Anyone who has ever taken a high school literature class is surely familiar with the works of American poet Emily Dickinson. The 19th century poet was an enigma both in life and in death, and became famous for her short stanzas and odd use of punctuation. Dickinson was always one of the odder poets, and her puzzling life has continued to capture literature fanatics for many generations to come. One of the more recent incarnations of Emily Dickinson’s biography has come in the form of Apple’s 2019 TV show entitled: Dickinson. The 19th century period piece focuses on Dickinson’s rarely touched on, and yet extremely complicated, love life— particularly her lifelong affair with her brother’s wife. In doing so, the show is able to capture the timeless nature of being a teenager, blending 19th century costumes with 21st century dialogue and trap music.
Both in life and in legacy, Emily Dickinson was regarded as an eccentric old maid. She refused to marry and enjoyed living in isolation. While she had several flings with some of the men in her life, she was never interested in settling down with them. This alone made her a scandalous figure in mid-19th century America, a time when women were expected to be doting wives, mothers, and daughters. However, in Dickinson, this narrative is given a 21st century makeover. Emily is portrayed not as an isolated eccentric, but as a complicated and passionate individual, who’s lifestyle and sexual interests pit her against the rest of society during her time. Emily (who is played by Hailee Steinfeld) drinks, curses, and is emotionally turbulent. She is constantly rejecting the 19th century traditions that inhibit her, particularly as she enters a complicated and volatile affair with her sister in law, Sue (played by Ella Hunt).
While Emily’s affair with Sue had been well documented, particularly through letters of correspondence between the pair, history had decided to neglect this aspect of the author’s identity, downplaying the extent of their relationship and the ways in which it affected Emily’s writing. In Dickinson, however, the relationship becomes a pivotal component in understanding Emily herself, as well as the many passionate and emotional poems that she authored. Each episode is based off of a different Dickinson poem, and each adds a new dimension of vulnerability to the brief prose that the author engendered.
But this alone is not entirely what makes the show so special. As a period piece, the television show feels high brow at surface level. The characters are all adorned in 19th century garments, ride horse drawn carriages, and express concern about the impending civil war. However, the dialogue and the soundtrack feels intrinsically modern, full of present day slang and trap music. The result of this is a timeless examination of adolescence, a fantastic fusion of the 21st and 19th centuries, each playing homage to one another.
For example, in the third episode of the first season, Emily and her friends decide to throw a party after their parents go out of town. The episode quickly feels more like a fever dream, as the characters become intoxicated with opium and shots of brandy, and are soon twerking to rap music in their top hats and corsets. In another episode, Emily and all of her friends are engrossed in the Charles Dickens novel, Bleak House, which came out in 1852. The characters talk about the Victorian novel as though it is one of their favorite soap dramas (which it kind of was back in the 19th century). At one point, Emily’s brother Austin (played by Adrian Blake Enscoe) is asked if he’s been reading the novel, to which he responds, “Oh yeah, I am mainlining that sh*t!” So regardless of whether or not you are a fan of literature, or even historical dramas, Dickinson feels so fresh and unique that it is definitely worth the watch. With her 21st century incarnation, it becomes clear that while Emily Dickinson may not have fit in during the 19th century—but her fiery, volatile attitude would’ve definitely been appreciated now. Emily Dickinson was not a crazy eccentric. She was a woman who was ahead of her time— a hundred and fifty years ahead.