Susan knows she is a Siren

Hi, folks,

Here are some things I read, listened, or watched this past week. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Weeks 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |


Week 8- ♦07♦

Short story: “Souls Belated”, by Edith Wharton (The Greater Inclination, 1899)

This is Wharton in her element: a story where the characters must choose either to renounce freedom and play by the rules, or to afford to be thrown out of society. Either way, they know they will not be happy.

As the story opens, two lovers, Lydia and Gannett, are on a train somewhere in Italy. The train seems to be taking them away from something, but it is also leading them nowhere concrete. Worse, they seem to be tiptoeing around a difficult subject: Lydia is married, has eloped with Garnett, and her husband has now asked for a divorce.


She loves Gannett and knows they cannot be accepted by society unless they get married – but, still, she is determined not to play by the rules, and does not want to get married just for the sake of appearances. “Her sensitiveness on this point was aggravated by another fear, the fear of unwillingly involving Gannett in the trammels of her dependence. To look upon him as the instrument of her liberation; to resist in herself the least tendency of a wifely taking possession of his future; had seemed to Lydia the one way of maintaining the dignity of their relation.

She considers that, in their case, marriage would be just another form of deception; and their attempt to flout the conventions of upper-class society would be their only true form of freedom: “Our being together is a protest against the sacrifice of the individual to the family.”

At one point, Lydia says: “Do you know, I begin to see what marriage is for.  It’s to keep people away from each other. Sometimes I think that two people who love each other can be saved from madness only by the things that come between them-children, duties, visits, bores, relations-the things that protect married people from each other. We’ve been too close together-that has been our sin. We’ve seen the nakedness of each other’s souls.”

When they arrive at a resort on their way to Switzerland, they start to play at passing as a proper married couple, so as not to risk being ostracized. One day, Lydia is approached by another guest, a woman who has guessed at her secret and decided to threaten our protagonist. This guest shares Lydia’s improper situation – she, too, has eloped on an illicit love affair of her own. By blackmailing Lydia, this guest seems to be holding up a mirror at our protagonist’s face: “‘Oh, do you see the full derision of it?  These people–the very prototypes of the bores you took me away from, with the same fenced-in view of life, the same keep-off-the-grass morality, the same little cautious virtues and the same little frightened vices–well, I’ve clung to them, I’ve delighted in them, I’ve done my best to please them’.

Lydia is met with the full force of her own hypocrisy: she wants to live by her own principles, while, at the same time, never risking to be thrown out of society; she wants to be able to live with her lover, but knows that the only acceptable way to do so – by socially enforced marriage – would destroy the very thing which she valued in their relationship – their freedom, from each other and from society. While she questions and rejects the repressive norms of her society, she also inescapably internalized them: in order to fit in, Lydia is constantly re-affirming the norms she despises.

Lydia wants to be coherent with her own values, but such coherence would also demand from her the renunciation of happiness. Can one ever break free from social constraints? How much of one’s individuality is formed by such constraints? “It may be necessary that the world should be ruled by conventions-but if we believed in them, why did we break through them? And if we don’t believe in them, is it honest to take advantage of the protection they afford?”

My rating: ★★★★★


 Album: “Jekyll/Hyde, by Your Friend (Taryn Blake, 2014)”

  • Spectral, atmospheric,  guitar-driven indie.
  • Length: 27:48
  • My rating: ★★★★☆
  • Favourite songs: Tame One, Bangs
  • Lyrics:

“Oh, tame one,who are you holding words for?
Oh, maimed one, who are you holding out for?” Tame One

“Fold in my older house
Feeling for a roof
I was the older one
Standing like soot

I could’ve told from where I was
That you wouldn’t fold for anyone
With shoulders and back
I was afraid to put it all on
But you use your words
You held my arms as if they were yours

Where the bark breathes
And the leaves sing
Feel its heat
Last wind sweep” Peach


Films: Wild Nights With Emily, by Madeleine Olnek (2018, IMDb)

& A Quiet Passion, by Terence Davies (2016, IMDb)


Western writing over the centuries is from one angle a kind of derealization machine: insert the lesbian and watch her disappear’’, writes Terry Castle in The apparitional lesbian: Female homosexuality and modern culture (1993). If you say ‘lesbian’, when talking about canonical writers, you may risk to be closeted by a barrage of well-established subterfuges: “lonely spinster”, “sexless recluse”, “tormented genius” – the list is long.

The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951), where Rebecca Patterson emphasized the importance of Kate Turner to Dickinson, was met with derision by the critics at the time of its publication. More recently, in Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992), Martha Nell Smith argued that the 40-year relationship between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert was a lesbian relationship.  In the late 1990’s, when talking about Emily Dickinson, Harold Bloom ascribed the research about Susan Gilbert to a queer-studies agenda: “I don’t think Emily ever wrote a sincere letter in her life“, he said.

Dickinson left hundreds of handwritten letters, a third of them to Susan Gilbert, her sister-in-law. In mid-June 1878, Emily wrote to Susan the following note: ”Susan knows / she is a Siren — / and that at a / word from her, / Emily would / forfeit Righteousness — .” Most of the references to Sue were erased by her family in the process of editing Emily’s work after her death. By studying impressions on the backs of the originals, and by taking high-quality photographic images of the letters with the use of infrared light and computer-imaging software, Martha Nell Smith tried to uncover the obliterations and erasures, and was even able to determined that eleven of Dickinson’s poems were originally dedicated to Susan. The result of her research can be read in the book Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (1998).

Two recent films take up the subject of Dickinson’s life: A Quiet Passion, by Terence Davies (2016) and Wild Nights With Emily, by Madeleine Olnek (2018). The clash between Quiet & Wild in their titles can be a key to their different approaches to the topic. While Davies has a more deferential take on Dickinson, and never strays from the traditional scholarship on her, Olnek chooses a more irreverent portrayal of the poet, based on a new line of research developed in the late 1990’s.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

The Emily Dickinson we find in A Quiet Passion (2016) is an eccentric free-thinker who does not shy away from engaging in spirited conversation. She had a mind of her own, and refused to stick to the strict rules of her time. At the same time, she is a shy recluse troubled by loneliness, and a misunderstood genius. We follow her from her childhood to her death, and the episodes in her life are sometimes stressed by her poems, read by a voice-over. While Cynthia Nixon does a creditable job as a somewhat restrained Emily, the script is uneven (and boring), and the direction is stagy.

The dialogue is stilted and melodramatic, and the script fails to convey Emily’s wit and her joy in life: she is depicted as a thoroughly sexless, deeply tormented woman. Worse still, the script compromises truth in depicting Emily’s sister-in-law Susan not as the old friend she certainly was, but as a stranger introduced to the family after her marriage with Emily’s brother. Dickinson also never met her brother’s mistress, Mabel Todd, and never caught them together, as suggested by the film.

Davies’ take on Dickinson seems carefully tailored to fit the prejudices many readers still nurture about her, as well as the tamed image by which she was canonised among early 20th-century literary critics. In short: this biopic not only distorted important facts in the poet’s life, by also managed to be everything that Emily wasn’t: dull, slow, inaccurate, and pretentious. It trivializes her poetry and her life – but, perhaps, it will not be met with derision by critics who are much afraid of the way their image of Dickinson might change by the idea that she may in fact have written sincere letters.

Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily (2018), on the other hand, is a slap on the face of this line of interpretation. It is sharp, fresh, irreverent, and full of light. Olnek narrates Emily’s life in a fragmented way, going back and forth between scenes in the present and past, and contraposing real events and the way they were interpreted after the poet’s death.

Running in parallel to the carefully edited (and chaste) version narrated by Mabel Todd (the woman who carried out the posthumous publication of Dickinson’s poems), we have scenes of Emily and Susan in love, talking about poetry, having fun, going to parties, laughing at one another. And the things Mabel says don’t always correspond to what we see on screen – a narrative choice that manages to throw a sharp light on the way important aspects of the poet’s life and work were erased to fit a particular sensibility (and continue to be erased to this day).

In an interview about the movie, Olnek says: “This was a hard story to uncover, because obviously women’s history is deeply buried. History between women is even more deeply buried. And in a situation of women in love with each other, the people themselves are obviously hiding it because they had to. (…) Part of the important historical corrective is it’s as important to understand that she had a full life with loving relationships as it is to understand that she was not content to hide her work away. She was sending it out and trying to get recognized as a writer. (…) She’s been held up as a fake role model: Women, just bide your time, don’t ask for anything, and you can die and be recognized after death, just like Emily Dickinson. And that’s all been just a load of bunk.”

Olnek’s film makes large use of Dickinson’s letters and of Smith’s line of research. The Emily Dickinson we find in Wild Nights is not a melancholic recluse, dressed in white like an apparition, and tormented by depression and talent. Quite the opposite: Olnek peels back the many layers of the commonly-held myths about Dickinson, and her Emily is a lively, passionate, witty woman who could be ruthless in her choice to live her life on her own terms. While her private nature is seen as a form of weakness and deprivation in Davies’ version, in Olnek’s it is depicted as a form of strength and personal fulfilment: as a calculated choice regarding the best way to dedicate her time to writing (and to Susan).

While Davies follows the overtly explored (male) trope of female victimization and sacrifice, Olnek flips this perspective upside down and focuses on female agency. Commenting on Davies’ movie version, Smith said: “Davies’s fixed idea about Emily is that she was writing out of lack. The record shows that she was writing out of abundance.”

Olnek’s version, on the other hand, plays with our preconceived ideas about Dickinson, and we are carried along by the undercurrent of irony between what we see on screen and what we hear of Emily’s life by Todd. In Olnek’s version, Emily wants to be published, finds fulfilment in writing, and loves a woman. She scribbles poems on scraps of paper next to recipes for gingerbread, and keeps crumpled drafts on her apron (and hair). In Olnek’s version, Emily is funny, Emily is queer, Emily is hiding in plain sight.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

  • Running time: 1h24min
  • My rating: ★☆☆☆☆
  • Favourite scene: the opening scene, where young Emily is departing the boarding school


Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

  • Running time: 1h24min
  • My rating: ★★★★☆
  • Favourite scenes: The death scene, with images of the couple on a beach, while the poem “I Died for Beauty” is read on voice over; the final scene, where Sue washes Emily’s dead body, while we hear the sound of an eraser scrubbing on paper, as Mabel Todd is adulterating Emily’s letters and poems.

That’s all for now, folks. What have you been reading/ listening/ watching this week? Tell me about it.

Yours truly,


Abbott Handerson Thayer. The Sisters, 1884.

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