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The Quiet Firebrand Feminism of Emily Dickinson

The director of A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies, hopes that viewers will “go out and read her and know that she’s a genius.”
In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson (left) and Jennifer Ehle her sister, Vinnie. (Photo: Music Box Films)

In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson (left) and Jennifer Ehle her sister, Vinnie. (Photo: Music Box Films)

Though biopics of famous and important people are all the rage these days, it’s little wonder Emily Dickinson has been largely absent from the silver screen. Dickinson lived the majority of her life at her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, save for a brief stay at an all-female seminary. And though she wrote over 1,800 poems, Dickinson published only 11 during her lifetime. She died at 55 having never received the acclaim she deserved.

It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film executive at a major studio reading My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson and thinking, “this is just the reclusive, tragically short-lived, and perpetually ignored chamber-drama female heroine we need.”

But then, independent filmmaker Terence Davies, the director of the new Dickinson film A Quiet Passion, has never made films with obvious commercial prospects. Two of Davies’ previous films — Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes — chronicled the lives of ordinary, blue-collar English characters; in his The House of Mirth and Sunset Song, Davies adapted books by Edith Wharton and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, seemingly only for the English-major demographic.

A Quiet Passion takes place almost entirely at The Homestead, where Dickinson struggles with her lack of renown despite her voluminous poetic output (she also suffers from some serious existential angst). And yet, Davies’ Dickinson is far from dull; Davies writes Dickinson (portrayed by Sex and the City’sCynthia Nixon) as a firebrand feminist before her time. In one scene, she tells off her brother when he implies that women lead an easy, domestic life; in another, she snaps at a suitor who she fears might steal her independence.

Though Dickinson is now a staple of high school English classes, Davies still believes she hasn’t gotten her due. In a phone interview with Pacific Standard earlier this month, he talked glowingly of both Dickinson’s prose and Nixon’s performance, and explained why academics may want to avoid scrutinizing the film for its historical accuracy (or lack thereof).

Why were you drawn to making a film about Emily Dickinson in the first place?

I discovered her when I was 18, and Claire Bloom was reading some of her poems on television, including “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” and I bought a little anthology. But it was about 10 or 15 years ago that I started re-reading her and then started to find out about this extraordinary life she’d led, and that’s what made me want to do it.

Tell me a little bit about why you decided to cast Cynthia Nixon. Most of us here in America know her as Miranda in Sex and the City — what about her screamed “Emily Dickinson” to you?

I’d seen her for another film that we couldn’t get money for, and I remembered her — I thought “There’s something about this woman that I think is really very good.” And when I was writing the screenplay, I looked at the only extant photograph of Emily Dickinson when she was 17, and my producers superimposed Cynthia’s face onto her photograph, and she looks like an elder version of her.

When we met in New York [for A Quiet Passion], not only did she know the poems because she’d grown up with a record of Julie Harris reciting them, but she also reads poetry very well, which was miraculous. I just knew she was right, and you know, she was so modest. She said, “You won’t get the money to do a film that I’m starring in,” and I said, “Yes we will, we’ll get it.” And she stuck with it for four-and-a-half years, bless her — and we did get the money for her, and she’s superb, I think.

I understand that you got the blessing of the folks behind the Emily Dickinson House at Amherst, The Homestead. What was your pitch to them about your approach to the film?

What I wanted to say to those academics, because they all know everything about Emily, is that it’s not going to be a definitive life because it’s not a documentary, it’s a fiction. So I’ll be taking those things from her life that have echoes in me, but it will be a subjective prism through which that is made. And they were very good about it, and very supportive. But I had to make it clear that I wasn’t writing a definitive life or anything — it was just my version of her story.

As your version of her story, why was it important to depict the period that you did? You start off with Dickinson leaving the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and then some time passes, and then we start off again when she’s beginning to write poetry at night. What was it about that period that spoke to you?

The withdrawal into the family. She was very ill with homesickness [at the female Seminary], and I was as well when I was sent away for primary school and had to go away for a month — I hated being away from home. I also responded to the fact that her family was very close, because mine was very close, and I didn’t want my family to change either.

But the real touchstone was her spiritual quest: I was brought up a very strict Catholic, believed for a very long time, and fought against doubt until I was 22, when I realized that it was false, and I am an atheist now. Dickinson constantly guards her soul, but she’s constantly confronted with [the question of], if you have a soul, and then there is no God, what do you do? She never really comes down on either side of where there is a God, or there isn’t. She treads a fine line between those two, and always implies hope at the end. And I responded to that.

One thing that struck me is that, in a few senses, Emily Dickinson’s life is quite tragic. She died young and only published 11 of her nearly 2,000 poems during her lifetime. And yet, your film is very funny — a lot of her wit comes through, and in her relationship with her friends, there’s a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. Why was it important for you to incorporate humor into the story?

You use little bits of your own biography. When I was growing up, my sister’s friends used to come round to our house and get make-up, and I was allowed to be there for the make-up. They were always funny, lovely, lovely girls, and I wanted [Dickinson] to have the same thing. I wanted Miss Vryling Buffam to be irreverent and say exactly what she likes — that’s charming and is very beguiling, that kind of openness. Although, in actual fact, Miss Vryling Buffam wasn’t like that at all: I saw a photograph of her when she was Mrs. Wilder, and she’s about 40 and she looks very bored. But that wasn’t the point: The point was, with a name like that, she had to be funny, and she had to be like my sister’s friends, who used to come around on a Friday night. I didn’t want her to be solemn. There’s nothing more boring when, in films about great artists, all they do is go around looking glum for 90 minutes — that’s just not interesting.

As your film reminds us, Dickinson was quite a rebel in her time. She bucked religious conventions, she was outspoken about women’s issues in her home. At this current moment, in America at least, proclaiming resistance to Donald Trump’s White House has become a refrain on social media and a marketing tactic for brands — it’s a very loud resistance. What does Emily’s story have to tell us in our time of loud resistance?

It’s not so much her story as it’s the poetry that tells us more. Because Dickinson wasn’t specific to her time, that makes her universal: What she does in her poetry, I think, is open her soul to us, and that’s where it touches our souls. In a way, the life that was led obviously informed the way she wrote, but what is important is the end product, which was great poetry. And it’s the poetry that tells us more, I think.

What she does in her poetry, I think, is distill everything down to the bare essence, and then uses reticence. And that’s what makes it so moving. It’s almost, it can seem, sometimes on the page, almost slight, but it’s not. It’s anything but that. One begins:

“The dying need but little, dear —
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret

How could you not be pierced by that?

Four of your last five films have had female protagonists. What drew you to those characters, and was it a conscious decision on your part?

No, it wasn’t conscious at all. I was drawn to the stories. They happened to be about women. It’s as uninteresting as that, I’m afraid.

You said you grew up with a sister though, right?

Yes, I’m the youngest of 10, but seven surviving. And on Friday nights, my sister’s friends used to come around to get made up before they went to the dance, and I was allowed to go for the make-up. I can smell Fridays even now. I loved Fridays.

Do those memories, in personal films like this one, do they inform your approach to writing female characters?

Inevitably, yes. Because you draw things from your deep subconscious, really. And you suddenly realize a lot later, “Oh, that’s where it came from.” But that’s the way it should be. Any influence should come out of you refracted. If it just comes out, and it’s imitative, then there’s nothing interesting in that. There’s nothing interesting in imitation. It has to go through that process of you remembering it, forgetting it, and then remembering it. And then it becomes interesting, I think.

What do you hope your viewers will come out of this film thinking or telling their friends?

That they will go out and read her and know that she’s a genius. She wasn’t recognized in her lifetime, and I don’t believe in an afterlife. And she should’ve had it while she was alive. She didn’t so we’ve got to celebrate her now. We’ve got to. She deserves it.

And are there particular elements still that aren’t celebrated that perhaps you’re hoping this film will shed light on about her life?

Oh gosh, no, because it’s only my version of her life. Which is to say, it’s not in any way accurate. It’s just my fictionalized view of what that life was. No, in the end, the best tribute can be that people go out and read the poetry and understand that she was an ordinary woman, an ordinary human being. She just happened to be a genius.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.