Saturday, March 7, 2020

Wild Nights with Emily

Emily Dickinson in 1847, at age 16. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Was Emily Dickinson, for decades, the lover of her sister-in-law Susan? Emphatically yes, is the answer provided from the first moments of writer/director Madeleine Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily (2018). Olnek is drawing on scholarship from the past 25 years by Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart and others that has complicated the view of Emily as a "virgin recluse" (as she was described by her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson [1]). The film's title comes from Emily's impassioned poem:
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

In fact, even though she and Susan (who was married to Emily's brother Austin) lived next door to one another for 30 years and could see each other virtually every day, Emily wrote more letters to Susan—by a factor of two—than to any other correspondent. Her missives were filled with poems and poem fragments; Susan was often Emily's first and most trusted reader.

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, undated portrait (detail). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library.

After Emily's death at age 55 in 1886, Susan spent several years trying to put together a selection of what she called Emily's "letter-poems." That edition would have placed many of the poems in their original contexts, but evidently Susan, faced with a vast amount of material, found it too difficult to choose what to include. An example of a letter-poem:

might come
by Accident,
Sister -
Night comes
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt -

       Sister -
Show me
Eternity, and
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
package lain
And lifted
back again -

Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -

Image source: Emily Dickinson Archive
Where does letter end, and poem begin?

"She feels a little baffled by my possession of so many [manuscripts] of Emily's," Susan wrote of Emily's younger sister Lavinia after Emily's death. [4] Lavinia, concerned about the lack of progress Susan was making on her edition of the letter-poems, and perhaps also wanting a more conventional editorial approach, eventually asked Susan to return the dozens of small, hand-sewn books of poems that Emily had created. In a fateful decision, Lavinia passed the books on to Mabel Loomis Todd, so that she and Higginson could prepare their own edition of Emily's poetry for publication.

Todd was a strange choice, not only because of her lack of any obvious qualifications for the job, but because of her role in the Dickinson family: she had been carrying on an ill-concealed affair with Austin since 1882. Emily's feelings about Todd may be guessed, perhaps, by noting that although Todd visited Emily's home many times, she was never able to meet Emily face-to-face.

Mabel Loomis Todd, around the time of her arrival in Amherst [ca. 1881-82]. 
Image source: Emily Dickinson Museum

If Emily had misgivings about Todd, they were justified. Todd edited Emily's writing with a heavy hand. She cut apart Emily's hand-sewn books, destroying the groupings of poems that Emily herself had painstakingly placed together. Instead she categorized the poems by assigning them broad (not to say banal) themes such as "Life, Love, Time & Eternity, Nature." [5] Emily did not title her poems, so Todd supplied titles of her own invention. She also changed Emily's line-lengths and punctuation, removing the characteristic dashes that provided rhythm and emphasis. She and Higginson produced two volumes of Emily's work, Poems (1890) and Poems: Second Series (1891), after which Higginson withdrew because of disagreements with Todd's editorial actions.

Those actions were especially damaging when Todd edited Letters of Emily Dickinson (1894). She omitted any mention of Susan, Emily's chief correspondent. Worse, someone—Todd is the likely culprit, although Austin may also have lent a hand—went through the writings in which Emily referred to Susan and erased, scribbled over or literally cut out mentions of her. As Martha Nell Smith writes,
. . .the erasures, cut-aways, and blottings-out have gone, until the last decade, practically unremarked in critical study. For most critics and editors, these have not been worthy of critical examination. In fact, of particular interest for critical inquiry is that these elisions—both those that can be restored and those forever out of our grasp—have been and continue to be compulsively reenacted and recycled rather than rigorously examined in Dickinson studies. [6]
Of course, critics may just have overlooked the subtle alterations Todd made to Dickinson's manuscripts. Here is part of the surviving manuscript of a poem to Susan that begins "One sister have I in the house / And one a hedge away":

This poem ends:
I spilt the dew,
But took the morn -
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers -
Sue - forevermore!

It is one of many love poems addressed to Susan; here is another:
Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a "Diver."
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home -
I - a Sparrow - build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

                         Emily. [8]
On the back of the manuscript the name "Sue," written by Emily, has been erased. In the 1894 Letters, Todd falsified the poem's addressee, claiming that it had been sent to editor Samuel Bowles and had been written as though addressed by him to his wife. Todd heterosexualized other references, as well. In a letter to Austin just after he and Susan had become engaged, Emily wrote, "Miss Susie was here on Friday, was here on Saturday, and Miss Emilie, there, on Thursday. . .Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I am something of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love [S]us[ie] just as well as we can." [9] The first and last letters of "Susie" were erased by Todd or Austin so that the phrase read "we both love us just as well as we can"—Emily's wry acknowledgement to Austin of their similar interest in Susan could not be allowed into print.

Despite Todd's elisions, Emily's letters to Susan were omitted from the 1894 edition of the letters because they were filled with language "too personal and adulatory ever to be printed." [10] Susan herself destroyed many of these letters after Emily's death, but some escaped.

May 1852: . . ."Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor can the heart conceive" my Susie, whom I love. These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among those silent beds!. . .I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still.  Emilie [11]

June 1852: And now how soon I shall have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home. I dont know why it is — but there's something in your name, now you are taken from me, which fills my heart so full, and my eye, too. . .

God is good, Susie, I trust he will save you, I pray that in his good time we once more meet each other, but if this life holds not another meeting for us, remember also, Susie, that it has no parting more, wherever that hour finds us, for which we have hoped so long, we shall not be separated, neither death, nor the grave can part us, so that we only love! Your Emilie — [12]

"Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say -" Image source: Emily Dickinson's Correspondences

11 June 1852: Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say - my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me; If you were here, and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — [13]

27 June 1852: And very, very often when I have waked from sleep, not quite waked, I have been sure I saw you, and your dark eye beamed on me with such a look of tenderness that I could only weep, and bless God for you.

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?. . .

I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you - that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast - I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday, and "never a bit" of you. . .

Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon - and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him. [14]

January 1855: I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you. I wrote you many days ago - I wont say many weeks, because it will look sadder so, and then I cannot write - but Susie, it troubles me.

I miss you, mourn for you, and walk the Streets alone often at night, beside, I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from that silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die. [15]

Not many letters from Susan to Emily still exist, but one that does, from the early 1860s, suggests how profoundly their feelings were shared:
I have intended to
write you Emily to-day but the
quiet has not been mine. I send
you this, lest I should seem to
have turned away from a kiss –
If you have suffered this past
summer I am sorry[.] I
Emily bear a sorrow that I
never uncover – – If a nightingale
sings with her breast against
a thorn, why not we [!]
When I can, I shall write —
                                                        Sue – [16]
Was the sorrow that Susan never spoke of that she was married to a man she didn't love? If so, was her marriage to Austin a strategy to remain close to Emily—literally next door—or was it a displacement of her feelings for Austin's sister?

I want to be careful not to assume too much about what these letters are saying Emily and Susan may have done in bed together. However, they could not be more clear about how they felt about one another. As Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith write in the introduction to Open My Heart Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, there are two factors that have led scholars and critics to minimize the significance of the love between Emily and Susan. The first is the image—assiduously promoted by Todd and Higginson, and aided by Austin Dickinson—of Emily as "the recluse spinster belle of Amherst."
The second factor is the view of intimate female friendships in the nineteenth century.  According to this view, women of Dickinson's time often indulged in highly romantic relationships with each other, but these relationships were merely affectionate and patently not sexual.  Such same-sex attractions, so the popular wisdom goes, had the character of an adolescent crush rather than a mature erotic love.  As this correspondence shows, however, Emily and Susan's relationship surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the "intimate exchange" between women friends of the period.  The ardor of Dickinson's late teens and early twenties matured and deepened over the decades, and the romantic and erotic expressions from Emily to Susan continued until Dickinson's death in May 1886. [17]
Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily vividly and at times humorously portrays the intensity of the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler). And, quite rightly, Olnek feels free to imagine aspects of the love between her characters that the letters only imply. Her film offers a much-needed corrective to the image of the irascible, ill-mannered, and unrequitedly heterosexual Emily of Terence Davies' recent film A Quiet Passion. In that film Susan (played by Jodhi May) hardly appears, and the deep emotional connection between her and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is not even hinted at—another "reenactment and recycling" of Susan's historical erasure. Wild Nights is a very welcome, funny, and moving restoration of Susan to the emotional center of Emily's life and work.

Molly Shannon (Emily Dickinson) and Susan Ziegler (Susan Dickinson) in Wild Nights with Emily
Image source: AfterEllen

  1. Quoted by Lilia Melani, "Emily Dickinson -- Love."
  4. Martha Nell Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters," in Wendy Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 51.
  5. Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 56. 
  6. Smith, "Introduction," Mutilations: what was erased, inked over and cut away,
  7. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998, p. 76.
  8. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 91.
  9. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 5.
  10. Susan Dickinson, quoted in Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 54.
  11.; dates of this and other quotes from Emily's letters to Susan follow those determined by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998.
  16. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 101.
  17. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith "introduction," Open Me Carefully, p. xiv.