Fameless in life, in death Emily Dickinson was discovered to be remarkable. She was born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and died in 1886, in Amherst, Massachusetts; wrote many letters; kept a garden; never married; had no children; left behind nearly two thousand poems, which few people suspected she had been writing all that time she was living in the family home, at first with her parents and siblings, and eventually, after the parents died and the brother moved next door, with only her sister Lavinia. It was Lavinia who found the poems after Emily’s death and arranged to have them published. The first collection, brutally edited, came out in 1890. An edition of the poems restored to something like their original orthography was not published until over a century later.
Since that first collection, works of scholarship and art that focus on Dickinson and her poetry have come out with calendrical regularity. This is despite a long-lasting lack of a complete or corrected edition of the poems, and of letters addressed to the poet, since Lavinia followed her sister’s posthumous instructions to have these letters burned. The lacunae of Dickinson’s biography been not a deterrent but a spur for several generations of readers and writers: as early as 1891, a piece in The Atlantic refers to “a constant and earnest demand by her readers for further information in regard to her.” Now there’s a film version of the poet: Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon as the Belle of Amherst, opening Friday, April 14.
Davies, a British director whose films include an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Of Time and the City, an essay-doc about Liverpool, began to seriously consider making a Dickinson movie about twelve years ago, though he remembers first hearing about her when he was eighteen, “on a documentary on television on Sunday morning.” A working-class youth and a critically acclaimed directing career followed; Davies is now 71, and A Quiet Passion has been called his “most autobiographical film.” The Dickinson of this decorous chamber piece-biopic, which follows the poet from women’s college to funeral cortege, is dedicated, depthy, and increasingly resentful of the solitude she believes she must maintain in order to write.
“I share a lot of things with her,” Davies told me, referring to a commitment to truth that can become destructive at “times when it’s probably best to be quiet, or it’s better to be kind.” The film’s Dickinson is indeed scrupulously honest, starting from the symmetrically-composed scene that opens A Quiet Passion and serves, Davies said, as a “template for the rest of the film; this is her character in miniature.” As in his previous work, including the 1976 short Children and the lush 2015 adaptation Sunset Song, it is the schoolroom imagined as testing ground; authority is coercive, and a character’s response to this coercion is indicative of future ability to resist. Rejecting a teacher’s didactic Christianity, Emily remains standing central and alone as her classmates move to the periphery; by the time her family arrives to take her home from the college, Davies has her gazing at a window, imbued with silent grace and lit like a Vermeer.
The director’s challenge begins in earnest after Emily comes home to Amherst, and stays there. The notorious problem of dramatizing a writer’s life is that there’s often nothing notorious in it. In Dickinson’s case, an absence of corporeal adventure is particularly stark (“I taste a liquor never brewed,” begins one of her poems; the speaker is an “Inebriate of air”). A Quiet Passion is largely a series of interiors, but so were her days. Davies’ solution is to try depicting Dickinson’s spiritual development, tracing its arc through her work. Nixon does the job confidently and convincingly. The poems she reads throughout the film are meant to be more than “merely illustrative,” Davies says, and indeed, the recitation “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” to her newborn nephew is unexpected. Incongruity was on his mind as he wrote, Davies says. “I wanted there to be a normal human being, who liked to paint, to play, improvised on the piano, did horticulture… and happened to be a genius. That friction is always interesting.”
For Dickinson, the conflict between her talent and her fierce privacy seems to have surpassed friction and entered realms of real torment. Yet, with almost no readers except a few correspondents, she continued to write. “The Heart asks Pleasure — first — / And then — Excuse from Pain — / And then — those little Anodynes / That deaden suffering –” goes the first stanza of another poem Davies uses. A Quiet Passion gives us Dickinson’s solitude as both chosen and thrust upon her; she does not try to publish widely, or marry, but nobody asks her to, either. In a slow-motion sequence, a man’s shadow ascends the stair as Emily waits, enchanted, in her room; but the figure is imaginary, and the sequence ends with the look of heartbroken disappointment on Nixon’s face as the camera tracks backward and the door shuts of its own accord. Davies traces this to a footnote in one of the biographies of Dickinson that he read while working on the script: “This fantasy that someone will come and make her blissfully happy. The more I think she unconsciously knows no one can fill that, the greater and more powerful that fantasy becomes.”
In the absence of earthly bliss, A Quiet Passion reaches for the painterly joys of the costume drama and the consoling comedy of the drawing room. A deeply saturated Belgium stands in for New England, and the woods and flowers surrounding the Homestead, the Dicksons’ family home, offer a vibrant palette that contrasts with the poet: toward the end of her life, Dickinson wears only white. At a celebration, she laughs with real delight at the quips of her friend Vryling Buffam, a creation of Davies’ that acts as a composite of the poet’s historical friends who married and became less available to her as companions and correspondents. Dickinson’s eventual illness and seizures, which Davies had his cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister, film without cutting, are particularly disturbing given the stillness the film maintains, both formally and narratively. When the Dickinson sisters have a minister and his wife to tea, the wife informs them that drinking tea is diabolical. Emily responds by escaping, with the minister, into the garden to talk about poetry. Lavinia, equally horrified, is forced to remain with their guest.
Dickinson’s poems found a readership thanks to this steadfast sister, but what version of Emily did Lavinia possess? Davies’s version surely bears some similarity to her, but it is impossible to prove the likeness. As the constant, earnest demand for intel on Dickinson continues, every new Emily looks awfully particular to her conjuror. Thus the biopic of a 19th-century American poet is also the autobiography of an ex-Catholic filmmaker from Liverpool. For critics, artists, curators, writers, and readers since 1890, Emily has been a lovelorn spinster, an ardent lesbian, a proto-feminist, a collage artist, and a person who wrote poems as “therapy.” Seamus Heaney said she had duende. When I spoke with Davies, he told me that that the success of his Wharton adaptation was followed by an eight-year-period when he “couldn’t get any work at all,” but he kept reading Dickinson and thinking about the potential of his film. To consider oneself an artist despite the lack of audience bespeaks an ironclad commitment, which is easier to maintain if you are not entirely alone in it. The Soul selects her own Society, as the woman wrote. Last year, given a copy of The Gorgeous Nothings—a little book of poems that Dickinson wrote in pencil on the backs of envelopes—I thought: she writes on scraps, what a hoarder of paper she must be—like me! just like me!