Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) and her longtime partner, Susan (Susan Ziegler)
The labels assigned to historically prominent women have often been euphemisms for whatever reality the writers of history wanted to keep hidden. Recluse, hysterical, mad, and other terms served more as vague diagnoses than anything accurate. Such is the case with Emily Dickinson, the poet famously labeled as a spinster recluse, living a sad, isolated life in her parents’ house. This has been refuted many times since Dickinson’s death, but never so prominently as in Wild Nights with Emily
, a dramedy directed by Madeleine Olnek that portrays the poet not as achingly lonely, but as she really was: gay and in love.
In 1992, Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith published Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson, a re-examination of the author’s poems and letters, the recipients of which were long thought to be anonymous men, but were actually dedicated to Susan Dickinson, Emily’s childhood friend, sister-in-law, and longtime partner. Research revealed that Susan’s name was physically erased or removed from Emily’s writings by Mabel Todd, her posthumous editor and mistress of Emily’s brother/Susan’s husband, Austin.
is narrated by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), as she speaks on a book tour promoting the posthumous publication of Emily’s writing. She tells Emily’s life story in broad strokes, but scenes from Emily’s life fill in the obvious blanks. As a young girl, Emily began a romantic relationship with her friend Susan, only to be heartbroken when Susan marries Austin. But Susan tells her not to worry, that the plan is to live next door to Emily so they can continue their relationship throughout their adulthood. And they do.
Emily (Molly Shannon) dedicates most of her time to her poetry, which she desperately wants published despite no one wanting to publish it. Her only reader is Susan (Susan Ziegler), one of the few people she spends any time with. In a way, Emily is a recluse, rarely leaving the house except to see Susan, and Mabel claims she never saw Emily until she looked in the casket at her funeral. But her reclusivity is not sad or lonely. She is wholly focused on her poetry, content to only write, bake bread, and see Susan. She tries to publish her poems, soliciting the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Higginson (Brett Gelman, an expert asshole as usual), who doesn’t think her poetry is ready, very obviously because she’s a woman. “Thank you for your surgery,” Emily says stiffly after Higginson makes significant edits to her work.
Emily ultimately had 11 poems published while she was alive, but she wrote over a thousand. The film covers her death too, with an exceedingly intimate scene of Susan washing Emily’s corpse, and Mabel, desperate to have an artistic impact, taking an eraser to Emily’s poems. They’d be more appealing if they were addressed to a man, she suggests.
The film moves between Mabel’s lecture on Emily’s life and Emily’s actual life, both as an adult and a teenager. The tone is more comedic than dramatic, poking fun at the way Mabel (and everyone else) plays ignorant to Emily’s lesbian relationship, as well as the general stupidity of men at the time. When Emily asks her editor if he believes in women’s suffrage, he says, “Yes, of course, but only after politics become less complicated.” (Dream big, buddy.)
It’s refreshing to see a historical gay romance that isn’t overly tragic or heavy with the weight of the era. Director Olnek cited Drunk History as one of her inspirations for the tone of the film, noting that period films are typically heavy, but the heaviness is based on that of previous period films. People laughed in the 19th century, too.
It’s not a straight comedy — there are poignant, emotional scenes, both about Emily’s writing and her romance. There’s a weight that comes with telling the story of someone whose story has been mistold for so long.
Opens Fri., May 10 at Regent Square Theater. Directed by Madeleine Olnek. Starring Molly Shannon.