Romantic fantasy: Hypothetical 19th-c. queer lovers in ‘Dickinson’
On November 1st, Alena Smith’s anachronistic retelling of Emily Dickinson’s life aired on Apple TV+. Thus far, the series has disregarded convention in its wickedly clever script and delightfully self-aware characters, but the real heart lies in the costume dramedy’s queer relationship between Emily and Sue.
The relationship, as we know from history, is doomed from the start. Sue Gilbert is engaged to Emily’s brother Austin and will eventually marry him. But in an aberrant take on the poet’s life, she’s given a modern depth that equates to some serious street cred.
Culturally, Emily Dickinson is thought of as the virginal hermit who never married and lived vicariously through her own poetry. Smith, however, flips the narrative by characterizing the enigmatic Emily as though she were the poem herself. In other words, because we actually know very little historically about the writer, Smith is able to individualize her in the way many scholars have failed to.
Smith does this by refreshing the genre and showing that biopics don’t have to be dry, brittle, staid artefacts. Whether or not Sue and Emily’s relationship was overtly sexual is unknown, however Dickinson challenges this notion by creating a sexy, gothic romantic arc between the two.
Playing off the many, many passionate letters Emily Dickinson wrote to Sue Gilbert throughout her lifetime, Dickinson is a flippant account of a super queer, extremely jovial 19th-century period piece that finds its niche in 2019. The series attacks life with the intent of blurring the difference between past and present, while never disrespecting the lives of the people it speaks for.