Widely regarded scholars of American literature and particularly impassioned English majors alike have long alleged that, far from being a loveless, awkward recluse, Emily Dickinson actually carried on a torrid affair with Susan Gilbert that began when they were teens and continued long after Gilbert married Dickinson’s brother. A new film, starring Molly Shannon as the eccentric poet, upholds this thesis, detailing the forbidden romance and its impact on Dickinson’s work.
The first trailer for the irreverent Wild Nights With Emily—the title a reference to Dickinson’s short poem “Wild nights—Wild nights!”—was released Thursday, and shows Shannon and Dana Melanie as older and younger iterations of Dickinson, respectively, carrying on that illicit romance with Gilbert (Sasha Frolova and Susan Ziegler, chronologically), comprising years of secret makeouts, stolen glances, and passionate letters. Though unable to take the true nature of their relationship public, Gilbert had a very visible influence on Dickinson’s work—even as her name is seen being scrubbed out of Dickinson’s most revealing letters—and also offers some very valid reasoning for why so few of Dickinson’s hundreds of poems were published while she was still alive: When author Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) criticizes her innovative style and progressive subject matter, Gilbert assures her that it’s not her work that’s the issue, but a maddening case of misogyny.
The story is narrated by Mabel Loomis Todd, played by Amy Seimetz, who’s shown to be giving a lecture to a rapt crowd about her supposed friendship with Dickinson. In fact, they never actually met, and during Dickinson’s life, Todd struck up an affair with Gilbert’s husband, Dickinson’s brother, all but tearing the family apart. Later, however, Todd took it upon herself to publish volumes of Dickinson’s previously unseen poems, freely altering them as she saw fit. So, Wild Nights With Emily is a film based on rumors, told by an unreliable narrator, and starring the hilarious Molly Shannon—in short, a cinematic masterpiece sure to get literary scholars up in arms.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shannon discussed the importance of updating Dickinson’s reputation with the film, which debuted at the SXSW festival last year to critical acclaim, and arrives in theaters on April 12. “She’s perceived as a spinster recluse who wanted her poems burned upon death,” she said. “That story was fabricated…She was a lively woman who 100 percent wanted to be published and went up against big men at the head of literary journals, [while] she had a love life—with her brother’s wife.”
Related: Molly Shannon’s Party Etiquette