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Arts & Culture

“Wild” Woman

New Film Based on Professor’s Work Re-envisions Emily Dickinson’s Life

By Sala Levin ’10

still from "Wild Nights With Emily"

Image and trailer courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson and Susan Ziegler plays her sister-in-law, Susan, in "Wild Nights with Emily," a new film based on Professor Martha Nell Smith's work on the poet.

Of course, you know Emily Dickinson: She wrote poetry filled with dashes, wore white, lived alone as a recluse, barely published anything during her lifetime and died a sad, sexless spinster.

Except—what if she didn’t?

English Professor Martha Nell Smith’s 1998 book, “Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson,” posited a passionate romantic relationship between the poet and her best-friend-turned-sister-in-law. Now, “Open Me Carefully” has been adapted into a film, “Wild Nights with Emily,” released in theaters today and starring “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon.

Martha Nell Smith“I never imagined I would discover this homoerotic lesbian relationship, but I did,” Smith said of her work on Dickinson. “I was trained as a scholar that you report what you see, and not what you want to see.”

Smith’s fascination with Dickinson began as a young girl, when she was given a book of poems, including several by the beloved Massachusetts writer. Smith recalled thinking, “‘Oh, I really like her. She’s so weird.’ And I found her intellectually challenging, which I really liked.”

As a graduate student, Smith was first dissuaded from focusing on Dickinson because “no one can say anything new about her.” Her love for the poet prevailed, and as she pored through Dickinson’s piles of poems contained within letters, Smith soon noticed “in letters to her brother, half a page cut out or several lines erased.”

Noting that Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan, was the recipient of far more letters than anyone else—and that at least one scrawled-over poem proclaimed Dickinson’s “great affection” for Susan—Smith eventually concluded that her brother’s wife was the love of Dickinson’s life. “Someone was trying to erase really affectionate expressions, things that we would call lesbian now,” said Smith.

After publishing “Open Me Carefully,” Smith was approached by Madeleine Olnek, who turned the book into a play and now “Wild Nights with Emily,” on which Smith served as historical consultant, pointing out inaccuracies while keeping in mind “this is a movie, not a documentary, so it’s really okay if little bitty things are not quite accurate.”

The film premiered last year at South by Southwest, and features a lead performance in which “Shannon keeps her natural zaniness just below the surface as Emily, but brings ever so much mirth to Olnek’s humorously formal 19th-century dialogue,” wrote IndieWire.

So why does the cultural image of Dickinson as pathetic loner prevail when, in reality, her life lends itself to a movie the Hollywood Reporter describes as having a “forbidden-sex-romp vibe”? The idea of any woman writer during her lifetime was that “she was probably writing not because she was such a serious poet or artist, but because she had her heart broken and so was bearing some kind of secret sorrow,” Smith said.

Smith hopes that the movie will show audiences that the committed poet “wasn’t a sad sack. She was very funny, had a lot of fun, and had a very full, rich life.”

Schools & Departments:

College of Arts and Humanities

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