Emily Dickinson is often better known for her unusual life than for her profound poetry. The Dickinson mythology originated during her lifetime, when her neighbors gossiped about the eccentric woman who refused to see visitors or participate in Amherst social life. When Mabel Loomis Todd, who later became Dickinson’s brother’s mistress and, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, one of Dickinson’s first editors, moved to Amherst in 1881, she wrote: “Emily is called in Amherst ‘the myth.’ She has not been out of her house for fifteen years . . . She writes the strangest poems, & very remarkable ones. She is in many respects a genius. She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago when she went into retirement.”
Following Dickinson’s death at the age of 55, her sister’s discovery of almost 1800 poems in a bureau drawer, and a prolonged battle over publishing the poems, the mythology continued to evolve. Her unconventional life choices, coupled with her often-cryptic poems, inspired accounts of the eccentric hermit, the rejected lover, the closeted lesbian, the “nun” of Amherst, and the secret epileptic. As Jay Leyda, one of her early biographers, writes: few American writers have been the “subject of so much distorting gossip and legend.” Dickinson’s religious beliefs and attitudes are often a crucial part of this contestation of narratives; she has been cast as a religious rebel, a heterodox romantic, a modern skeptic, and a perplexed doubter.
The distinguished British director Terrence Davies has recently contributed to this mythological fray with his biopic A Quiet Passion, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Cynthia Nixon, who in appearance, voice, and demeanor completely sinks into Dickinson’s being. With its powerful visual imagination and an outstanding cast—including Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s sister Vinnie and Keith Carradine as her austere father, Edward—A Quiet Passion will undoubtedly create a new Dickinson myth for many viewers. Davies, one of those lapsed Catholics who continually are drawn to spiritual topics, successfully avoids his tendency to make films about himself by not depicting Dickinson as completely rejecting Christianity. His cinematic portrait, painted with graphic grace and beauty, skillfully brings out some aspects of Dickinson that are often overlooked.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its account of the close relationships and genuine love within an eccentric nineteenth-century family. While Edward Dickinson is often seen as a cold, dominating Calvinist, the film magnificently demonstrates the deep affection between Emily and her father, as well as her intimate connections with her sister Vinnie. Emily’s quick wit, sense of humor, verbal adroitness, and affection for life’s incongruities also are vividly sketched. Few people realize how funny Emily Dickinson actually was.
Her love of children and her own childlike nature emerges in only one charming scene, in which she cradles her newborn nephew and recites to him, as if it were a children’s rhyme, her poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody –too?” Yet the Emily Dickinson who was the sharp-eyed poet of birds, bees, and flowers never appears in the film, which limits itself to visual hints of her love of nature with a backdrop of elaborate floral displays in the house and an occasional stroll in the Dickinson garden. Emily is never shown working in the garden, which she continued to do even during her more reclusive years.
The film opens with the sixteen-year-old Dickinson at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, standing alone as a “no hoper” during a college revival, and implies that her unhappiness at this treatment prompted her to leave school. In reality, about thirty students were “no hopers,” and Dickinson, like many others, left after one year, most likely because of poor health and homesickness. As biographer Roger Lundin notes, the historical records of these events “portray her as more ambivalent than defiant.”
While accentuating the religious rebel, A Quiet Passion does show Dickinson having periods of faith and affirmation. In one particularly powerful scene, Dickinson writhes in pain on her bed and draws on one of her poems for comfort: “This World is not conclusion. / A Species stands beyond — / Invisible, as Music — / But positive as Sound–.” Although the written poem concludes with uncertainty and doubt, Davies opts to cease the recitation after the more hopeful lines.
The film is replete with Dickinson’s poetry, recited by Nixon in a calm voice that captures Dickinson’s subtle rhythms and sounds. Davies’ decision to have the actors speak in formal, somewhat stilted dialogue may be distracting for some viewers, but this strategy emphasizes the poetic nature of Dickinson’s world and results in the poetic voice-overs seamlessly blending with the dialogue.
However, Davies has constructed a narrative arc in which Dickinson moves inexorably toward despair and bitterness, hemmed in by the narrow constraints of her life, suffocated by a lack of opportunities, oppressed by death and suffering, and bitterly disappointed in her lack of public success. The historical facts, personal letters, and poetic evidence, however, belie this narrative.
Dickinson led an ordinary, privileged Amherst social life in her twenties and early thirties, only gradually becoming more withdrawn in the 1860s—a time of personal anguish, pain, despair, loneliness, and mental turmoil. Davies’s dark Dickinson is an accurate portrait of that period. But in her final decades, Dickinson found peace. She experienced joy in her garden and birds, played games with the neighborhood children, and even became engaged late in life to an elderly judge, who strikingly resembled her then-dead father. She conducted a wide and varied correspondence with many notable writers and intimate friends. That peace included an 1873 interview with the local minister, who assured her worried father that she was spiritually “sound” despite her refusal to attend church.
Dickinson’s uncommon life, while devoid of flamboyant events, was rich and varied, and Davies fails to capture this abundance. He has, however, created a gorgeous film rendition of some facets of Dickinson, especially her more somber moods and words.