[Image description: A top-bottom meme-formatted image shows two shots from last night’s episode of Dickinson. The top features Sylvia Plath (Chloe Fineman) in a red bandeau headband, discussing mythologies of Emily Dickinson’s life. The bottom is Emily Dickinson (Hailey Steinfeld) and Lavinia Dickinson (Anna Baryshnikov) staring at her in disbelief.]
Yes, Emily, we do need to talk about it. (I'm inserting myself into the "we," too. Hope that's ok :). Got strong feelings and deep thoughts about this one.)
I winced my way through the episode after reading your post. It was painful. Not just because of the show's casual relationship with truth and geography and the like. But because, like you, I'm tired of seeing Plath so badly misrepresented in pop culture. Especially on a show that claims to correct enduring misrepresentations of a major woman poet. Especially, especially on an episode that explores how that poet's mythology overshadows her work and distorts how she's perceived by future readers. I can't think of ANY American poet (dear Emily included) whose popular mythology has done more damage to her critical and academic reputation than Plath. The irony cuts deep. (My thumb instead of an onion.)
I was curious about the backstory and found an interview with the showrunner in The Hollywood Reporter where she gives some context to the episode: When she travels to the future, "[Dickinson is] confronted with the fact that [...] she is deeply misunderstood and mischaracterized within this myth, that of course our show has been about breaking apart and dismantling, that Emily was this depressive spinster who wasted away out of unrequited love for a man.” The episode attempts to counter that myth by contrasting Dickinson with Plath, explains the showrunner. “I felt that there’s this misconstrual of Emily being someone just like Sylvia who was probably suicidal and died young, but none of that is true about Emily. Emily actually lived a long, contented life and created this phenomenal body of work and passed away as we all do when the time comes.”
Say what? Does she know ANYTHING about Plath?
What a spectacular missed opportunity. As you point out, there's a kinship between these two poets. There are so many wild, strange and actually tragic ties that bind them--their linguistic boldness; their wicked humor; their craftswomanship; the way they didn't get a say in what happened to the poems they left behind when they died; how their words were altered, bowdlerized and manhandled by those they trusted most; how their critical reputations were constructed posthumously by (white, male) critics with agendas of their own; how the narrators of their poems subverted the deeply sexist (white, male) poetic traditions that bound them, giving voice to silenced women, burning down the "Master's" house and rising from the ashes like queens; how they wrote some of the most enduring, powerful poetry in our canon, but we still see them as the meek ghost in white haunting her father's attic and the mad girl stuck in her father's boot--just a couple of dead girls. I once wrote a whole master's thesis on these connections, and I can assure you: If the show wanted to bust some myths and give these two some much-deserved poetic justice it could have.
But it didn't. It confirmed the stale, old Plath tropes instead. Why? Why use Plath as Dickinson's foil instead of her mirror? Why think the only way to dismantle Dickinson's myth is to reinforce Plath's? Why not take the advice of your own lead character, "Dickinson"'s Dickinson, who wonders in the episode: "Why are we talking about her private life? Shouldn't we be talking about her poems?" And if the show insists on biography over poetry (WHY?), why cast Plath as a silly teenage poet? Why not show Plath-the-mom, weary-eyed but single-minded, rising before dawn to write while the children slept and the milk boiled and scummed in the pantry, "iron-eyed and beaked and purposed as a bird, / dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life"? The one who wintered in a dark without window and survived to taste the spring. This is the Plath I know and love. Why not her? FFS, why is it never her??
One last thing: In my research I remember reading that Aurelia kept a volume of Dickinson's poems in the house when Plath was growing up. Aurelia called it her Bible. Popular readings tend to focus on how Plath's relationship with her father (or Ted) shaped her. What about Aurelia's influence? I'm not going to fall into the biography trap but I do wonder if Dickinson meant something to Plath. I'll never know for sure and that's ok. I don't have to. I can feel it when I read Plath's poetry. I sense the ties that bind them. Sometimes I just wish others could see them too.
Thanks for illuminating some of them in this post and for all your work on Plath. I can't wait to read your book!