It’s Emily Dickinson as you’ve never seen her: Not as the pale, prim girl in her portrait or the reclusive spinster of legend, but as a hot-blooded woman in love . . .
With her sister-in-law.
That, at least, is the poet we meet in “Wild Nights With Emily,” out Friday. Madeleine Olnek’s comedy-drama stars Molly Shannon, whose Dickinson is given to rapturous (if fully clad) canoodling with Susan Gilbert, Emily’s longtime friend and wife of her brother, Austin.
Their robust snogging would put Shannon’s “Saturday Night Live” Mary Katherine Gallagher character into a parochial-plaid-skirted tizzy. But Shannon seems unfazed.
“I didn’t even know Emily left her room, but it made sense that she had so much love in her life,” Shannon tells The Post. “Where else would all of those passionate poems come from?”
Fewer than a dozen, less passionate poems were published, anonymously, in Dickinson’s lifetime. Nearly 1,800 more were discovered after her death, at age 55, in 1886 — along with hundreds of notes and letters addressed to Susan, who lived next door with Austin Dickinson and their children.
Their intellectual and passionate bond, if not overtly sexual, has been written about before. In Judith Farr’s 1992 biography, “The Passion of Emily Dickinson,” the chapter titled “The Narrative of Sue” runs 77 pages. While noting Dickinson’s “lasting and troubled love for her sister-in-law,” Farr stops short of imagining what went on in her bed.
Olnek didn’t. Nor was the filmmaker always a fan: For years, she tells The Post, she steered clear of Dickinson’s poems, repelled by her “creepy” image as a recluse, one who “hid everything she wrote.”
That changed 20 years ago, after she read an article by Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith that showed the poet shared her poems, and possibly much more, with Susan. Olnek believes the family and Mabel Todd — Austin’s mistress, who edited Emily’s manuscripts after her death, producing three volumes of her poetry and two more of letters — promoted the image of Emily as a solitary spinster.
But Dickinson’s letters show her to be a woman of great humor, one who corresponded with men and women alike, and who loved her niece and nephews, two of them played in the film by Shannon’s children, Stella and Nolan Chesnut.
This more-rounded view of the poet is starting to overtake that myth. Cynthia Nixon played her as a spirited and witty intellectual in the 2017 biopic, “A Quiet Passion.” An exhibit that same year at the Morgan Library & Museum gave us a look at her voluminous correspondence, along with a photo of what seems to be the poet with her arm around Kate Turner, who later left for England with a lesbian lover.
“There’s nothing you see on-screen that wasn’t in [Dickinson’s] letters,” Olnek says.
But others believe the writer-director may be taking things too far.
“Until we find a sheaf of letters, ‘Dear Emily, it was so great that we met behind the barn and kissed last week,’ it’s all speculation,” says Mike Kelly, who heads the Emily Dickinson archives at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
He says he doesn’t doubt that their bond was a passionate one, as were so many Victorian-era friendships.
“But I think Emily Dickinson’s great love,” he says, “was literature.”