Wild Nights with Emily Lives Up to Its Name

Molly Shannon -Wild Nights with Emily Review
Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in bed – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Wild Nights with Emily, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, sparks a novel conversation about the supposed spinster-recluse Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is one of the few women in the English language canon, and that she made it to notoriety at all is practically a miracle, as the film makes clear. She wrote almost 1800 poems that we know of. Only ten were published in her lifetime. Hundreds of her letters remain, preserved in a Harvard library, and these letters and poems, along with other primary sources and biographies have their own starring role in the film.

From the first scene, all portraits of Emily the recluse are reframed. Emily, played by comedic genius Molly Shannon, appears to us as joyful, zesty, and most astonishingly, in love. With her sister-in-law.

Dickinson lived beside her sister-in-law,Susan Dickinson, played by Susan Zeigler in the film. They became friends in childhood, and Susan married Emily’s brother Austin. They built a house next door, as Susan tells it, so that she and Emily would always be together.

If you’re shocked by or skeptical about these details about Emily’s life, prepare yourself, because you’re in for a ride. It may seem too big of a leap to speculate about the personal motivations of these long-dead socialites and literary celebrities. But with every new surprise, the movie relies on Dickinson’s letters and poems themselves to bring you back to the story.

“I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens” the film quotes an 1855 letter from Emily to Susan. This Sapphic side may be hard to reconcile with everything you were taught about Emily Dickinson in school. However, the authentic chemistry between Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler makes up for any tenuously suspended disbelief. It is a dramatic story, told with wit, sensuality, and panache that Dickinson, judging by her verse, would definitely endorse.

So often when history does offer romantic friendships for women, they’re sexless. Passionate affairs of the mind, maybe, but certainly not libidinous. But Wild Nights is not here for that narrative. We get to see Emily’s affair with Susan’s longtime friend Kate Scott Anthon (who had a reputation for Sapphic dalliances throughout her life). Turns out the Belle of Amherst was living a brazen lesbian lifestyle. Perhaps she wasn’t a recluse at all, she was just selective about whose company was worth her time. When you hear and see her romantic correspondence with both of these women on screen, it’s suddenly a lot easier to see the double entendre, the flirty, and erotic in her poetry.

Here’s a quote from a bit of correspondence with Susan (it’s not in the film, I just think you’re going to love it as much as I did):

“Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say – my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me; If you were here, and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language – I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes.”

As far as love letters go, it’s not James Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle. But it’s certainly not platonic. In fact, from all available evidence, it’s harder to believe that this relationship did not have a sexual dimension. Wild Nights with Emily will turn your skeptical heart to mush.

In Wild Nights, Susan Dickinson is not just Emily Dickinson’s muse, she is also editor, champion and social liaison, as both women pursue publication for Emily’s poetry. This representation of women’s ambition is another complete diversion from what we are taught about Dickinson: that Literary Greatness happened to her accidentally, after her death. But why would a woman write 1,775 poems for her own amusement?

Emily and Higginson - Reviewing Wild Nights with Emily
Higginson (Brett Gelman) takes a knife to Emily’s (Molly Shannon) poems – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

The film gives Emily Dickinson some dimension after a century of being written about as a sort of paper doll, but it also gives life to a generation of women who gathered to hear and celebrate women’s poetry. While it may have been unseemly in the 19th century for women to publish, nevertheless the film shows the hunger for women’s writing. Readers were desperate for something that spoke to them (and still are).

Mabel Todd collected and published Dickinson’s work after her death. Ambitious in her own right, Todd was eager to edit Dickinson’s poetry and shape the public image of her life and work. It’s from this angle that the movie also deals with the ironic horizontal hostility between women. Todd wants the world to know Emily’s work, but she misrepresents it, imagines she had some influence on it, and even goes so far as to censor it. It’s hard enough attempting to stake a claim in the literary world as a woman. Adding to that any perceived perversion, inversion or otherwise homosexual tendencies would simply be too far, or it would seem from Todd’s perspective. This is a type of passive erasure that lesbians have come to expect from straight women, but it’s a dynamic mirrored in so many oppressed or minority groups. It’s the Lavender Menace response.

We talk a lot here at AfterEllen about female erasure and lesbian erasure, and Wild Nights shows how this played out more explicitly than any feminist theorizing can capture. Dickinson’s poems and letters were literally erased. Susan’s name was erased or crossed out, words and phrases were cut from their pages with a knife. Emily Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith used infrared lighting and computer imaging to scan Dickinson’s letters and see what was originally written before they were tampered with. This and more of her research can be found in her collection of letters from Emily to Susan, Open Me Carefully, and it’s this research that originally inspired the script for Wild Nights.

(Letter/poem from Emily to Sue)
I spilt the dew but took the morn,
I chose this single Star From out
the wide night’s numbers, Sue–
forevermore!
–Emilie.

The film is very different to most of what you encounter in theaters. It is pared down, with natural lighting and spare sound engineering. Some biopics go for lush period costumes and set designs, but this one does not rely on that type of storytelling. Instead, the writing does the heavy lifting. It is clever, moving, dramatic, and at times laugh out loud funny, without ever being self-serious. If you love Molly Shannon but don’t know how she could turn off her Mary Catherine Gallagher, over-the-top, physical humor schtick, this movie will be a real treat. She’s expressive, tender, and I could watch her face all day.

Wild Nights with Emily is out in theaters TODAY!