When the trailer dropped for the new AppleTV+ original series Dickinson, it was obvious from the first frame that we would be seeing a version of Emily Dickinson unlike anything we've seen before. As Emily, Hailee Steinfeld channels a rebellious, Gen-Z-like teenager in this coming-of-age story about one of the greatest American poets. The anachronisms (this Dickinson says “dude”) and the fact that Wiz Khalifa (yes, you read that right) plays the personification of Death might make the series feel more like fiction at first glance. But Dickinson does tap into the writer’s real life. It also includes elements of her personal life that you might not have been taught in your 10th grade literature class, including her relationship with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), a character based on the real Susan Huntington Gilbert, Emily's sister-in-law.
As viewers soon learn (approximately 30 minutes into the new series), despite what you may have learned in high school, many historians believe Dickinson was romantically involved with Gilbert. And if you've even glanced at the duo's letters, there is quite a bit of evidence that the woman Dickinson was closely linked to for a majority of her life was more than just her friend.
The Emily Dickinson Museum dates the start of Dickinson and Gilbert’s relationship as 1850 and notes that their communication together lasted until the poet died in 1886. It isn’t clear how Dickinson and Gilbert first met, says an excerpt from the book Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, but they soon became integrated into each other’s family circles. Trouble quickly emerged, though, because Dickinson’s brother Austin became interested in Gilbert. While Austin formally courted Gilbert, Dickinson would send her “friend” letters.
Austin and Susan later married in 1856, making Dickinson and Gilbert next door neighbors for nearly three decades (an ideal scenario if the pair were, in fact, secret lovers). Throughout that time, the two shared an intellectual connection.
“In her letters to Susan, Emily frequently refers to the novels she is reading and uses various characters as metaphors or codes to relate her feelings about herself and Susan, and comment about friends, relatives, and literary and political luminaries and events,” Open Me Carefully states. Dickinson also saw Gilbert as a trusted critic and shared her poetry with her during their nearly 40-year relationship. EmilyDickinson.org, which is run by a group of Dickinson scholars, shows that Emily sent more writings to Gilbert than to any other person, totaling about 500 written documents.
In a clip for Apple's biographical dramedy, you can see shades of these letters when Sue says, “Emily, I realized without you I might as well not exist.” Emily lovingly responds, “You really are my favorite person in the world.” This passionate exchange might seem overdramatized, but, archived letters between Dickinson and Gilbert include even more romantic language. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum, later in the poet’s life, she wrote this to Gilbert: “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise.”
Since Dickinson held Gilbert in the highest regard, it isn’t surprising that she shared drafts of poems in their letters. These poems would be later recorded in her manuscript books, and EmilyDickinson.org states that most Dickinson biographers do not believe she commonly shared drafts with anyone else.
The website further states that in Sue's writings, there is evidence that "shows that someone sought to expunge affectionate expressions by Emily to and about Sue.” The missing words from Dickinson and Gilbert’s correspondances could explain why the romantic relationship between the two hasn’t been as widely confirmed or shown. So could a lot of regressive societal forces, for what it's worth.
But this love story has been given some time in the spotlight: It was the focus of the 2018 film Wild Nights with Emily, an unabashedly romantic depiction of the poet, then played by Molly Shannon, and Gilbert. Open Me Carefully author and English professor Martha Nell Smith, who runs EmilyDickinson.org, worked with director Madeleine Olnek to convey this affair after having spent great care working to prove the romantic nature of Dickinson's relationship. The author has endlessly studied Dickinson’s work and argues that the two were lovers; in fact, she chose the purposefully suggestive title of her book from a line written on the outside of letter from Dickinson to Sue.
“I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you. I wrote you many days ago — I wont say many weeks, because it will look sadder so, and then I cannot write — but Susie, it troubles me. I miss you, mourn for you, and walk the Streets alone — often at night, beside, I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from that silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die.”
Is that how you talk to people you're just friends with?
Dickinson and Gilbert were close until the writer’s death, so though the letters end, their relationship does not: Gilbert wrote Emily's obituary that appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886. She ended the article with an excerpt from Emily's poetry:
"How better to note the flight of this 'soul of fire in a shell of pearl' than by her own words? —
Morns like these, we parted;
Noons like these, she rose;
Fluttering first, then firmer,
To her fair repose."
Even in death, Dickinson and Gilbert were linked through their affectionate words for each other. Their love story was just that powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it's now become a steamy, bold teen drama, too.