Here’s a movie that’s meant to be a biography of the poet Emily Dickinson but that can’t seem to decide whether she was a 21st century feminist or a depressed and angry victim of Victorian male oppression.
On the plus side, its cinematography is great, and many bits of Dickinson’s poetry are read by the star, Cynthia Nixon, whose portrayal here has been much admired.
On the minus side, the effort to humanize an intellectual and highly disciplined poet tends to reduce her to an emotional wreck, which strikes me as unfair.
Movies demand conflict, however, and this one goes to some lengths to deliver. Whether this will resonate with serious Dickinson fans and scholars remains to be seen.
The film opens with teenaged Emily being tossed out of her boarding school for not being a devout enough Christian. Apparently this scene aims to tell us that she was an independent thinker, which she certainly was. Unfortunately, it is not true; Emily was sent home because she was in poor health.
On the Dickinsons’ way home, they stop to attend a concert featuring a female singer, and Emily’s father says, “I do not like to see a woman on the stage,” a view echoed by Emily’s ugly and humorless aunt, who sternly advises Emily to “Keep atheism at bay.”
The harangues continue later, after a nice photographic trick renders Emily and her relatives as older adults. Emily, now to be referred to by me as Dickinson, is told that “The classics of every age are the works of men, not women.” As she is dying, her brother reads a newspaper column that describes women’s writing as “the literature of misery” that “abounds with … distortion through a mist of tears.”
There are moments of jocular banter as Dickinson and a woman friend describe themselves as rebels and decry the fate of women as “designed only for decorousness.” The dialogue left me cold, but I’m not skilled in the art of witty repartee myself and so I will not judge.
Dickinson is known to have retreated from society over time, never leaving her home and wearing only white in her later years. The movie tells us she retreats because her wise-talking friend marries and moves away and because her parents have died — because she is frustrated and unfulfilled.
Over time, she becomes bitter and angry. Her affection toward a minister she admires and who admires her work is an inappropriate one, she is told. We watch Dickinson lash out at the minister’s wife, an insipid and uncurious woman who prefers the work of Longfellow to that of the Brontes, which she regards as “unwholesome.” If the Brontes “would prefer to be wholesome, perhaps they should crochet,” snaps the poet.
At one point, Dickinson looks in a mirror and declares, “Oh, you are a wretched creature. Will you ever achieve anything?”
Meanwhile Dickinson ages and suffers a slow, painful, and highly dramatized decline from the kidney disease that kills her at 56. The movie’s final scene includes a narration of the expected Dickinson poem.
Another Way to Think about It
There is no doubt that serious women had a harder time of it in the 19th century than they do today. On the other hand, there were several women writers who achieved prominence in the period, writers whose names and work were certainly familiar to Dickinson.
— Jane Austen’s first book, “Sense and Sensibility,” was released 19 years before Dickinson was born. Its author, identified as “A Lady,” was regarded highly then and is so today.
— The Bronte sisters published the enduring classics “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre,” among others, before 1850, when Dickinson was 20; she was, as noted above, an admirer of theirs.
— George Eliot, the pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans, published her first book, “Adam Bede,” in 1859. She was understood to be female, dedicating her second book to her husband, and published many others. (My personal favorite is “Middlemarch.”)
— Americans Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Louisa May Alcott’s books, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Little Women,” were published in 1851 and 1868, respectively. Neither of these works stand with Dickinson’s output or the others mentioned above, but they were enormously influential in their day.
In addition Dickinson lived, comfortably, in the college town of Amherst. She met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged her to write poetry. She enjoyed lively correspondences with intellectuals of the day. (Her letters were destroyed after her death at her request.) She was regarded as brilliant, if a bit shy and ultimately eccentric, by friends and neighbors.
Dickinson did not seek broad publication during her lifetime, but the first volume of her work, released four years after her 1886 death, was so popular that 10 further editions were released within two years. It was not until 1955 that the full body of her work, as she wrote it, was gathered and published.
Dickinson went back and forth on the important questions, particularly eternity and mortality. To the extent that there is literary immortality, she earned it.
If you want to get at the real Emily Dickinson, a better way to do it might be to read “My Hero, the Outlaw of Amherst,” a 2010 article by New York Times critic Holland Cotter. He expresses frustration at attempts to turn the poet into the voice of any current moment and respect for the decision he believes she made to live the life she wanted. Some quotes from the piece:
“Why do we need to make a failure in love — and because Dickinson was single, failure is always assumed — the explanation for her art?”
“When once asked whether she didn’t miss going out, seeing friends, living the life everyone else lived, she answered, ‘I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time.’ Then she added, ‘I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.'”
“It’s a power she acquired in part by being, in some essential way, an outsider, but also from seeing that identity, not as a disability, but as a saving grace, and one that carries responsibilities.”