Dickinson is a show on Apple TV+ about the life of the great poet Emily Dickinson, her poems, and love itself. It is an insight into what it was like to be a female writer in the 19th century. In season 2, she explores her anxieties about fame, publishing and self-worth through poetry.
It’s a fun show at a surface level. It’s clear by the song selection and the modern lingo that the target audience is teenagers, but these characteristics in fact reflect and uplift the individuality of Emily Dickinson. She stood out in her time with her intellect and rebellious imagination, poems with odd themes, and her frustrations aimed at the demands of the patriarchy surrounding her. So the only way to capture her life is like this, with line dancing to electronic music and smoking a cigar with Mr. Death himself.
“So proud she was to die
It made us all ashamed
That what we cherished, so unknown
To her desire seemed—
So satisfied to go
Where none of us should be
Immediately—that Anguish stooped
Almost to Jealousy—”
Observing her life as a recluse, her rejection of social norms and her eccentric way of perceiving the world, some female critics named her the madwoman, as defined in the book, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, published in 1979. The madwoman in the attic refers to the character Bertha Mason from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She symbolised rebellion, madness, disquiet and rage.
Female characters in Victorian literature were limited to two stereotypes of the extreme: the Angel in the house and the Madwoman in the attic. The Angel represents tradition and duty; created for the joy and approval of your basic Victorian patriarchal society. However, the female writers of the time may have used the madwoman in their stories as more than a stereotype. They used this independent and outrageous character to project their own less socially acceptable emotions and thoughts, like the anger and dissatisfaction towards the oppressive society they lived in.
While writers like the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen projected through their characters, Dickinson was the only writer close to being the madwoman herself. Her poems didn’t have an alter ego to project through. She left her life in her poems. She stood in solitude, mad at the way societal institutions like marriage bonded women into subdued creatures that they weren’t born to be. She wrote about her art, the love that never lasted and the death that always surrounded her, and she wrote with such sharpness that it may deeply pierce your heart.
Every episode is built around one of her poems and the plots frequently contribute to the conception of them. The main themes of her poems are nature, love, death, loneliness, home and family. They are enjoyable as they were, but the context enriches the experience of reading her poems rather than diminishing it or taking the attention away from them.
Dickinson sets social context to the things we know about her life through her poems. It examines the rise of the civil war, the patriarchal values of the society and most importantly the privilege she came from. Throughout the season we’re mindful of the fact that she could afford to stay in her father’s home and write all day (a thought emphasised by comparing her to Louisa May Alcott). Her family members are crucial characters. Apart from them, there’s all the fascinating people she meets in the process of writing a certain poem or becoming a published poet.
As I saw more of Emily interacting with her surroundings, I began to think about how there’s a certain appeal to seeing queer representation in content that is set before the 21st century. Maybe it’s the reconfirmation that queerness isn’t a randomly sprouted fad at the rear end of the last century.
Dickinson has queer representation and, yes, it doesn’t queer-bait. In this context, queerbaiting is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “an author/director giving hints, and clever twists to paint a character as possibly being queer, to satisfy queer audiences, but never outright says they are so they can keep their heterosexual audience.” (I’m looking at you, Sherlock and Supernatural.)
Anyway, Dickinson doesn’t play in the subtext or wink and nudge. They show the complicated romance between Sue and Emily in its entire form and it’s an important plotline of the show. And the Dickinson creators are not ones for subtlety, which is a relief. I’m tired of the implying and the stolen glances. I declare that true romance is kissing in the orchard, under a tree as it rains.
Apart from being a treat for the queers, it also indulged the writer in me plenty. I found there’s not much difference between being a writer then and now. Fundamentally, if you think or mutter some ground-breaking thought, you desperately reach for a paper and a pencil.
The joy of being recognised for your work is still unparallelled. I refer to the mirth we see in Emily’s eyes when someone compliments her poems. The disbelief of finally being understood through your words and someone loving your thoughts is as glorious as finally getting to be with your love. I think I cried a tear of joy when I saw Emily get the admiration she deserved, by a person she admired.
Lastly, the one thing that sealed it for me is the lead up to the grand moment of admission by Dickinson. A firm admission that she is a poet, not just a girl who sits in her room and writes poetry: she’s a poet and she will call herself that. It is hard in the beginning to say it out loud when the people around you think it’s just a fancy and nothing serious, but it is a word to define yourself by. It’s a heartwarming moment when she declares that she will write thousands of poems in her life and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.