On Feb. 9, as part of the Levy Lecture Series, storyteller and actress Paddy Lynn presented her interpretation of “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman play by William Luce about the American poet Emily Dickinson.
Ms. Lynn’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson was a portion of the original play, but it was more than enough to get a sense of the poet’s sensitivity, devotion to family, and her incessant need to express herself through personal correspondence and poetry.
As Emily Dickinson, Ms. Lynn provided a nuanced and heartfelt countenance in spite of being limited to the smallish screen necessitated by Zoom.
The Levy audience learned of the poet’s family life — her parents and unmarried younger sister, Lavinia, with whom she lived; her brother, Austin, and close friend and sister-in-law, Susan, who lived in a home behind the main Dickinson home; and Thomas Higginson, a literary critic, with whom the poet corresponded for nearly 25 years.
Emily is in love with words. She thinks about them, believes there are “right” words to use for specific poems, and speaks of them with affection. She was a highly regarded baker and gardener, in fact any local fame she had in Amherst was based on her baking and horticulture skills rather than her poetry. During her lifetime, only seven of her poems were published, each of them without her name; she preferred anonymity.
During the play, dialogue was directed toward the “visitors” who have come to meet with her, interspersed with spoken poetry and the poet’s private, internal musings. We see a nervous Emily pacing in her family’s parlor shortly before meeting her editorial friend, Mr. Higginson, for the first time. She practices how she will greet him while trying to mask her excitement. She wants to appear mature, calm, perhaps even sophisticated. She anticipates his excitement and enthusiasm about her poems, and goes as far as to assume he will want many more to publish in multiple volumes.
The planned introduction seems to bode well … until it doesn’t.
But her actual greeting, as conveyed in this dramatization, is overly excited and hardly allows her guest to utter a word in response. The viewer feels both drained by her intensity and embarrassed for Emily. Further, Emily is crushed by Mr. Higginson’s editorial suggestions and immediately squashes them without serious consideration. Mr. Higginson found her to be exhausting and admitted as much to his wife when he returned from his trip to Amherst, telling her, “I am glad not to live near her.”
At the conclusion of the performance, Ms. Lynn appeared and was delighted to answer many questions from the crowd about Emily, a woman Ms. Lynn clearly regards as a well-loved friend. Ms. Lynn has been portraying Emily for nearly two decades, read many books about her, studied her poetry, and visited her family home in Amherst. She deftly and enthusiastically answered questions on every topic related to Emily including (but not limited to) Emily’s decision to isolate herself at home, Emily’s emotional makeup, whether Emily had any sort of a romantic life, the differing relationships Emily had with her father and mother, and Emily’s close friendship with Susan, the woman who became her sister-in-law.
After Emily’s death, her family discovered a cache of more than 1,700 poems, most without titles and dates. Emily left directions for Livinia to burn all of them, which fortunately her sister did not follow. Livinia and Susan tried to organize the poems in order to be able to submit them to a publisher, but they could not get their arms around the sheer volume of work. Eventually Lavinia entrusted Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd, a family friend (and mistress of their married brother, Austin Dickinson) and Mr. Higginson, with whom Emily had corresponded for years, to organize and publish the poems. They did, but also made (unintended, from Emily’s point of view) alterations to Emily’s work, revisions that were not rectified until many years later.
Many in the Levy audience were so enamored of Ms. Lynn’s performance that they professed to be inspired to read (or re-read) Emily’s poetry. Readers interested in watching Ms. Lynn embody Emily will find it on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.