Was Emily Dickinson Gay? Honestly We 'Hope' So

The Apple TV+ show 'Dickinson' is showing the world a queer Emily, but how accurate is it? Was Emily Dickinson Gay? Here's what we know.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Nov. 6 2021, Published 10:03 a.m. ET

Hailee Stenifeld as Emily Dickinson
Source: Apple TV+

In Emily Dickinson's most famous poem, "Hope" is the thing with feathers, she wrote that hope "perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops, at all." You could interpret this in any number of ways, one of which is Emily's desire to be able to live her life authentically, never giving up hope that it would happen someday. Dickinson, on Apple TV+, gives us a glimpse into teenage Emily, and explores her queerness in a new way. Was Emily Dickinson gay? We hope so.

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Was Emily Dickinson gay?

Perhaps it's best to let Emily answer this question in her own words, from one of the many letters she wrote the love of her life, Susan Gilbert. To Susan she said, "To own a Susan of my own, Is of itself a Bliss —Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord, Continue me in this!" In August 1850 in Massachusetts, a then 19 year-old Emily met Susan Gilbert, who was only nine days younger than her. Eventually Susan would become her best friend, lover, mentor and muse.

Emily Dickinson
Source: Library of America
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In the fall of 1851, Susan accepted a position as a teacher in Baltimore, where she would stay for 10 months. This devastating separation is what birthed the passionate letters between the two women. Unfortunately, Susan was also the object of desire for Emily's brother Austin. While Emily is sending Susan letters filled with professions and teasing, Austin is earnestly courting her. Emily, understanding she could never be with Susan, delivered Austin's letters to her. It was quite the ruse.

In March 1853, Emily and Austin get engaged. While Austin is away at law school, Emily mocks him in letter form, her favorite medium. In Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan, she wrote to her brother, "Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I am something of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love [S]us[ie] just as well as we can." It reads like acceptance and heartbreak.

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Susan Gilbert
Source: Valley City Blog

Who was Susan Gilbert?

Beyond being caught in a love triangle between the two Dickinsons, Susan Gilbert was a fully formed human in her own right. She ended up in Amherst, Mass. after graduating from Utica Female Academy, which was one of the few educational institutions available to women. When she met both Emily and Austin, she was dressed in black because her sister had just died in childbirth.

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Susan was also a poet. While the opening lines of I'm waiting but she comes not back could be about anyone, the 40 year relationship between Emily and Susan creates quite the argument for Emily being the muse here. Susan wrote, "I'm waiting but she comes not back. I fondly call thro all the fragrant days. I wonder much the loss of her sweet courtesy. Such strange forsaking of her gracious ways."

Source: Twitter/@alltowll

The Emily Dickinson Museum describes Susan as a, "vivacious, intelligent, and cultivated woman, a great reader, a sparkling conversationalist, and a book collector of wide-ranging interests." You can see why Emily fell in love with her, and why finally seeing a fictionalized version of their relationship in Dickinson, is so important. The time for hope is finally over.

The first three episodes of Dickinson Season 3 will premiere on Nov. 4 at 9 p.m. EST, with new episodes airing Fridays on Apple TV+.

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