liked the idea very much. "Then we could have our first night of love at once—dearest one! The day-time lighted gas and other things in accord therewith is quite to my notion, too." While this is hardly the letter of an established lover to his experienced mistress, it is also not the letter a man would send to an ignorant, blushing young thing. On March 10, 1879, five days after the wedding, Mary Loomis wrote to her just-married daughter in an excess of maternal ecstasy: "Never shall I forget the rapt expression of purity and peace which I caught in your face on the eventful evening, soon after the ceremony." She sounds gushy, commonplace, and, in view of her daughter's erotic experimentations, a little obtuse, but Mabel Loomis's expression was doubtless perfectly sincere. She had got the man she wanted. As for her look of purity: innocence was for her—and, it will turn out, for other proper bourgeois — a relatively elastic thing.

Marriage, far from dimming the Todds' sexual ardor, or reducing it to pleasant, drowsy monotony, only enhanced it. The couple's appetite grew with its regular and lawful satisfaction; their early life together offers persuasive support for George Bernard Shaw's much-quoted observation that marriage is the most licentious of human institutions. "David is more passionately my lover than he ever was before our marriage," Mabel Loomis Todd glowingly recorded in her journal after the first five months, "and I feel most deeply grateful to God for giving me in my husband a man whose fresh springs of deepest tenderness and love grow fuller & fuller every day, encompassing me with the sweetest life-fountains that a woman's life can ever know." As so often, so here, Mabel Todd's metaphors were more instructive than she could have guessed. It was not simple brutish sexuality, of course, that swept her away, but the happy combination of sensuality with affection: "His love for me is so passionate, & vet so pure." Yet the sensuality was indispensable to her, as it was to her husband. David Todd, adoring and avid at the same time, doubtless stimulated by his wife's delighted discoveries, generated a steamy domestic atmosphere that Mabel Todd enjoyed and fostered. From the outset of their married life, it seems, the Todds ended their evenings and began their mornings with a sensual routine, preface and postscript to a night spent with their arms around each other. "Every night," as Mabel Todd recalled it, "he undressed me on the bright Turkey rug before the fire, & then wrapped me up to keep warm while he put hot bricks in the bed. Then he took me in his arms & tucked me safely in bed, & kissed me over & over, while he went to his desk & studied an hour, or two longer. And after parties, when I came in cold, he did first the same for me-& loved me so!" Then, in the morning, "he would get up and brighten the fire, & spread all my clothes around it until they were warm, when he would come for me, & taking me in his arms, set me down on the rug close to the fire, where all my 'toasting hot' garments were awaiting me. Then would come the grapes or figs or apples on which he always regaled me before breakfast." The Todds reveled in the whole menu of married pleasures: working, reading, making music, and taking walks; but their pleasure in marital sexuality transcended and infused all the others.

When they were together, they made love, it would seem, without troubling inhibitions and liked to link their intercourse to other gratifications. There were those figs and grapes in the morning, and, at times, even more suggestive foods. "Ice cream on the way home—," Mabel Todd noted in her diary after two months of marriage, "and the most rapturous & sacred night of all our love." When they were apart—she visiting her parents, he observing the stars—they could barely contain their hunger for one another's bodies: "David," Mabel Todd wrote to her husband, "it is just dreadful to sleep alone." And again, three years later, "I want you very much, dear, very much." She could almost taste his return: "The night of the fourth is our time, darling, and I am anticipating it with joy." For his part, David Todd would worry just how to contain his appetites alone: "Can I — Oh! can I, wait so long?" He would scheme to meet her so that they could make love without delay, and manfully tried to control his thoughts and his pen lest, by writing too ardently about love, he inflame himself and his wife too much: "I have tried to promise myself to write you a dispassionate letter this time, sweet love—," he wrote her after they had been married for almost three years, "but I've no idea of anything else that I may write, and I love you so that it is hard not to be writing to you all the time about it—but you know I oughtn't to be doing that. If I tell you how intolerably worthless and stupid life seems to me without you here to love me and to be loved, and that two days ago I had fully resolved to be this moment far on my way to Washington, to rest in your arms tomorrow night —notwithstanding that I should have to leave you before twentyfour hours had passed — I shall have said all that you need know, and all that it will be good for me to write."

Then, when they met again, they made up for wasted time, night after night. "Tenderest thoughts of my lover-husband." This is Mabel Todd in her diary late in 1879. "My own precious David met me at the Grand Central, having come on by the limited express from Washington for that purpose. Oh joy! Oh! Bliss unutterable — my pure, own husband." For full measure, she noted the following day: "Last night was almost too happy for this world." The years after, her diary shows no slackening in her excitement: "This night, from 9 P.M. until about 12, was the happiest of my whole happy life, so far." And again, "The last was such a happy night! Oh! Oh!" Some of the entries are tantalizingly obscure: "Oh! my oriental morning," she writes in 1881, and, the next year, leaving rather less to the imagination, "We retired at seven & had a magnificent evening, David and I. I shall never forget it, so I'll not write about it." The entry is followed by two symbols signifying that the couple had intercourse twice that unforgettable night of February 28, 1882. These episodes of what Mabel Todd once called "a little Heaven just after dinner" are by no means tokens of sexual athleticism: they occur on the average somewhat less than once a week. And there were some disagreeable moments: "So, dearest," David Todd wrote to his wife from one of his astronomical expeditions late in 1882, "I can remain out here quietly away from you until the auspicious occasion arrives when I can come to you as we both desire after such a separation." He was, he added, inclined to "save myself and mine own the experiences we have not infrequently had in past time and which are always disastrous & little short of torture"—presumably a reunion while Mabel Todd was menstruating.

But the couple made up in orgasmic intensity what they missed in frequency or spoiled with bad timing. Sightseeing in Europe in the summer of 1885, with some friends but without her husband, Mabel Todd confided the pressures of her sensuality to her travel journal: "I am longing most uncomfortably for my husband," she wrote; "I am counting the days until I get to him for my own satisfaction. I was not made to live alone." It is true, she was not made to live alone; if she wanted her own satisfaction, she had to get to a man.

She needed him — and he needed her — even after she had become pregnant. On September 10, 1879, after David Todd had returned from an expedition, she felt at first a certain shyness with her husband, which only disappeared with the evening: "The night brought us very near to each other. The physical effect of our close communion was unlike anything I ever experienced—it was enjoyment, and yet it was very hard for me to feel the same kind of intensity as before — it was a thrilling sort of breathlessness,—but at last it came — the same beautiful climax of feeling I knew so well, yet even in its intensity different from the spring's rapture." But as she went on with "my darling through all these happy weeks," she enjoyed "all the time our lovely intercourse — more, I think upon every occasion than the last, though we indulge but rarely & try to be particularly careful about the time in each month when I should have been ill, were it not for my little one."

Mabel Todd recorded these intimate details in a journal she began shortly after her daughter was born. I have quoted the opening words of that journal before: "On the morning of the fifteenth of May, 1879, my darling and I came up from breakfast, at 1234 Fourteenth st., and had a very happy few minutes of love in our room." They had had them in fact very recently: "My darling had lost this wonderful part of himself three days before this Thursday morning, but not previously to that, for two weeks." But the encounter of May 15 held a special place in Mabel Todd's marital imagination: she had designed it explicitly to experiment with a favorite notion she had about fertility — or, rather, infertility. "I had been ill three times since my marriage, and by continuing to observe the same care which we had before exercised — viz: to restrain ourselves from the fulness of our intercourse at all times except from fourteen days after my sickness ceased, until three before the next time — we should undoubtedly have avoided the slightest danger of any result from that sweet communion." But on May 15, Mabel Todd had been "barely eight days over my illness," and, instead of practicing the coitus interruptus normal for the Todds at such times, she made herself into a guinea pig: "With me," she believed, "the only fruitful time could be at the climax moment of my sensation — that once passed, I believed the womb would close, & no fluid could reach the fruitful point." And so, "not at all from uncontrollable passion, but merely from the strongest conviction of the truth of my idea, I allowed myself to receive the precious fluid, at least six or eight moments after my highest point of enjoyment had passed, and when I was perfectly cool & satisfied, getting up immediately, thereafter, and having it all apparently escape." This homemade biological theory was a special variant of the popular notion that conception can only take place if both partners experience orgasm, combined with the equally popular notion, endorsed by many fatally misguided medical specialists, that woman is least fertile at the mid-point of her menstrual cycle. The dramatic disconfirmation of this bit of imaginative science was complete nine months later, and was named Millicent.

For some months, the prospect of a baby in no way inhibited the Todds from continuing to enjoy what they enjoyed most; the last fairly explicit reference in Mabel Todd's diary to a "night of love" comes in December 1879, when she was in the seventh month of her pregnancy. At the beginning, before she acknowledged that pregnancy, though she was afflicted with occasional depression, loss of appetite, and some nausea, the couple's sexual pleasures became, if anything, more delicious than ever. In July, when they took a long vacation trip across upstate New York, she noted that "all this sweet month David's & my love for each other was most blessed & satisfactory." And she recalled "one of the happiest days of all," the day they "went in the steamer Schuyler from Geneva to Watkins, on the beautiful Seneca Lake — oh! how we loved each other! and what a glorious & beautiful evidence of it we had in our room, before dinner, at the Glen Mountain House!" She "enjoyed fully as much as ever, all this time, our happy love-embraces, seeing in myself not the slightest diminution of intensity of joy — and my nights were oft-times radiant, & my days glorified by this heavenly proof of our deep love for each other—never, however, often enough to weaken nor tire me—& sometimes carried to their fullest consummation — frequently not-only a moment of intense nearness — merely for the happiness of that, & wholly without the strongest passion." To make love was, for the Todds, to play.

When, early in August, David Todd departed on one of his star-gazing trips, he left behind a wife nervous, sleeping lightly at first, afraid of burglars, missing her husband's body beside her. Examining the state of her mind as she came into her fourth month, Mabel Todd discovered that her erotic appetite had in some measure — though only in some measure — abated. "I longed somewhat for David in a merely physical way, more or less during this whole month of August, but not as much as I feared I should — the passional part of my nature seemed to grow less strong, though still quite intense." What she mainly wanted now, she thought, was to be "merely loved and petted, than anything more passionate." As she advanced toward motherhood she regressed, not unnaturally, toward childhood. Then, to her delight, her mild depression lifted, and she was pervaded, as she had been at times before, by "a grand and free sense of power," which seemed to her "an all-embracing genius which took entire possession of me — not a genius for painting nor for music nor for writing alone — but as if I could do any of these things with perfect ease & glorious success if I but gave myself to any of them. A genius which overflooded me, & could be turned into one channel as easily as another." After Millicent had been born, Mabel Todd liked to dwell on this revived sense of early omnipotence for, a firm believer in prenatal influences, she was certain that, much like her sexual happiness of July, her access of self-confidence must have done the burgeoning embryo a great deal of good.

Meanwhile, though, in the first months of her pregnancy, she was busy denying that she was pregnant at all. Even when a woman physician suggested that her failure to menstruate might be the result of her sweet communions with her husband, Mabel Todd persisted in ascribing it to emotional stress or an old tendency to indigestion. She duly reported her indisposition to her mother, only to be swamped with long, anxious epistles full of good counsel and marked by agitated underlinings. Mrs. Loomis told her daughter that taking good care of her body was a divine command, and that she must eat fruit, get lots of rest, and take healthful exercise. Her letter of August 3 is a minor hysterical tract; it appeared all the more annoying to its recipient by comparison with a letter that her "darling father" sent the next day, short, jovial, jocular. Mabel Todd was already disconcerted by the prospect of motherhood, which must have seemed more and more inescapable to her as the month of August went by; this avalanche of home medicine, purveyed in repeated and repetitive doses, irritated her even more. "Now, my dear little Mother," she wrote on August 16, "you just stop scolding me!" She accused her mother of jumping to conclusions about her health: she was not abusing her body! "Another thing, please, when you have an important fact to tell me—dont say it over & over a dozen times."

The important fact that Mabel Todd came to acknowledge to herself was far more decisive than dyspepsia. Late in August, she noticed a "hard little protuberance" below her stomach and from that moment on, she could no longer sustain the theory of fertility on which she had acted on the morning of May 15. On September 3, she announced her pregnancy to her mother in a revealing letter. Its first two pages are filled with domestic minutiae, with purposeful and detailed information about clothes. Then comes the main event: "I am sorry, exceedingly, to be forced to tell you that the conviction is growing almost to a certainty upon me, that I am in what is sometimes known as an 'interesting situation.' Her aversion to motherhood is palpable, not only in her candid regret, but also in her reluctance to burst out with the news, and her arch quoting of the prissy circumlocution for her pregnancy. "I know just the day the whole thing began," she confided, and then tried to exorcise whatever anxiety she might feel about her interesting situation by canvassing, at some length, her sturdy good health, which should make for an uneventful pregnancy and easy birth. But it was not yet definite, and she warned her mother, in tones rare in her voluminous correspondence: "But listen — if you so much as intimate this possibility to a living soul, I can never forgive you."

But hints grew into certainty. Finally, in mid-September, Mabel Todd made it official, in one of her rare misspellings: "It is proven that I am enciente. " The thought of having a child, having to care for it instead of devoting her time to herself, continued to depress her. She told her husband of feeling "almost trying grief" at the prospect of motherhood, and she examined what she called her "selfishness," with her usual lack of cant, in her journal. Having lived like a "butterfly," she would now have to sacrifice time and attention to someone else, and this troubled her. "I have found my perfect & happy sphere in wifehood—I was made for a wife—for a mother, truly, no. My life is in my husband—a child or children will be merely incidental; yet," she immediately reassured herself, "I know I shall love this little one—yet not," she added, her honesty breaking through, "with the strength in that sort of love which I put in my wife love—the one is not necessary to me—the other is my air & food & water—without it I should perish." As so often, Mabel Todd was writing, not as an exceptional woman, but as an unusually frank one: the fear of what children would do to their life haunted many women only less prepared to acknowledge the true state of affairs.

Yet once Mabel Todd was sure that she was pregnant, she adopted the new role of mother-to-be with her accustomed vigor and verbal facility. Interestingly enough, it was her husband who engineered this transformation by setting a tone of sheer ecstasy, coupled with the most unconditional worship, at receiving word that his wife was probably pregnant. He most fervently wished, he wrote her, that the news would prove true. "My beloved wife," he began his outpouring, "I must first tell you that my whole life for the past week has been one grand, unceasing tribute of glory in and worship of—you"; he assured her that he would spare her as much drudgery in the coming months as he could and that, in perhaps three years, they could leave their child with its grandparents and finally make a European tour—shrewd promises to soothe a woman afraid that a child would inhibit her clamorous talents. But above all, sustaining this rhapsodic strain for about twenty pages, David Todd told his wife that he adored "the perfect nobility" of her "womanly character," that her approaching motherhood was nothing less than "sacred," and that her letter had deepened, heightened, lengthened his "glorious love" for "thee—Mabel—wife—mother." He mildly reproached himself for not telling her earlier of his "deep longing for a fruitful embrace of my fascinating spouse—of You my own Mabel—of you my matchless, sacred, precious, true, loving, holy, darling, cheery, perfect, sweetest, lovely bride." He composed variations on the theme of her "exalted womanhood," called her, in one way or another, "sacred, holy mother," and acknowledged that he had long, though silently, regarded her as beautifully suited to the task that awaited her: "I've often thought how admirably your body is built for this sacred exercise—the hips so broad—to say nothing of the marvelous perfection of all those parts from never having been distorted by tight-lacing." Having enjoyed his moment of recalling the perfections of his wife's body, he returned to his responsibility for the happy forthcoming event: the day would come, he hoped, when she would "feel the power, in happy, blissful content and thankfulness, of that mysterious life-giving element — of which I have given to you abundantly, and which you have transplanted into the richness of your fertile, virgin soil." No wonder she found his letter to be "perfectly inspired & thrilling." The high-pitched rhetoric that David Todd and his wife had used to praise the delights of sexual intercourse, he now used to praise its results. His "precious fluid," as his wife called it, had done its work, and that made him proud.

This letter is something of a historic document. David Todd, to be sure, was working in an ancient tradition when he endowed maternity with sanctity; it was certainly the common coin of respectable rhetoric throughout the nineteenth century. What is striking is that he joined piety about motherhood with enthusiasm for sexuality. The received wisdom has long been, we know, that the nineteenth-century middle-class male split his love life in two, that some of his women were angels, others were whores. But the conduct and the sentiments of the Todds contradict this prevalent perception. If David Todd took the lead in sexual intimacy, Mabel Todd followed rapturously and closely; in fact, their diaries and letters suggest that it was the wife who inspired the husband to his finer flights. At the same time, the couple's sensuality, though inventive and unapologetic, was thoroughly domesticated. David Todd was a tamed animal whose earthiness was welcome; Mabel Todd was neither angel nor whore. The salutation and signature they liked to employ — "husband-lover" or "lover-husband" — explicitly and emphatically join what critics of the bourgeoisie have insisted was normally separated. As late as June 1885, when they had been married for six years, David Todd concluded a letter to his wife: "Goodbye you sweet heartsweet. I love you. David Husband Lover." Mabel Todd used the same language in her diaries. And this happy junction of eroticism and respectability included, and survived, the begetting of Millicent. There seemed to be no visible reason why it should not have endured. But then the Todds moved from Washington to Amherst.

It was at Amherst that Mabel Loomis Todd translated her sense of power and genius into activities that give her a claim to a modest place in history; an intimate of the Dickinsons, Amherst's most prominent family, she was among the first to value, and the first to edit, Emily Dickinson's poems. But her intimacy, though the source of ecstatic happiness, also came to be profoundly problematic: for well over a decade, Mabel Loomis Todd, that reputable, socially ambitious wife and mother, and Austin Dickinson, Emily's brother, treasurer of Amherst College, local luminary, a married man with grown children, were lovers. They met in her house in the evening, upstairs, locking the door to husband and daughter alike; they went on unsupervised sentimental excursions into the countryside; they contrived to spend time together in Boston; they wrote one another lyrical love notes when they were both in Amherst, lyrical love letters when they were apart. Their affair was secret, involving melodramatic subterfuges and strenuous concealments, but it was a secret that everyone shared, a test case for the middle-class social style.

It is also an exhibition of Mabel Todd's needs; her affair with Austin Dickinson reads like the realization of insistent fantasies. David Todd took his young wife to Amherst in August 1881, where he became instructor in astronomy and director of the College Observatory. The couple were a catch for polite Amherst society, confined as it was to its quiet, unvarying menu of genteel entertainments and familiar faces. David Todd was a graduate of Amherst and considered handsome; Mabel Todd was accomplished and, as she well knew, "magnetic." Hence it was only natural for Susan Dickinson, the undisputed social arbiter of the town, and her husband Austin to appropriate the newcomers with hospitable imperiousness. For a time, all went well or, as Mabel Todd would have put it, "brilliantly." Some of the most sensual passages I have quoted from her journals and letters date from the Todds' first years at Amherst.

But then men other than her husband — I will not call them rivals — began to crowd Mabel Todd's erotic timetable. Late in 1881, while the Todds were still settling in, she undertook, or at least failed to discourage, a risky flirtation with Ned Dickinson, Austin and Susan Dickinson's son. He was twenty, an Amherst undergraduate, inexperienced, humorless, utterly oblivious of the proprieties once infatuation possessed him. As Mabel Todd confided to her journal and confessed to her husband, the whole wretched business was her fault; she had too much enjoyed her sleigh rides and waltz lessons with Ned, and even his amorous speeches, to check him when there was still time. She thought Ned good-looking, most enjoyable to be with; in February 1883, some months after she had tried to reason him into friendship, she admitted that she had for some time harbored an "especial feeling" for her suitor. By then, in the normal way of disappointed men, Ned's frustrated love had turned to clear-sighted hate, and he denounced Mabel Todd to his mother as a flirt who had placed with the son and, tiring of the game, was now aiming at the father. That old reproach of being a flirt, an epithet that carried a great deal of weight then, now came back to haunt her.

Mabel Todd's irresponsible, if (for her) inconsequential involvement with Ned Dickinson suggests that she was far more dependent on repeated doses of male devotion than her amply documented social successes and marital satisfactions would seem to indicate. Her narcissistic hunger would flare up whenever her supplies appeared to be threatened, even temporarily. In January 1882, visiting her parents in Washington, with her husband working at Amherst, she noted that she was having "a most brilliant time," with "magnetism enough to fascinate a room full of people — which I have done, actually." She added, guilelessly, that she had "flirted outrageously with every man I have seen — but in a way which David likes to have me, too." An old admirer, a Mr. Elliot, continued to call on her, and while she tormented him by telling him about her married happiness, she did not discountenance his visits. Frank with herself, she admitted that she more than welcomed, she needed all this attention. Even when her husband was near, she kept her eyes open for new sources of admiration, for new men to succumb to her magnetism. In August 1882, just two weeks after her husband had returned from an expedition, with her diary recording repeated instances of a little Heaven after dinner, she could also tell that diary, "I became so interested in a new man, Mr. Robinson, a Cambridge man. . . ." Again, poignantly enough, during her trip to Europe in the summer of 1885, though she accompanied a couple she knew well and was presumably secure in the adoration of her husband and that of her lover, she found traveling without a sympathetic male soul very trying; she was "strongly attracted" to a soulful Englishman, someone who valued the beauties of nature and the charms of cities as she did. "I wish," she wrote naively, in London, "Austin were with me — or David." Ned had been virile on a sled, agile on the dance floor, and touching on his knees, but he was only a boy. What Mabel Todd needed was a man, and Ned's father was just such a man.

Mabel Todd's long love affair with Austin Dickinson was a source of persistent strain and intermittent depression for them both; pointed death wishes, not for themselves but for their partners, punctuate their letters. A little slip of paper inserted into her diary for 1889 gives these wishes definitive voice. It reads, in its entirety: "Mabel Loomis Dickinson/Amherst, Massachusetts/August 14, 1889." There are pathetic moments of unappeased frustrations in her letters to her lover: "I love you," she wrote to him in April 1890, "and I want you bitterly." Yet the affair continued from the early 1880s to Austin Dickinson's death in August 1895, at an unflagging fever pitch. The pair developed a code of private abbreviations and enlisted dependable couriers, solemnly remembered favorite poems and excursions, tenderly celebrated clandestine anniversaries. With their rage for converting memories into mementos, it is easy to establish when they discovered that they loved one another. On September 11, 1882, Austin Dickinson wrote into his diary, in his accustomed lapidary manner, "Not much going on," listed the names of a card party concluding with "Mrs. Todd," and then added, gravely, "Rubicon." The Rubicon he crossed with Mrs. Todd, and fondly recalled with her every year, was one of awareness; the Rubicon of sexual consummation they crossed later at some undeterminable date.

They certainly crossed it: on the day of Austin Dickinson's funeral, Mabel Todd saw his "dear, beloved body" for the last time, "kissed his blessed cold cheek," and "held his tender hand. The dear body," she added, "every inch of which I know and love so utterly, was there, and I said good-bye to it." And Austin Dickinson seems to have known every inch of her body, too: "I love you—and I love you," he wrote her in the summer of 1885, "and I kiss you all over." The near-hallucinations she experienced in those days also bear persuasive witness to complete physical intimacy. "Well, my beloved Austin," Mabel Todd wrote in her journal three months after his death, "there is no need to say good-night — you do not go away at all. I feel you here in me, enfolding me, this instant." She found the work of mourning formidable and almost unbearably slow; in March 1896, as she reached the end of another of her journals, with her lover's death more than seven months in the past, she still felt her unappeased despair and Austin's presence at all times. It was the greatest loss she ever suffered. What she told her husband in September 1895— "I never shall be the same again, of course"—may have been a little tactless but it proved a fairly accurate prediction. And it is true: Mabel Todd outlived her elderly lover by thirty-seven years, but though she had one or two later passionate flings, she was no longer quite the same lively, erotically charged woman that she had been.

Mabel Todd's capacity for self-dramatization was highly developed, her taste for emotional effusions unabashed, but in this affair, the affair of her life, she drew on resources that owed little to conventional rhetoric. She was not posing, even to herself. On August 10, 1895, as her lover lay dying at home, inaccessible to her, she began a letter to which she added, day after day, pages of charged reminiscences and unreserved adulation — "Oh, my love, my darling, my own, own mate and owner, how I love you! And how I long for you and miss you, and feel in spirit your dear arms around me!" — concluding, four days later, with a little intimate apostrophe moving in its simplicity: "Good morning, my dearest love! My heart has been with you all night, and will be all day. I am going for a little excursion today. I cannot breathe or work here, so I am going away for the day. I love you." One need only read this, and the heartbroken exclamation in her diary on the day after her Austin died, her facile, practiced eloquence all gone, to recognize the measure of her investment in her love: "My God, why has thou deserted me!" In paraphrasing, rather than quoting Christ, she kept her suffering individuality intact. Millicent Todd, then an observant and grave young adolescent, confirmed her mother's perilous state in her diary just after the Todds learned of Austin Dickinson's demise. "Mamma is nearly dead."

This was pardonable hyperbole. "The whole town weeps for him," Mabel Todd wrote on August 19. "Yet I am the only mourner." Her grief blinded her so much that she failed to see the company she had in misery — at home. Among the most sincere mourners for her lover was her husband. "My best friend died tonight," David Todd wrote in his diary on August 16, "& I seem stranded." Two days later he observed that he had "tried to work, but my heart is too heavy"; and the day after, with "the funeral of our best friend," was "The saddest day of my life." Millicent once again conveys the atmosphere in the Todd household, strikingly in her father's words. "This," she wrote the day before Austin Dickinson's funeral, "has been one of the very saddest days that I ever passed in my life. Mamma has been crying all day and Papa has cried some and has looked so sad that I have been perfectly bewildered."

Millicent Todd, witness and sacrifice, had been bewildered for years, not wholly consciously. For, as she sensed to her embarrassment and shame, her father was not ignorant of his wife's affair, but had persistently and cheerfully connived in it. He had encouraged his wife to meet her lover and, if convenient, to prolong her assignations; he had carried messages between them; he had discreetly kept out of the way in the evenings, when the pair were together upstairs in his house, warning them that he was coming home by whistling a tune from Martha. More than sixty years later, so profound was her humiliation, Millicent could still hear that "little tune," and visualize her bedroom, "with bunches of violets on the wall paper." It would wake her up, "toward daybreak on a starry night." But, she added, her defensive stratagem of denial still firmly in place, she did not "remember wondering why he whistled before entering the house." To wonder would have been to conjecture, and to conjecture would have been to know and thus be grievously injured in her self-respect.

Millicent Todd's father did more than facilitate the lovers' meetings. He would accompany them on trips and, when his wife was away, join her lover that both might praise the woman they adored. In early 1884, celebrating Austin Dickinson's "sacred" love for her, the heights and depths it had reached and the splendid resources it had liberated in her, Mabel Todd took the trouble to comment: "And all the time my dear David & I are very happy & tender & devoted companions. My married life is certainly exceptionally sweet & peaceful & satisfying, & his nature is just the one to soothe & rest me." When Austin Dickinson speculated, "I think we three would have no trouble in a house together in living as you and I should wish" he also voiced David Todd's readiness for such a cozy arrangement.

David Todd's complicity in his wife's infidelity covered infidelities of his own, but it had other rewards; he seems to have found vicarious participation in his wife's sexual adventures almost as satisfying as the real thing. And on the most obscure, most tenaciously defended levels of his unconscious, he must have taken considerable erotic pleasure in the emotional intimacy that Austin Dickinson's affair with his wife permitted him with her lover. Such matters are obscure; what is beyond doubt is that he had an undeniable "weakness" for women not his wife: in the midst of a prose poem about her spiritual union with Austin Dickinson, Mabel Todd recorded her disenchanted recognition that her husband was not "what might be called a monogamous animal."

Sadly, her daughter Millicent was compelled to underscore her mother's verdict. Late in life her mother confided to her, she wrote, that "they had hardly been married three years when he began to make love to everybody that would accept his advances. He had most of the women guests who came to our house, even beginning on my friends when I grew up." David Todd was, as his wife put it in one of her pointed and perceptive aphorisms, "innocently unmoral." In his later years, in the 1920s when he was confined to an insane asylum or a companion's care for his increasingly erratic behavior, he further justified his wife's appraisal in some lascivious reminiscences of women he could have had and of his suspect fondness for pubescent girls. Nor did he confine himself to expressive fantasies. Recalling a painful visit to her aged, unbalanced father, her memory jolted by her mother's recent death, Millicent dwelled with unconquerable disgust on the day he had screamed at her, disowned her, maligned her mother, wept uncontrollably, and then, drastically reversing his field, switched from rage to sentiment. "'Come, darling, come,' " he had sobbed, "'I loved your mother so — and you, you, I love you because I loved her.'" Then, Millicent added, he "tried to kiss me on the mouth, and thrust his tongue into my mouth with all the accompaniments," filling her with "horror and loathing" until she turned away, "faint and nauseated." In this repellent family scene, we recognize David and Mabel Todd's lovemaking, caricatured and debased, but a simulacrum of the ecstatic episodes that had filled the couple with such longing when they were apart and such contentment when they were together.

Feeling little if any conscious guilt for his susceptible and roving libido, David Todd had been innocently — and not so innocently — unmoral most of his life. The obscene talk and gestures of his last years only illustrate in retrospect how precarious his controls over his erotic passions — incestuous, polygamous, probably homosexual — had been earlier, in the very years that he and his wife had presented themselves to the world as a happily married couple, very much attached to one another, and brimming with erotic energies. All of this domestic theatre was far from being pure sham. David Todd, with all his vagaries, had been able to establish an enduring attachment to his wife, anchored in esteem and desire together. "Dear little precious heart," he wrote to her while she was on her European excursion, "how I love you! And how I want you, too!" And his wife reciprocated these sentiments, at once affectionate and passionate, beyond mere relief at having a husband who did not stand in her way. "I think of you, dream of you, long for you when shall we see you?" she wrote to David Todd in the spring of 1883, seven months after she had crossed the Rubicon with Austin Dickinson. "Love me tremendously every minute, dear. Devotedly, worshipfully, gratefully, lovingly & most tenderly your wife, Mabel." This is not hypocrisy — there was, after all, little need for that in this marriage — but, rather, an emotional capaciousness for which the traditional treatment of nineteenth-century bourgeois domesticity has left us unprepared.

I am not suggesting that Mabel Loomis Todd's erotic experience was in any way commonplace. She prided herself, after all, on her independence and her individuality, and she justified her extramarital excursion with a patrician contempt for the herd of middle-class pharisees. She thought herself rare, and Austin Dickinson unique. In the summer of 1884, looking through her old journals, she could "see through them all touches of great thoughts, barely-indicated possibilities which are, I hope, blossoming in me now. But the greatest proof I have ever had that I am different from ninety-nine others, & that my girlish hope — that I had something rare in me — was well-founded, lies in the great, the tremendous fact that I own the entire love of the rarest man who ever lived." It was not so much that her extraordinariness licensed her adultery, but that her adultery confirmed her extraordinariness. That is what I meant when I said that the firmness of her snobbery permitted her to be flexible about her morality: cultural aristocrats like herself made, and remade, the rules in obedience to some higher law.

To be sure, Austin Dickinson's intolerable domestic situation had given him good grounds for seeking solace with one so vital, so cultivated, and so understanding as she saw herself to be; he told her, and she duly wrote it down, that his wife, vulgar, moody, and vindictive, had often refused sexual intercourse with him for months and had, despite his earnest wish for children, aborted four of them before she had allowed Ned to be born, and she had tried to abort him, too. But even if this marriage had been less of the hell he described it to be, Austin Dickinson's union with Mabel Todd was, to their satisfaction, made in heaven. When, in the winter of 1884 Mabel Todd's mother and grandmother objected to her intimate friendship with a married man, she took the high line of disdain. Her friendship with Mr. Dickinson, she insisted in a defiant journal entry, had raised her to unimagined summits of spirituality. Instead of being "perfectly satisfied with roast-beef & lager," she had been "supping upon the nectar of the gods." The affair meant the realization of her finest self, and she was glad to note that her husband understood this perfectly: "David is large enough to see that if he does not answer to me at every point & another does it's not his fault, nor mine, nor the other's." Inescapably, this led her to a position of which a Nietzsche would not have been ashamed: "It is dangerous doctrine for the masses, but one in a thousand can understand it." She was neither wicked nor weak enough, she wrote, even to "think of the conventional part of it." The one in a thousand who could understand her was, of course, Austin Dickinson, who shared this aristocratic vision and, in fact, had taught his young mistress much of it. "The spirit," he wrote her early in 1883, "is greater than the letter. Conventionalism is for those not strong enough to be laws for themselves, or to conform themselves to the great higher law where all the harmonies meet." This was heady doctrine for two nineteenth-century bourgeois to adopt.

It was also most convenient: the sinners indicting, and thus rising above, those who castigate the sin. Certainly, the element of self-serving justification, of apologetics that do not apologize, occasionally surfaced in Mabel Todd's autobiographical musings. She indignantly defended George Eliot against what she thought small-minded reviewers who sermonized against her for living in unhallowed union with G. H. Lewes: "The law of God is to me far higher than calf skin & parchment." When "two noble creatures recognize each other through the confusion & mist which men throw over life, & know clearly that each is the fitting & perfect complement to the other, it behooves them to give as little pain to others as possible, but to follow the clear light from within & above which showed them to each other, and live out their highest together. This," she admitted, not without some complacency, "is undoubtedly revolutionary doctrine," here applied to George Eliot standing in for Mabel Todd. But her antinomian defiance of the moral law that governs the multitude was not simply an attempt to lend intellectual respectability to her illicit adventure: it was the logical expression of her narcissistic investment in her own powers, her conviction that she was called to realize her potentialities including, and especially, her sexual passions.

The prominent share of sensuality in her self-image emerges in a striking rumination she put down after visiting Mrs. Laura Chant's Refuge for "Erring Women" in Chicago. This was in 1890. The sight of the "poor girls all about me" dissolved her in tears. It was "heart-breaking" to see these pregnant unmarried girls. "How can society combine to say that theirs is the one deadly sin"' she asked herself. "If it is something they have done for love of a man, then it is a sweet and pure thing, perhaps perverted, but not bad in any way." To see the perversion of the good as in no way bad was radical doctrine enough, but it was not merely heedless love that was justified in Mabel Todd's eyes. Lust, too, had its rights. "If it is out of mere passion, as I hear some girls go into that life merely to gratify lust, why I pity them, but it is an instinct given by nature and not to my mind half so bad as yielding to a craving for drink, because that is artificial & not born of nature." She found the erotic passions common only in the sense that they were natural, which is to say universal.

Mabel Todd's love affair was, of course, anything but universal, though perfectly natural. She was right to suspect that most married women did not realize their potentialities in quite her dashing manner. Yet her affair was, for all its illicit nature and clandestine ways, a new edition of her life with her husband. There was something intensely respectable about Mabel Todd's defiance of respectability. Playfully, but with serious intent, she referred both to David Todd and to Austin Dickinson as her "owner," an epithet symbolizing humility and intimacy alike. Both men were, implicitly and explicitly, lover and husband at the same time, which is to say that both gratified far more than sheer sexual desire in her; they supplied her hunger for love and admiration and gave her a feeling of artistic and spiritual expansiveness, of a higher kind of purity. "Every charm — every fascination which I possess he notes & loves, & aids me in keeping.... he is so glad to have me constantly paint and practice — it would grieve him more deeply than even myself if I should give them up." This was Mabel Todd's portrait of her husband five months after their marriage; with some slight shift of emphasis, notably an intensification of the religious undertone that is somewhat attenuated in her writing about David Todd, it could be a portrait of her lover. Both men gave her an almost undefinable sense of wholeness; neither permitted a split between passion and affection, between sexual and intellectual activity. And she did the same for them. That glowing name, "sweet communion," which Mabel Todd bestowed on intercourse with her husband applies to her experience as a whole, with David Todd and with Austin Dickinson alike. Beyond doubt, her absorption first in her husband, then in her lover, made her emotionally far less accessible to others than she needed to be, and it is painfully plain that her daughter was the principal victim of her own illicit happiness. But to herself, the benefits were enormous, a source of endlessly reiterated exclamatory surprise.

There was, to be sure, one marked difference between these two loves of her adult life: their age. Born in April 1829, Austin Dickinson was fifty-three when he crossed the Rubicon with Mabel Todd; he was, in short, old enough to be her father. He almost was, indeed, her father's age, for Eben Loomis had been born a year earlier, in 1828. And Mabel Loomis Todd idealized her father extravagantly, no less than when she had been just Mabel Loomis. "Father came!" she exclaimed joyfully in her first journal, written when she was not quite fourteen. "He is splendid." It was not an entry she would have written about her mother. In fact, her mother's serene readiness to do without her father during the long hot months when Washington was exposed to malaria and Mrs. Loomis fled north struck her as culpable indifference. In September 1879, when she was already irritated by her pregnancy and scarcely inclined to be charitable to her mother, she said so plainly: "I must say I would rather die outright, than come to such a practical feeling about this matter as you have with regard to your separation from father. You are perfectly contented to be away from him." As for herself, "six weeks" away from David was about as much as she could stand. Three decades later, in 1910, just two years before her father's death, she had his portrait painted because "he is too beautiful not to be perpetuated." In thinking of him, she sounds the religious note throughout: her father leads a "holy life"; she berates herself when she keeps a youthful flirtation from him, her "blessed father"; when he turns fifty-six, just twice her age, she is moved to think of her "blessed saintly poetical father." And, just as this beloved father was, in her mind, assimilated to the divine Father in heaven, so her all-seeing, all-merciful God looked and acted suspiciously like Eben Loomis. Whatever the activities of the beneficent deity — and he rather faded as Mabel Loomis grew up — her earthly father was much available to his only child. She studied German with him; regularly, in Washington, she walked him part way to the office. In January 1878, when she was all of twenty-one, she recalled, with a nostalgia worthy of a mature woman, the "happy days" of her childhood, "when my handsome young father would come at one o'clock from the office" to work in the "blessed" garden all afternoon. As enamored young men were to find out, it was ungrateful work competing with such a model of perfection. She drew comparisons and, until David Todd came along, they were invidious.

In many of her autobiographical jottings, she makes these comparisons explicit. Writing home from her honeymoon about the exquisite thoughtfulness of her new husband, she gives it the supreme accolade: "I have never seen any thing like it except in father's sweetness to mother." When "Mr. Dickinson" entered the scene, he, too, was held up to the same high standard. "He & I are the fastest friends. To think that out of all the splendid & noble women he has known, he should pick me out — only half his age — as the most truly congenial friend he ever had! There is no one in Amherst, or anywhere else, to compare with him, except my two dear men"—her husband and, of course, her father. This was at the very beginning of her discovery that she loved Austin Dickinson; two years later, thinking on her lover, she no longer subjected him to competition with her husband: "The thing which makes it certain that nobody ever approached him is, not only that he is noble & strong & true in character, nor that he is impressive in look & manner, (the finest looking man I ever saw) or that he comes from a staunch old New England family, nor that he is sensitive & tender & lonely, nor that he loves nature exquisitely — nor even all of these dear things together. But emphatically that his nature is lofty & spiritual beyond that of any one I ever met, unless it is my blessed father." Indeed, Austin Dickinson was much like her father in salient traits: Eben Loomis, too, waxed lyrical over nature and over poetry.

Dazzled as she was by the radiance of her elderly lover, she found that her father's vivid presence never faded. In her infatuated submissiveness, in fact, she treated Austin Dickinson as though he were her father; she liked to call him, in her letters and to his face, "my King." Nature and custom have decreed that, highly scandalous exceptions apart, girls must lose the initial oedipal combat and yield the father to the mother; for a young woman to carry off in triumph an older man, and a married man at that, was to win that combat doubly, if vicariously. In this way, too, Mabel Todd's affair with Austin Dickinson was a new edition of an earlier love, her love for Eben Loomis.

Mabel Loomis Todd's involvement with an older man was, of course, first and last her personal destiny. Its configurations were unique: grounded in her unflagging longing for her blessed father, foreshadowed in her single serious adolescent infatuation with a man twelve years her senior, and subtly implied in the profession of her husband who was, like her father, an astronomer. The sense of "affectional starvation" of which she had complained as a young girl, and which never wholly left her, was a markedly private symptom. But her transfigured incestuous investment had extensive cultural reverberations. The love for the father, unabated through the years, was a highly visible occupation of many women's lives in the nineteenth century, more visible probably in that autobiographical and contentious age than ever before. Some of Mabel Todd's most active contemporaries, like Louisa May Alcott or Catharine Beecher, never married, but carried their caring, maternal devotion through to the end. Others, like the embattled American birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger or the respected Swedish novelist Victoria Benedictsson, were saddled with their feelings for their father all their lives, drenched in arousing and frightening sexual fantasies never appeased and never forgotten.

Such forbidden love, more or less sublimated, and often deftly concealed, became a prominent nineteenth-century reality. Even women who married and led strenuous lives long remembered their father's intervention in their young existence with a shudder of delight that has the erotic at its heart. For the prosperous especially, the father was the bringer of pleasure, the liberator from rules, and the maker of holidays. He brightened the children's hour. As the British suffragette Dora Montefiore recalled her early childhood in the 1850s, in a well-regulated and very sizable family: "Every evening we were dressed to go down to the drawing room for the children's hour, from six to seven, when my dear father had returned home, and we small people were made joyful by his sunny smile and the way in which he entered into our fun and games and devised glorious surprises for us." And on Sundays, anything but gloomy, there was "the pure pagan joy" of a walk with father." Such men were unforgettable.

A girl's idealization of her father could have baneful consequences. It could stultify her erotic development, compel her into irrational, damaging comparisons between the perfect father and the imperfect suitor, and force her into service to an elderly tyrant, especially if the mother was an invalid or had died. Whatever a girl's triumph over the incompetent or absent mother, it was often paid for in lifelong slavery. But, suitably sublimated, it could also enrich a woman's experience of love as a satisfying compound of the physical and the spiritual, the erotic and the affectionate strands of passionate engagement. The oedipal period has since been called a school for love, and it can be that, rather than a road to emotional shipwreck, for girls as much as for boys.

Critical psychologists have been inclined to denounce idealization as a trap, as an obstruction to finding sexual satisfaction possible, or even conceivable, with worshiped beings. But it may also serve, for the fortunate, as a way of elevating the erotic experience by lending it the tinge of poetry. Mabel Todd, though not wholly unscathed, was among the lucky ones. Her erotic career, for all its poignancy, all its frustrated imaginative aspirations to becoming Mabel Loomis Dickinson, was precisely such an education in love. Her attachment to her father, imperfectly worked through and never abandoned, provided her with impulses for realizing her longings with an older man, on a high level of mental as much as physical gratification.

Like thousands of other respectable girls, then, Mabel Todd was something of a victim to her early erotic history; unlike thousands of others, she later acted where others only yearned. Her affair with Austin Dickinson is almost too good to be true, a compromise with her emotional needs as satisfactory as can be imagined. It was not typical of widespread bourgeois practices, but, rather, the realization of one bourgeois woman's fantasies. Marriage manuals of her time were uneasy with such fantasies, but their strictures against May-December marriages only underscore their frequency. An elderly man, these manuals insisted, should be as continent as he could manage to be, for, as one of them put it, "Each time that he delivers himself to this indulgence, he casts a shovelful of earth upon his coffin." Some apprehensive authors, in fact, could wax vehement on the subject: Dr. Augustus K. Gardner denounced marriages between "men bordering on decrepitude and poor young girls" as "repugnant to nature," as nothing less than "monstrous," dangerous to husband, wife, and if such a monstrous union ever bore fruit, to its children. Some difference in age seemed appropriate: many manuals recommended, on economic as much as physical grounds, that the husband be several years older than his bride. And many widowers whose wives had died in childbirth promptly reentered the marriage market. Hence middle-class circles were thoroughly familiar with marriages made between mature men and barely nubile girls. And, worried preachments to the contrary, it seems that many young brides did not find such a fate very onerous. In a culture in which daughters' idealization of fathers was encouraged and the affection of fathers for daughters given fairly free rein, it could hardly be otherwise. Hysteria, that protean malady so widespread in the nineteenth century, presented as one of its prominent symptoms a retreat from adult sexuality to replicas of early objects. And Mabel Loomis Todd, with her ebullience and theatricality, with the air of animation that her visitors found so beguiling and her daughter so memorable, was a touch hysterical. Her choice of the most powerful older man in Amherst, Massachusetts, was thus at once a private and, as it were, a cultural act. Austin Dickinson's autumnal maturity goes far to explain his attractiveness to her, a woman who, though enormously energetic and filled to overflowing with the consciousness of her powers and her youthfulness, never denied that she was half his age.

In the severe, unforgiving memory of her daughter, Austin Dickinson appears as a snob who taught her mother to feel disdain for ordinary mortals, a humorless and remote figure who never smiled, never spoke to her, and who, worst of all, wore a red wig — this the finest-looking and most spiritual man her mother had ever known. Millicent Todd's retrospective assessment is bound to be, at least in part, a report from the interior; a girl, growing up as she did in a household with an unsavory secret, could hardly see the intruder in any other light. One of her earliest memories was "sitting between my young mother and stern, elderly Mr. Dickinson as he drove his high-stepping horse through the woods of Leverett in search of a small hemlock for a particular spot." The sensation of being squeezed between this improbable pair, her vital youthful mother and that dour old gentleman, must have been intensely uncomfortable.

It was worse; it was destructive. Millicent Todd returned to her past obsessively, pursued by a riddle she had to solve and burdened by a duty she had to discharge. She volunteered that her particular preoccupations must have had their origins in her imposing lineage: "The weight of ancestry bowed me down — still does. I seem to feel a sense of obligation to them all." We know better and so, often, did she. It was her mother's infidelity and her father's disgrace that bowed her down in puzzlement and depression. At sixteen, she had written a long poem earnestly refuting Pope's dictum "Whatever is, is right" She had learned from her own experience that whatever was, was wrong. She felt "a deep-set drive toward an almost unattainable goal—inexorable today as it was then," a draining, compulsive weight of responsibility. "An integral part of it was a sensitiveness to injustice with a determination to do something to set things right."

We know from Freud that the guilt of the innocent is the hardest of all to bear. While Millicent Todd's mother went her way superbly disdainful of the conventions and her father made himself into his wife's pander, she obscurely felt, in the way of the young, that the appalling and unvarying situation was her fault. She saw herself, Hamlet-like, doomed to repair the damage she had somehow done, and called to make the world see that there was nothing amiss. Her task seemed all the more urgent since she knew in her bones that everything was amiss, and that the world was a pitiless judge. She was afraid, she recalled, that "the sensibilities" of the "Amherst public" were offended, and she could never overcome her memory of having been snubbed by those who disapproved of her mother's conduct. That conduct, she was firmly convinced, had isolated Mabel Todd from her society: "When mamma chose her course of action, she chose along with it the ignominy which such a New England community heaps upon that sort of behavior."

The discovery that these memories are tendentious, or at least overstated, is perhaps the most rewarding return that this introductory inquiry has yielded. Her experience could not help but color Millicent Todd's verdict on her mother's social situation. And her appraisal beautifully fits the picture normally painted of nineteenth-century middle-class society: secretly prurient and publicly prudish, hypocritical in condemning the missteps of others that one did not have the courage, or the opportunity, to commit oneself. Some scattered outbursts in Mabel Todd's journals against "narrow, uncharitable, self-righteous" members of the Amherst faculty, churchgoers all, suggest that she was made to suffer — or, perhaps, feeling some residual twinge of guilt, made herself suffer — at the hands of pious pharisees. And toward the end of his life, for once lucid and precise, David Todd remembered that when he and his wife returned from a long visit to Japan in 1896, Amherst was "buzzing with gossip," and "everybody" said that the Todds could not continue living in the town.

This is probable enough: it was the year after Austin Dickinson had died, and those too timid to affront their local potentate could now loosen their tongues with impunity. But the evidence on the other side is more impressive by far. The Todds, after all, stayed on. There were some in Amherst who countenanced Mabel Todd's affair because Austin Dickinson, the local patrician, could do no wrong: power long held is not so quickly dissipated. Austin Dickinson, locally famous for his beautification of the Amherst College campus and intensely engaged in all the affairs of the town, was not universally beloved certainly, but generally respected. He was, in the memory of one who knew him well, a "tower of strength," a "tall, slender, commanding figure" with "somewhat martial bearing" and "a voice like thunder." This was the man who, in one of his early love letters, could unselfconsciously call himself "Narcissus." Some of his ostentatious strength was a cover for deeper weaknesses. It was in obedience to his family that he had married Susan, gone to law school, and remained in Amherst; such pliancy suggests that Austin Dickinson was more complex, less in calm control, than he appeared to others. But with his figure, his voice, his bearing, not to forget his local prominence, he could, within limits, do more or less what he wanted. And there seem to have been some citizens of Amherst, including his sister Emily, who took an indulgent view of his affair with a married woman because they thought that after all his marital misery, Austin Dickinson deserved a little pleasure.

But far more important than the town's complaisance about the man was its toleration of the woman in the affair. Though only half-heartedly preserving the appearances, Mabel Todd found herself lionized while Austin Dickinson lived, and little less after he died. Her diaries are filled, tantalizingly, with laconic, heartfelt entries like "Austin in the evening," and at the same time with invitations to the most select social occasions that the town and college had to offer. She was invited to exclusive teas, to commencements, to professors' and deans' houses; she was a favorite chaperone at fraternity dances. At one point in May 1889, the DKE fraternity, compelled to choose between her and her arch-enemy Susan Dickinson, chose the adulteress rather than the wronged wife: after Mrs. Dickinson and her daughter had publicly snubbed Mabel Todd, a representative of the DKEs apologized to her and told her, "they will no more be invited." It was Mabel Todd, the unrepentant sinner, who entertained dozens of visiting dignitaries across the years; who sang at funerals, for charity, and in the First Congregational Church on Sundays; who presided over teas for Smith girls; who was chairman, first of the committee that established a Faculty Club for Amherst, then, a little later, of the committee that established an Amherst Woman's Club; who founded the Amherst Historical Society; who gave years of highly publicized efforts to keep Amherst and its surroundings beautiful—as late as 1913, she was made chairman of the local Forestry Association. Even more impressively, beginning in 1894, she undertook to bring to Amherst a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution — an organization as relentlessly respectable as any that bourgeois society has spawned — became its first Regent, and remained in that commanding post until 1903, eight years after Austin Dickinson's death. These are not the activities of an outcast frantic to rehabilitate a ruined reputation; they depended for their success on the willingness of Amherst society, notably its ladies, to work with and to be presided over by Mabel Loomis Todd. And they were all at least moderately successful. It was one thing to invite respectable women to tea; it was another for them to come. And most of them came.

From this perspective, Mabel Todd's erotic experience throws unexpected light on nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. Amherst society may not have been the most censorious in the Western world; one visiting journalist, writing during Mabel Todd's residence there, found that its citizens had "a fine independence about them," and praised "its whimsicality and culture and its freedom." At the same time, Amherst was scarcely a sink of licentiousness; its definition of proper behavior was more or less typical of its age and its society.

All cultures, we know, place boundaries around the passions; they construct powerful defenses against murder and incest, to say nothing of derivative transgressions. In complex cultures like nineteenth-century Europe and America, these boundaries are sure to be complex as well, broken through by facilitating openings and strengthened by special obstructions. Segments of culture, like religious denominations or classes, add prohibitions of their own. These boundaries and these obstructions are far harder to map than self-appointed spokesmen for morality and restraint, the border guards of civilization, would make it appear; their regulations and their pronouncements tend to depict wishes rather than realities. They are wide, often ambiguous bands of prohibitions, accommodating an impressive variety of conduct.

The nineteenth-century bourgeoisie appears to have set its ideal boundaries rather narrowly. But not even the wider boundaries that historical research reveals were easily legible or in any way definitive. They permitted escapes to pleasure that many respectable people in search of sensual gratification could take in safety. One such route was secrecy; another, observance of the conventions. What contemporary moralists were all too quick to call "hypocrisy" was actually a way of carving out space for the passions — within reason. Doubtless, Mabel Loomis Todd paid a price for her illicit sweet communions; she forfeited her wholehearted ease of mind and the unstinted approval of her peers. She damaged, with the best will in the world, her husband and her daughter. But routes of evasion were available to her, and she traveled them. It is significant for an appraisal of the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience that the price was one she could afford to pay.