How accurate is Dickinson, Apple TV+’s coming-of-age comedy?

Oscar-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld and creator Alena Smith talk about the series that puts a 21st-century spin on American poet Emily Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Dickinson (AppleTV +)

American poet Emily Dickinson has been re-imagined in a new ten-part series for Apple TV+ – but just how much does the pop-infused comedy tinker with the truth?

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Dickinson follows the early years of the 19th-century poet, who is played by True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, in a series where painstakingly-sourced period details garnish a story mixing biographical fact with supernatural flights of fancy – and a decidedly modern soundtrack.

“It’s not a direct, straightforward biopic by any means. The show is inspired by her and what we do know about her and her poetry”, Steinfeld told RadioTimes.com. “I think my generation will think of period [series] and think instantly ‘boring’, or ‘black-and-white.’ This is so full of life, and so full of colour.”

The most notable twist on the traditional biopic is that while the poet’s parents and elders speak in the more austere, formal language of the period, these versions of Dickinson and her peers are written exactly like teenagers today – though the series’ playful attitude to historical accuracy doesn’t stop there.

In the first episode, for example, Dickinson sits in a ghostly carriage with Death (literalising her most well-known poem), who is played by American rapper Wiz Khalifa, while the sound of Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” thumps in the background – not the usual material period dramas are fashioned from.

Alena Smith, Dickinson’s creator, said: “The stories on the show come as much from the poems as from the actual facts of her life. So going on a carriage ride with Death isn’t something that actually happened to Emily Dickinson, that we know of, but she wrote so vividly about it in her poems.”

“Almost everything, wherever possible, we were jumping off of a true fact, but sometimes we’re interpreting the fact poetically, or metaphorically.”

Dickinson was unrecognised in her own time, and has achieved posthumous notoriety not just for her masterful poetry, but her extremely reclusive lifestyle in her later years.

Unlike 2016’s A Quiet Passion, in which Cynthia Nixon produced a poignant portrayal of Dickinson as a shut-in suffering from epilepsy, the Apple TV+ series pulls from the poet’s more sociable adolescence.

Smith said that “we have evidence that Emily went to a party. She saved an invitation that her suitor, George Gould, wrote inviting her to a candy pulling. In our show, that becomes like a crazy, wild house party.”

“It was so important to me that the production details – the costumes, the sets, the props – had to be seamlessly historically perfect,” she added, “in order for the dissonance to emerge between the external look of the show and what was going on inside the characters – which is represented through music and language and attitude, basically.”

And although the dialogue is unmistakably modern, many of the plotlines are ripped straight from the pages of history. “There’s an episode where Austin, Emily’s brother, digs up the grave of a dead baby in order to make room for his bride, Sue, to be buried next to him. And that was just a true fact that I came across in the biography, which is completely insane,” Smith said.

Other plotlines are extrapolated from unconfirmed theories about Dickinson – the most significant of these being her romantic relationship with Susan Gilbert, her best friend and sister-in-law (played in the series by Ella Hunt).

While there was no definitive proof of such an affair, many scholars believe this was the case. The pair exchanged hundreds of passionate letters, including one in 1952 with the line: ‘Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me”. Their relationship would become the basis for the 2018 film Wild Nights with Emily. In Dickinson, it is shown to be unequivocally romantic.

The series also shows Dickinson dressing in men’s clothing. Smith notes that although we can’t know whether she actually cross-dressed, “often she takes on a masculine persona, in the voice of her poetry, so I think that’s where I got that idea from”.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” reads the first line of one of Emily Dickinson’s classic poems. It’s a piece of advice taken to heart by Smith and Steinfeld – even though Dickinson is riddled with anachronisms, it still tries to get at the truth behind one of literature’s wildest minds.

Interviews by Huw Fullerton

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Dickinson streams on Apple TV+ from Friday 1st November