The legendary American poetry writer Emily Dickinson is, in the popular image, a recluse, an in-law, an artist who writes in her room , writing for the sake of her own pleasure. Her work being discovered only following her passing in the year 1886. It is believed that she was seeking out a person who was referred to as “The Master” in notes she wrote, the name of which has enthralled researchers for years. However, she was a lonely spinster all her life.
Was she? Recent scholarship has revealed that Dickinson was a lover for life affair with her childhood pal Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-inlaw when she got married to her brother Austin Dickinson. They shared a house with each one another throughout their adult lives. However, it appears that Austin’s lover Mabel Loomis Todd — who was Emily’s first posthumous editorshe literally erased all the mention of Susan in Emily’s letters. She also painted Susan and Emily’s love story as cold and icy. Today, experts disagree with the story completely.
This gave director and writer Madeleine Olnek the ripe opportunity to make a humorous as well as moving documentary that tells the story of Emily, Susan, Mabel, Austin, and the entire semi-tragic, semi-fantastical situation. Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson as a vibrant and brilliant woman who was seeking not just love, but also fame — a attack on the conventional story. It’s a thrilling sometimes funny reinterpretation of the life of a famous actress as her own which, in the end, is an incredibly gut-punch.
I spoke to Olnek by phone one day prior to the film’s release in theaters. We discussed why audiences are awed by the telling of Emily’s story the reason she didn’t let their actors read prior to shooting and the fact that Emily was way from her age. The conversation has been light edited for clarity.
Then why did you decide to tell this story in this manner?
I first read an article published in The New York Times in 1998 that discussed how the advancements in science can help us discover new information about the lives of historical figures. The story dealt with using spectrographic techniques to examine the erasures found in Emily Dickinson’s documents. Martha Nell Smith, a Dickinson scholar and expert, discussed her work and is the person we dedicate our film to. She was also an expert on historical aspects of the film.
What was fascinating about that article was that it spoke about her papers and the fact that the erasers were everywhere about Susan’s name. Susan. However, there was one letter that was not erased and it was the most emotional, heartfelt and romantic letter you’ve read, written by Emily the writer to Susan.
I was thinking”Oh my God! This letter wasn’t removed? There were many letters that weren’t … dirty -I don’t know the best way to describe it. The letters were released, and a huge part of the letters in 1999. It was so full of correspondence written by Emily and Susan that, when Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart created their collection “Open Me Carefully the publisher would not allow them to include all the letters because the book would be too long.
I was truly amazed at this crucial element that was a part of Emily Dickinson that I had not even heard of. The lover of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin who was the husband of Susanis likely to have done the erasures and also was responsible for the wrote Emily Dickinson’s first book. It was a soap opera that was so completely different from everything I’ve ever known about Dickinson’s story I was awestruck. I was truly shocked.
I began to read the biography of Dickinson, and within the appendix was the book Emily Dickinson’s brother’s lover attempted to write. She attempted to write a tale known as Scurrilous, but real, and it was hilarious. This was like an old-fashioned tabloid. You wouldn’t imagine people in the 1800s saying things like this about each other. I was laughing when I was reading it.
The story is available for a long time yet it had not been reported. This was extremely fascinating to me.
The whole incident alters our view of Emily. Did it change yours?
Oh, yeah. My thought prior to reading that New York Times article was that she was a sort of recluse who was creepy and that was the exact idea that everybody believed in, the same one that we were taught to believe.
My perception of her has changed completely. The image I had was actually the image of a crazy woman, someone who writes 2000 poems but then hides them in her home and doesn’t want them to be published. The most fascinating part for my mind — and the reaction I have from the movie, something I am a fan of is how shocked people are by the poems of Emily Dickinson. They believed it was just only one thing. They then watch the movie and they realize that it’s actually another thing altogether.
What are people discovering about her poems?
I believe it permits the user to go into the psychological realm in a manner that is incredibly contemporary. There were issues she wrote about long before psychology had even established them.
What is it that you like?
First, chill and then Stupor Then the let go … In this poem, she speaks about the feelings people feel when they’re dying, as if it’s freezing. She describes the pain as a component of empty — as if it’s what your head feels emotionalally, when you’re in an intense state of pain. you feel like you’re experiencing a blankness. Mabel did not understand and she titled the poem “The Mystery of Pain,” as if “blank” was “fill in the blank,” as contrast to blank being the state you experienced and lived in. The way grieving surrounds you, the way it is similar to water or walking along the lake it slows your pace. It’s like wading in a lake when you’re in a state sadness.
These were truly beautiful poems. When people watch the film and then say they’d like to learn more about Emily Dickinson, that’s just the best thing that could happen.
You spoke of a phrase that was interesting it was that the public were “projecting” onto her. The image she is famously known for was designed specifically for that reason. She was transformed into an espionage device. The woman was shown to not be a flesh and blood woman.
It was still awe-inspiring for me to discover how Emily Dickinson had three pictures of female writing on their walls. The writer believed in herself as part of the tradition of female writers. It’s been said that she was an unintentional craftsperson. There’s a belief that she was a victim of an unfinished heart and that she was writing for a man, and that she was so sad that she spilled this emotion out. It wasn’t due to ambitions to write or poetry that she was doing.
I believe that the real Emily Dickinson was very much an outspoken rebel. She lived life according to her own rules. She didn’t go to the church. She only saw people she wanted tosee, which is a distinct thing from having a fear of leaving your house. She was not a recluse, she was selective in her social circle and only saw those she would like to. Her family was among the most well-known family in the town, and that was quite scandalous of her.
Strangely, it appears that Hollywood is always trying to imagine characters like her and they’re not sure what to do, but result in so-called “strong female characters” who are always required the desire to drink whiskey and drive motorcycles. There Emily Dickinson is, right there.
The problem with having actors do research is that, if they had done their research independently they’d be finding facts that were not true. For instance, things such as the fact that she got her papers burned upon her death, and that she spoke to people via walls and other stuff that’s available.
So I urged people to not research the roles that go beyond taking the poet’s words in his own words.
The head of the Emily Dickinson International Society who saw the film in the summer of 2012 and was thrilled, commented to me “You know, one thing that people don’t understand is that when Emily Dickinson scholarship first began, people didn’t know that Mabel was Austin’s mistress, and that Mabel had a beef with Susan.” They didn’t know that she had a vested desire to portray Susan as a horrible woman who was a sham to Emily. This is what’s revealed in the definitive biography of the author: that Emily and Susan had a disagreement and were not friends all of their adult life. They did not even meet.
What has the reaction to the film received especially from the academic community? I think that some people’s worlds may have been changed.
I understand what you’re talking about. But I’m able to tell anyone who is an ardent scholar of Dickinson has studied Emily Dickinson’s letters. Not only the letters she wrote to Susan and her family, but also the remaining materials about Kate Scott Turner and is aware of not only Emily and Susan but also Emily also Kate. Kate’s brief relationship with Emily was over, she later re-emerged in Europe as an openly homosexual. Also, the daguerreotype came to light a few years back that shows Emily Dickinson with her arm around Kate. The scene in which we reference it is the scene at the end of the film. However, their relationship is much more difficult to disprove in the present. Like, there’s pictures. It’s a lot more difficult.
This was a tough story to unravel, as clearly the history of women is obscured. Women’s history is more deeply hidden. When it comes to women who are in love with one others, those who love them are ostensibly hiding their love since they were forced to. This wasn’t an option that they could have made, as you can imagine. It was all prior to identity politics, long before the term “lesbian” existed. It’s a bit complicated.
It was more difficult for Susan than for Emily. I’m aware that she was a smuggler of things. I’m sure that when she was married to Austin and had three children with Austin — this becomes real love. This isn’t an act of beard. This is a real thing. it.