Say hello to Emily Dickinson, who is here to party like it’s the mid-1800s. At least that’s the vibe the new Apple TV+ series, Dickinson, is going for because they’re giving us an untold story about Emily’s early years in life. Like, how she frequently rebelled, had a secret girlfriend, fought the patriarchy, and went on carriage ride-dates with Death himself.
The series, which stars Hailee Steinfeld as the titular Dickinson, is certainly based on fact, but a whole lot of fiction has come into play, too. For one, much of Dickinson's life was filled with more death and tragedy that it was Lizzo and Billie Eilish songs. But looking back at the timeline of her life, things are a bit spotty. Dickinson only achieved fame after her death, when over a thousand of her poems finally saw the light of day. Considering that she wasn’t a figure of note during her lifetime — and the fact that she removed herself from society for the later half of her life — there’s not a ton of concrete evidence to go off of when it comes to what she was like and how she lived, but there letters. Loads and loads of letters.
While Dickinson solely focuses on Emily’s time as a young woman, the full timeline of her life from birth to death means the series could run for seasons and seasons — it just might have to take a much darker turn. Here it is, the life and (somewhat dark) times of one Emily Dickinson:
December 10, 1830: Emily Dickinson Is Born
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson is born in Amherst, Massachusetts to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson (yes, she and her mother have the same name). Emily already has an older brother, Austin, who is already a year old.
Three years later, on February 28, 1833, Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia, is born.
Fall 1840: Emily Dickinson Starts School
Emily and Lavinia both enrol in Amherst Academy together, which had recently been converted from an all-boys school. Around this same time, Emily’s family move to a brand new house on North Pleasant Street and it just so happened to overlook a nearby cemetery. This would become important later, so let's put a pin in that.
April 1844: Emily Dickinson's Cousin Dies
One of Emily’s cousins, Sophia Holland, dies from typhus. Emily — who is 13 at the time — is deeply shaken by her death. She begins writing about death and is so distraught over it that her family sends her away to Boston to live for a time being while she recovers.
1845-1846: Emily Dickinson Gets Sick
Emily’s childhood was dotted with illnesses which meant that she was frequently absent. The longest one of these stretches lasted for several terms between the years 1845 and 1946 when, in total, she only attended school for 11 weeks.
August 10, 1847: Emily Dickinson Goes To "College"
Emily graduates from Amherst Academy (though it wasn’t necessarily called “graduation” at the time). Before this, she becomes friendly with the school’s new principal, Leonard Humphrey, who is only a few years older than she is. Emily later enrols at the nearby all-girls Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which is now Mount Holyoke College). Emily only stayed at the Seminary for 10 months, and on March 25, 1848 her older brother Austin arrived to bring her home.
Fall 1849: Emily Dickinson Gets A Dog, Carlo
Mr. Dickinson gifts Emily a dog, which was supposedly a Newfoundland. Emily names the dog “Carlo” after the dog in Jane Eyre. Carlo quickly becomes a staple in Emily’s life, and also her poetry as he’s referenced often. He also becomes one of her few long-standing companions during her walks around town.
1850: Emily Dickinson Becomes Depressed
Her friend, and former principal, Humphrey dies suddenly at the age of 25. After struggling with the death of her cousin earlier in life, this blow sends Emily into a deep depression.
February 20, 1852: Emily Dickinson's First Poem Is Published
Emily’s first piece of poetry is published in The Springfield Daily Republican, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which translates to "Thus passes the glory of the world" in Latin. The poem, which serves as a parody of Emily's education, is quite long, but here's a taste:
"Mortality is fatal—
Gentility is fine,
Gentility is fine,
1855: Emily Dickinson's Mother Gets Sick
For the first time in her life, at age 35, Emily travels outside of Massachusetts with her mother and sister to visit her father in Washington D.C. (where he’s serving as a congressman), and later stop in Philadelphia to visit family. Upon returning home, her mother falls ill and is bedridden on and off and Emily is left to care for her.
July 1, 1856: Emily Dickinson's Brother Marries Her... "Friend"
Austin marries one of Emily’s friends, Sue Gilbert, whom Dickinson and some scholars argue was Emily's secret lover. Though Austin and Sue contemplate moving out west to be closer to some of Sue’s family, they instead stay in Amherst because Mr. Dickinson makes Austin a partner at his law firm. He also builds a house for the new couple right next to the Dickinson home.
Sue is also one of Emily’s closest confidants, and over the course of her life, she’ll send her over 300 letters. Though it's never been confirmed, lots of evidence points to Emily and Sue possibly having a romantic relationship.
Summer of 1858: Emily Dickinson Publishes More Poems
Emily starts making actual copies of her poetry and writing. Looking back at all the things she’s written, whether to herself or others, she begins to actually collect them into books, in total somewhere over 800 poems. But, they won’t be discovered until after her death.
Throughout 1858 and beyond, her poetry begins to appear in The Springfield Republican, but they her verses were published anonymously and were heavily edited.
April 1862: Emily Dickinson Writes To Thomas Wentworth Higginson
It's around this time that Emily is introduced to the writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson; she writes to him asking for criticism on her own poems. The two strike up a formal correspondence and Emily later tells him that he “saved her life” after they started writing. Later, in 1870, after years of corresponding, Emily and Higginson finally meet. He later explains that "Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her”
January 1866: Emily Dickinson's Dog Dies
After 16 years of companionship, Carlo the dog dies. Emily never gets another dog.
This is also about the time that Emily stops leaving the house more and more, instead choosing to remain inside and establishing her historial reputation as a recluse. In the late 1860s, Emily travels to Boston a few times for an eye condition, which is now thought to be iritis. These trips are her last ones outside of Amherst.
1867: Emily Dickinson Becomes A "Recluse"
Though she always tended to keep to herself, Emily really begins to withdraw from society at this time choosing to remain inside, behind closed doors — literally. When others would come to visit with her, it was said that she would communicate with them from the backside of her door, refusing to speak face-to-face. If she did go out around town she would dress all in white, and became known as the “Woman in White.”
June 16, 1874: Emily Dickinson's Father Dies
While traveling in Boston for business, Mr. Dickinson has a stroke and dies. The funeral is later held at the Dickinson house, but Emily doesn’t attend. Instead, she stays upstairs in her room and listens to it from afar.
June 15, 1875: Emily Dickinson's Mother Nearly Dies
Mrs. Dickinson suffers a stroke and lives. However, she is left partly paralysed and her memory is impaired. A few year later, on November 14, 1882, Mrs. Dickinson dies.
1882: Emily Dickinson's Brother Distances Himself From The Family
1882: Austin falls in love with a woman from Amherst College, Mabel Loomis Todd, and started a pretty obvious affair with her and later distanced himself from the Dickinson family.
1883: Emily Dickinson's Nephew Dies
1883: Austin and Sue’s son, Gilbert, dies of typhoid fever. This affects Emily greatly as it’s known that he was always her favorite nephew.
March 1884: Emily Dickinson's Friend Dies
A little backstory on this one: around 1872, the Dickinson family befriends a judge, Otis Phillips Lord, and he and Emily become friends. In 1877, Judge Lord’s wife dies, and it’s believed that he and Emily began a romantic relationship. Many believe their correspondence to be destroyed so there’s not a lot of proof to back that claim up, but the story stuck. And when Judge Otis dies in 1884, Emily is once again distraught over the death of a close friend.
May 15, 1886: Emily Dickinson Dies
After previously being confined to her bed, Emily dies in 1886. At the time, her doctor cites her cause of death as Bright's disease — a kidney disease, which plagued her for the last years of her life.
At her funeral, one of her poems is read: “Morns like these, we parted; Noons like these, she rose; Fluttering first, then firmer, To her fair repose.” Higginson attended her funeral and read a poem by Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine.”
1890: Emily Dickinson's Sister Publishes Her Poems
Lavinia discovers Emily’s poetry books in her room and has them published. Emily had actually mentioned these books before her passing and asked that they all be destroyed after her death. Clearly, to the delight of English professors everywhere, Lavinia had other plans.
In November 1890, the first collection of Emily’s poetry, titled Poems, is published. The collection is heavily edited, mostly to fall in line with punctuation and capitalisation style at the time, and it becomes the poetry we know and love today.