Imagine a period piece about the life of Emily Dickinson. Yes, the one that developed agoraphobia and never left her house for the latter part of her life. Great. Now add Billie Eilish’s music as a soundtrack. Surprisingly, it works.

Apple TV+ new series “Dickinson” is a brave take on the early life of Emily Dickinson. In a way, it is exactly like a young adult show, but one that takes place a couple of centuries ago. Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is the millennial hero we didn’t know we needed.

“Dickinson” is focused on the life of a young female LGTBQ+ aspiring poet in 19th-century America

The most important thing about the show is that it doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s a funny, irreverent, dramatic, witty take on the life of a poet we all thought we knew.

Dickinson‘s Emily is far away from the woman that never left her house and wrote poems about Death that we know from our English classes. However, all the elements for her to become that are still present.

This show introduces us to a young teenage Emily who defies everyone’s expectations, even our own. She wants to be a writer, but she’s not allowed to. She is also in love with her brother’s fiancée, a secret no one can find out about.

I will be the first to admit that Emily’s character can be annoying at times and even self-centered at others. Despite living a privileged life, she doesn’t want to contribute to the house chores and goes on about how hard her life is. But, honestly, what teenager doesn’t do that?

All of our heroes were, at some point, teenagers.

This show did a great job of portraying a more real and relatable Emily Dickinson. After all, all of our heroes have at some point been teenagers. All of them had made mistakes. Emily’s personality allows for a more approachable show, that is not meant to be a documentary about the renowned poet, but a fun interpretation of the life of a young female LGTBQIA+ aspiring poet in 19th-century America.

I was incredibly pleased to see the portrayal of the relationship between Emily and Sue – her lover Susan Gilbert, played by Ella Hunt. It is rare enough to have a gay protagonist in a TV show. However, it is more so for this protagonist to be based on a famous historical figure.

Emily and Sue’s relationship isn’t a fiction made up by the author but based on real research about the poet’s life. Lilian Faderman has published a study on Emily Dickinson’s poems where she stresses that approximately 40 poems in the writer’s poetry canon appear to be love lyrics written for and about women. Other studies have also stressed Emily’s relationships, supporting the belief that she maintained a romantic relationship with at least two women: Susan Gilbert and Kate Scott Turner.

[Image description: two young girls kissing. One wears a white dress and long hair and the other one has an up-do and a black dress] via Apple TV+.
[Image description: Still from Dickinson. Two young girls kissing. One wears a white dress and long hair and the other one has an up-do and a black dress] via Apple TV+.
Nonetheless, a full study is not necessary to understand the nature of Emily and Sue’s relationship. The letters that they sent to each other speak for themselves.

“Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast — I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday… Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon — and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him.”  Emily wrote Sue in a letter dated June 1852.

The letters that Sue and Emily exchanged are clear proof of their love for one another.

It amazing not only to have representation in media but also to shed light on historical people that have been part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The series takes creative liberties to connect the 1850s with today’s world. This is obvious in the language, in the dances, and, of course, in the musical choices. Although anachronical, these additions brig life into the series, and a new meaning to the topics that it discusses.

Moreover, although the visuals and the addition of the character of Death (played by Wiz Khalifa) can seem dramatic or over the top, they work to give the audience a sense of Dickinson’s poetry and the issues that she kept coming back to. Yes, she is obsessed with death, but she was so in real life. The addition of these scenes and effects are, at the end of the day, useful to not lose sight of the real person and her poetry.

This series doesn’t intend to be a deep show. But it is one that challenges our assumptions about historical characters that we have been taught to admire.

Moreover, it is one that dares to look at Emily Dickinson as what she might have been had she lived today, how she might have behaved in private, away from the expectations that the 1850s placed upon her.

  • Beatriz Valero de Urquía

    Beatriz Valero de Urquia is a historian, writer and journalist. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, listening to musicals and writing her first novel.