Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 18, 2017

Emily Dickinson and A Quiet Passion

I guess the surprise would have been if I loved A Quiet Passion, the movie about Emily Dickinson as played by Cynthia Nixon. All readers have their own views of who the poet was, since part of the beauty of her poems are how wide open they are to interpretation, and many accounts of her life are shaped in part by speculation. There were parts of the movie I liked, but it seemed stilted, neither a narrative nor a documentary but trying to be a play, and I felt as if the effort was to show the opposite of the upbeat Emily we find in The Belle of Amherst. Surely, there was a woman between that often-cheery one and the embittered woman shown in A Quiet Passion.

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Emily Dickinson’s life was hard in many ways, and I’m sure there were times when she was sad and angry. She was often ill, and of course pain leaves a hard mark. But I don’t believe resentment was the major arc or mood. She must have sometimes been lonely, but the film never shows her enjoying the garden or conservatory her father had built for her. We don’t see her listening to birds or children, or chatting with the servants. She was intelligent, and understood that staying in her father’s house meant she’d have to give up much, but what she kept was her freedom to write.

We do see her at her desk, but only in the younger woman do we really see the passion she had for language. She wrote about 1800 of poems, and I have to think she felt proud and satisfied with the wonders she created, satisfied with expressions from her soul.

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After we left the theater, I talked with my friend Ann, a retired first grade teacher, about what I thought was missing in the movie.

“I remember you telling me long ago about how you wrote as child, at recess, and outside, and in bed,” Ann said. “That you felt you had to write. After that I noticed more how some kids walked around with books. Some held toys. And some carried pencil and paper and just wanted to be writing. I tried not to get in their way.”

What we don’t see in the movie is the Emily Dickinson who wrote on the backs of envelopes, corners of newspapers, or chocolate wrappers in the kitchen or in the garden, tucking scraps of paper into the pocket of her white dress, and sometimes reciting aloud.

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Dan Chiassan writes in The New Yorker: “She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it… In the 1850 national census, Dickinson listed her occupation as “keeping house”; the scraps might have kept her as she did so. … the “still—Volcano—Life” she describes as ever churning under her daily rounds.”

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Responses

  1. I’ve been so curious about this film. It sounds pretty strange about how they portrayed her temperament. Sorry to hear it wasn’t your cup of tea.

    • So many other versions of Emily that I prefer, within books, that frigate. But I was curious, and it was worth seeing. Just …. could have been better!

  2. What a marvelous appreciation! Thank you, Jeannine!!

  3. Although I haven’t seen the movie, I so agree with your assessment of her and what should have been included. Love the artifacts and your great respect.

    • Thanks, Pat, that’s a kind thing to say. Those fragments and the way she spread them through her days move me.

  4. As always, I love your writing. I hadn’t heard of this movie, but now I will have to check it out. Have you been to the I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson Exhibit at the Morgan library? Let me know if you’re up for a field trip and I’ll meet you there!

    • So great to hear from you, Lesa! I will check out how long that exhibit will be there — that would be fun to see with you if I can organize myself!

  5. Well, of course, showing a contented Emily Dickinson doesn’t make for high drama. It’s too bad the movie could not have shown a more balanced life. Obviously the filmmakers didn’t understand that the compulsion to write can most certainly be high drama but it’s hard to show that. From what I understand, Dickinson was a very private person — how does one depict a character like that in a movie?

    • I do think part of the problem came from what you stated — I wanted to see the costumes and settings, but the material is really interior, not suited for a movie. There was some drama, but it didn’t follow inner development. What was moving, and think you’d find so, too, was the director didn’t back away from some scenes of illness and death. We had to be with the family for longer than felt comfortable, and I admired the reality of that.

      • I’m about to read my first bio of Dickinson — it’s called “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief” by Roger Lundin, have you ever read it? I’m interested in seeing how Lundin brings out the private life of Dickinson (not unlike a certain other person I am researching 🙂

        • So many ED books! I have not read that one. Hope it’s illuminating. It’s interesting how she shared a time period with many of those “we know” but her Amherst house seems so different from those in Concord. The movie does reference how she declined to see Mr. Emerson when he visited next door.

  6. I didn’t know about the movie and enjoyed hearing your response to it, Jeannine. You know much more about Emily than I do, and I appreciate your response. It makes one wonder about the research done for the script, doesn’t it?

    • I’m sure it was well researched, but within the gaps there are slants to be assessed, and that does depend on the reader. Always a risk — but clearly others found this vision more to their taste than I did.

  7. I still want to see the movie. Interesting that they chose to make her so serious, but often that’s what people think of gifted creators. Shakespeare, Austen, Dickinson, even Brontë. They aren’t permitted to have been the funny, fully-formed people they were (including bawdy jokes and all, in the cases of the first two, at least).

    • Yes, I think you should see it — there are some good moments within it, and the younger Emily comes across as more defiant and of good humor. You make a good point — somehow over the years some of what makes them creative can get lost, turn sort of schoolbook-y.

  8. I almost saw this in London with my mother, Jeannine – now I’m glad that I didn’t. I saw Julie Harris in the theater version many years ago…I think I’ll stick with that interpretation!

    • Seeing Julie Harris in the theater — yes, I think you made a good choice to stick with that!

  9. First of all, love the pic (I live in Sunderland) and second of all, thank goodness someone else feels the way I do about this movie. First of all, how do you get home from Mt. Holyoke through Boston? I had to nearly laugh at that, but seriously, it was such a hatchet job on Miss Emily, I thought. I thought it tried way too hard to make her a Nasty Woman, and there were so many things about her that were left out. While I do believe she must have suffered from something like depression, and we know the kidney disease that plagued her must have been excruciating, I don’t believe she was the way this movie depicted her. I was a fan of her work long before I moved here, so maybe I’m a bit too precious about her, but I really think the movie tried too hard to make her something I’m not sure she ever was.


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