A Quiet Passion won’t solve the mystery of Emily Dickinson – but does the truth matter?
In 1882 Emily Dickinson was living as a recluse in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, guarded by her sister, Vinnie, when her brother, Austin, began an adulterous affair with Mabel Todd. Mabel was an Amherst College faculty wife, half his age. Austin was the college treasurer. They needed a safe place to conduct their secret liaison. They chose Emily’s house. What did she think of this? We know a great deal about Austin and Mabel’s affair, because both left diaries and letters, which are now kept in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. We know nothing of Emily’s view of the affair. We know that she and Mabel never met. We know that Mabel became fascinated by Emily’s poems. And we know that it was Mabel who championed the poems after Emily’s death in 1886 and nagged the publishers Roberts Brothers of Boston to print a small edition in 1890. That edition, reprinted 11 times in the first year, made Dickinson famous.
So what are the rules? Are we all free to say what we like about this mysterious woman who has been dead now for 130 years? My own self-imposed rule when writing my novel The Lovers of Amherst was to stick closely to verifiable facts when dramatising the real characters, but to allow myself full liberty with fictional characters. In this way, when I recreated the Austin-Mabel affair I followed the diaries and letters closely, but when it came to Emily I kept her off-stage, and had other characters discuss what they thought she knew and didn’t know. That made me able to present my own theory, which is that she colluded fully with Austin’s adultery, while leaving readers free to take a different view. In his new film about Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies takes the opposite view: that Emily was shocked and outraged to discover the affair. I support my view by having my fictional characters cite lines from Emily’s poems. This doesn’t make me right. Others who study the same poems can come to a different conclusion. The works are intense but enigmatic; what we all share is our agreement that they are extraordinary.
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Since then her fame has grown to legendary proportions. Even in her lifetime she was known in Amherst as “the Myth”. She lived a nun-like existence, wearing only white, seeing no one but her sister, writing poems that almost no one saw, poems of astonishing prickly power. What was going on? It’s all too tempting to speculate, and the speculations have come thick and fast ever since. Did she suffer from acute social anxiety, or epilepsy, or bipolar disorder? Was she lesbian, a proto-feminist, a religious radical, a sexual pioneer? The poems support almost every theory and feed almost every taste. She is the poet of nature – “Inebriate of air am I / And debauchee of dew … ” The poet of loneliness – “The soul selects her own society / Then shuts the door … ” The poet of adventure – “Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea … ” The poet of passion – “Wild nights! Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” And famously the poet of death – “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me … ” We who love her poems find in them a voice that seems to speak our own secret thoughts. Each of us creates and takes ownership of our own Dickinson, half believing that she went into seclusion in order to make herself our very own secret friend. The result is a steady flow of works about the poet, some biographical, some fictional, that tell startlingly different stories. She was once revered as a priestess of renunciation, while one recent incarnation has given us Dickinson as a sexual predator, having passionate sex with her handyman. After all, didn’t she write “My life had stood – a loaded gun”?
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