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.
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.
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.
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.”