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Emily Dickinson’s unquiet passion: A literature professor’s take on Terence Davies’ film

  • Emily Orlando Submitted photo

  • Emily Dickinson —Amherst College collection



For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 13, 2017

Based on glowing reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, I had great hopes that Terence Davies’ new film, “A Quiet Passion,” an interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s life, would correct the sexist, short-sighted image of the 19th-century poet inscribed into the American collective consciousness. Emily Dickinson has been more historically misunderstood than any other writer I teach. For that reason, when I introduce her to students, I ask what comes to mind when they hear her name. Responses are versions of a same theme: Recluse. Freak. Disappointed spinster. Crazy. Odd. Depressing. Death-obssessed. Impossible to understand.

Yes, Dickinson grew increasingly reclusive, apparently due to illness. No, Dickinson did not die of a broken heart; the evidence suggests that, like her literary peer Louisa May Alcott, Dickinson chose not to marry. Diving into her wholly dazzling body of poems, students enjoy discovering a new Dickinson, a fierce poet bursting with creative power. A fully developed artist who knew she was so ahead of her time the publishing world would have to wait to discover her hand-sewn poetry books upon her decease. I would have liked to have seen more of that Dickinson in Davies’ film.

First, let’s talk about the title: Why “A Quiet Passion”? This is the poet who likened her creative energy to a “Loaded Gun.” A writer who famously told her mentor and correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson — who is entirely left out of Davies’ narrative — that she knew something was poetry if it made her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.”  There is little about Emily Dickinson that is quiet. Her poetic voice is volcanic and as “full as Opera,” to borrow two images to which she compares it. The gesture of withholding Dickinson’s name from the film’s title and emphasizing the “quiet” of her “passion” effectively reminds us of the poet’s indictment of 19th-century patriarchal conceptions of womanhood. “They shut me up in Prose –,” Dickinson poignantly wrote, “They put me in the Closet  -- / Because they liked me ‘still.’ ” The film’s title closets the furious energy that is Emily Dickinson’s verse.

Davies’ film makes other puzzling choices: Although the poetry of Longfellow is cited, as is the prose of the Brontës and George Eliot, there is no mention of Whitman, Emerson, Keats, Shakespeare, or the Brownings, all of whom were important to Dickinson’s development as an artist. Her beloved sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (Jodhi May) is woefully underdeveloped save for one private scene in which a hint of their intimacy is suggested. As Martha Nell Smith has shown in her study “Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson,” Susan Dickinson was an indispensable poetic collaborator and kindred spirit — and one of the great loves of Dickinson’s life. (Dickinson’s beloved canine companion, Carlo, named for St. John Rivers’ dog in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, also is absent.  Restoring him to the story may have brought some much-needed levity.)

Withheld, too, is the affirmative voice of such poems as “I dwell in Possibility,” “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” and “Wild nights – Wild nights!” Instead, Davies focuses more on the so-called “death poems.”

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson —through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing. Davies also overdoes the death scene of Emily Dickinson’s mother. (Did we have to hear the death rattle?) These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia). Davies seems less concerned with male deaths: Dickinson’s father, played wonderfully by Keith Carradine, is given a dignified death, and Davies omits any reference to the tragic demise of Susan and Austin’s young son Gilbert. 

In fact, the red hair, pale skin, closed eyes, and wasting body of Davies’ Dickinson summon the image of another historically misunderstood Victorian woman: Elizabeth Siddall, who posed as each of those dying heroines for Pre-Raphaelite painters across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Davies also gravitates to the trope of the female corpse in the closing moments of his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” which ends with (the also auburn-haired) Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart drinking chloral to escape the dinginess and despair that her life had become. Yes, Wharton ends her novel with Lily’s death. But did Davies have to roll the credits over Lily’s tableau mort?

With “A Quiet Passion,” Davies forces us to not only endure a horrific death scene but also to gaze upon Dickinson’s body post-mortem, laid out in white and barefooted. One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover. (The poems were brought to light with the help of Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Davies features as little more than a home-wrecking opportunist.)

In sum, Emily Dickinson deserves better. In her lifetime, the handful of her poems that were published were bowdlerized — punctuation altered, stanzas formalized, capital letters reduced — and in this film, so, arguably, is her legacy.  

See the film for its beautiful cinematography, particularly the sequence in which Davies zooms in on a portrait of each member of the Dickinson family, slowly transitioning into their older selves. Go for a reminder of the cultural nightmare that was the Civil War, and a grasp of the incalculable number of men shot down in their youth. Go for Cynthia Nixon’s masterful channeling of Dickinson’s refreshing irreverence and poetic voice. Go, too, for the always excellent Jennifer Ehle (as younger sister Lavinia Dickinson).

Don’t go for the script, which offers little in the way of nuance and at times feels as though snippets of Dickinson’s verse are being forged into lines of dialogue. Beware that the troubling omissions and historical inaccuracies serve to perpetuate the image of what Higginson unkindly referred to as his “partially cracked poetess at Amherst.”

Representation is always a politically charged act, and this one compromises the life and work of one of the most important writers in the history of American literature. We gain little by seeing Dickinson as a passive corpse laid out for our visual consumption and mourned for what might have been.

A better use of  two hours would be to immerse ourselves in Dickinson’s poetry, unfiltered, unedited. Emily Dickinson was an active doer of her word — a poet who was modernist before we had a name for it, a writer who took the world by storm and altered our perceptions of the infinite possibilities of poetry.

Emily Orlando is an Associate Professor of English at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut.