The cruel irony of an Emily Dickinson biopic: “Fame is a bee./It has a song—/It has a sting—/Ah, too, it has a wing”
Written by: Marie C.
Emily Dickinson on Screen
Our library marketing associate discusses the latest biopic to hit theaters: the life of the mysterious poet Emily Dickinson
In September, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Cynthia Nixon was slated to play Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ biopic “A Quiet Passion,” and I haven’t been this angry over a literary figure since Alan Gribben announced his intentions of altering the language in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Just as that moment was a slap in the face to Twain’s social commentary, this too seems to be a mockery of Dickinson’s life—a misunderstanding of the beloved reclusive poet who “rewrote both her male and her female predecessors by creating her own life as a gothic narrative,” as Susan M. Griffin so aptly puts it in The Cambridge History of American Women’s Literature.
My initial distress in the fact that Nixon was playing Emily, and it wasn’t because she’s best known for playing Miranda on Sex in the City, though I’m sure if Emily knew about that television show, she’d be out of her mind; no, Nixon isn’t right for Emily at the very base level of looks alone. Firstly, if the movie is to follow Dickinson’s life “from precocious schoolgirl to the tortured recluse” as Davies asserts, then Cynthia Nixon is simply too old. Secondly, she doesn’t look like her. See for yourself in this only authenticated picture (there are other speculated images, but those are just that). Emily also described herself in an 1862 letter to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves— [sic].” So, the five foot eleven inch woman who is Cynthia Nixon, with strawberry blond hair and green eyes doesn’t fit. This is when you’ll probably say, “Oh Marie, stop being so particular, that’s what hair dye and makeup are for.”
And this is when I’ll say to you, reader, that my particularity doesn’t end with Nixon’s looks. Emily was extremely introspective, so introspective, in fact, that Elizabeth Renker points out in The Cambridge History of American Women’s Literature that Emily escaped the “wussy fate” of women’s poetry by being “far enough isolated from her own culture—and thus fully insulated from, and opposed to, the ‘grandmotherly’ sentiment of the popular sphere—to have remained unsullied by the girly stain.” What we do know about her has been carefully pieced together by scholars since her death at the age of 55 in 1886, and might I add, that we don’t know much.
We know that she was an avid, almost obsessive reader. We know that she had intense emotional changes with each new season—present-day doctors would probably diagnose her with seasonal affective disorder and put her on medication; scholars call it her mystic day cycle. We know that she was deeply affected by the supposed spiritual salvation of her classmates at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary (a component of Calvinism, they believed that one was damned until he or she had an extremely painful yet enlightening ‘conversion experience’ brought on by God) and suffered a nervous breakdown when she wasn’t saved. We know that she spent the last half of her life in her bedroom, seldom seeing anyone other than her family, furiously writing poetry and letters. We know that she loved dogs and that the Civil War’s death toll broke her heart. We know that she published only a handful of poems in her lifetime because she refused to dumb down her language and imagery for the general public and because of her disdain of the idea of fame.
But that’s about all we know. We have the Master letters, letters in which she proclaims passionate love for the recipient, but we don’t know who she loved so deeply. There were a couple of candidates though. Again, speculation. She maintained a profound friendship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, a friendship that some speculate was bisexual because of the flowery language she used in her letters, though it hasn’t been credited. She used similar language in letters to her friend and fellow writer, Helen Hunt Jackson. She used similar language in letters to her brother, Austin. Should we claim that she maintained sexual relationships with them as well? It would be a disgrace to her name.
This is what I’m worried about: Davies will use this speculation to paint a totally untrue portrait of my favorite poet. Perhaps he’ll turn her into a self-conscious and weak woman who struggled with religious and bisexual tendencies, but that’s not how many of her readers, including myself, see her. We see her as an emotionally tortured woman who was born before her time—with virtually no ideas that a woman could be anything more than a mother, housewife, or possibly teacher, where was someone as smart, creative, and conscientious as Emily to go? She had few options.
Emily Dickinson was the definition of a writer. She did it because she needed to, not for fame or fortune. In fact, she wanted her many books of poetry to be burned after her death, a last wish that her family did not adhere to. She wrote quite a few poems about the triviality of fame, which is my last reason for being angry. Emily wasn’t the kind of person who enjoyed the spotlight. She wasn’t the kind of woman who begged to be noticed, which makes the idea of a movie about her life laughable. She wanted to be a nobody:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
Looks like this biopic will make her just that—a dreary frog to we the audience, or, the admiring bog.