The Belle of Amherst

views updated

The Belle of Amherst

by William Luce


A play set in the Dickinson home located in Amherst, Massachusetts, between the years 1845 and 1886; published in 1976.


A reclusive poet recounts her life story in the form of a one-woman play.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Emily Dickinson, a slight and sickly child and teenager, was forced to maintain most of her social contacts through letters, expressing her own feelings in poetry that she mostly kept from public view. William Luce, a late twentieth-century playwright, used Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems to create a onewoman play about the poet’s life as well as conditions in nineteenth-century New England.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The nineteenth-century family

In the typical New England household of the nineteenth century, each family member generally had his or her own responsibilities. The father’s obligations centered around working outside the home and making most decisions. The mother, on the other hand, ran the household—cooking the meals, raising the children, and keeping it clean. Children were expected to behave, work hard in school, and help their parents as needed. As an example, because Emily’s mother was ill and restricted to bed, Emily prepared the food at the Dickinson home (the Homestead) while her sister, Lavinia, took care of the other chores. In the play, Emily discusses the many foods that she bakes for the Dickinson family, such as black cake, gingerbread, rhubarb cupcakes, rye bread, and Indian bread.

Religious fervor

In the early 1800s a wave of debate about religion swept the United States. Much of it centered around the differences between Calvinism and Unitarianism. Calvinist beliefs held that God was revealed in three forms and that all good on the earth was God’s doing, while all evil was the burden of humans misusing God’s grant of human freedom. Unitarians rejected both the belief in a trinity of deity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and creeds held sacred by other sects. To Unitarians, religion was an individual and a growing process that was hampered by the imposition of firm beliefs and doctrines. The debate between these two systems—and other similar conflicts between organized religions in the era—resulted in a renewed emphasis on religion in the family and in the creation of new and competing Christian sects by the time the play’s action begins in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. This religious controversy was further clouded by the appearance of a new philosophy, transcendentalism, a challenge to formal religion that called for faith in an individual’s own human intuition rather than reason or subscription to any existing set of religious beliefs. Most New England families were caught up in the religious fervor; nearly everyone was approached to make public demonstration of their beliefs by joining one of the many Christian communities. Many, like the Dickinson family, still held Calvinist beliefs in the tradition of their New England ancestors, the Puritans; they held fast to trust in God and in prayer while disdaining many of the rituals and ceremonies connected with the Catholic Church and its Protestant offshoots.

The Puritan family prayed together twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening just as in The Belle of Amherst. In the play, Emily refers to the family prayers led by her father each morning (Luce, The Belle of Amherst, p. 30). Fathers generally led the family prayers, which were often followed by the whole family joining in singing hymns. The family worshipped together in order to work for the conversion of all family members. Father Dickinson, however, was skeptical of most of the organized religions of the time and took many years to take the step toward open conversion.

Education in the nineteenth century

Nineteenth-century education had broken sharply with that of the previous century, a period in which only half of the women in America could even sign their own names (Cott, p. 101). By 1840 most New England men and women knew how to read and write. In many cases, New England children received schooling beyond basic literacy, and in The Belle of Amherst all three Dickinson children attended school, although Emily attended only sporadically. She did, however, manage to earn her way into Amherst College, where she studied for a short time.

The nineteenth-century belief was that female education should teach women how to be useful wives, daughters, and mothers. Consequently the curriculum for females emphasized domestic tasks such as housekeeping and cooking. To facilitate this special curriculum, separate schools for boys and girls flourished in New England in the mid-nineteenth century.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the school Emily attended, was caught up in the spiritual fervor of the times. Like other private academies in the nineteenth century, it focused much attention on the religious principles of its students. Mary Lyon, the director of Mount Holyoke, whom Emily refers to as the “Dragon Lady” because of her large nose, tried to help her students experience conversions. Miss Lyon sent those who had not yet converted to Room B (or the dungeon), where they were to read the Bible and discuss issues of religion.

The nineteenth-century woman

During the nineteenth century, some women began to question the assumption that a female should restrict herself to the domestic sphere. They began to lobby for women’s political enfranchisement through gaining the right to vote, to sue in court, and to be as able as men to protect their rights under the law. Two advocates of women’s rights, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, a list of desired equal rights for women.


Most nineteenth-century Puritans believed that it was necessary for people to experience a conversion in order to lead religious lives. When someone converted, they generally experienced an emotional religious “awakening” at which time they professed their love for God. This conversion was important to Puritans because they believed that only those who had converted could join God following their death. For a bright young person made a partial recluse by illness, with time to think about serious religious issues, it was a confusing period. Emily Dickinson was torn between her own doubts and family as well as social pressures to acknowledge Christ. Before she was a mature woman, she began to withdraw from the duress into the protection of her home and garden, expressing herself largely through her unpublished poetry.

Women enjoyed strong friendships with other women during this period. A common belief was that women were biologically shaped with certain intellectual, emotional, and character traits and behaviors that made them inherently different from men. Furthermore, many men engaged in professions that required long sojourns away from home, leaving wives to seek companionship among neighboring women in similar situations. Emily Dickinson was molded by these circumstances. In The Belle of Amherst she mentions her many close female friends, particularly her sister Lavinia and a childhood companion, Helen Hunt Jackson, with whom she carried on a continuing correspondence. The strength of the two sisters’ relationship becomes evident in Lavinia’s sadness at the prospect of Emily’s marrying a gentleman caller, a proposal which Emily declines. The author of the play may have been superimposing a more modern slant to the importance of female friendship or lack of it for women in the mid-1800s; in fact, many of Emily Dickinson’s letters were addressed to one or two important men in her life.

During the mid-1800s, there were a few women like Lavinia and Emily who remained unmarried. In fact, statistics reveal that approximately 13 percent of New England women remained unmarried in the 1830s. The number of spinsters, or unmarried women, during this period may have been aggravated by the great westward movement of young men seeking land, silver, gold, and fur. Few single women joined in the migration; most stayed in the eastern states, where they were generally viewed as oddities because of their spinsterhood.

Women and writing

A few women poets and writers won renown during Emily’s lifetime. Her close childhood friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, wrote poetry and books during her travels across the country. Jackson used her writing ability to lobby for better treatment of Native Americans, while Harriet Beecher Stowe added to the fame of women writers with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a novel about American slavery (also covered in Literature and Its Times). In Rhode Island, a group of woman poets including Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, Frances Osgood, and the Carey sisters began to hold poetry meetings for women writers. Emily herself wrote poetry during this period, but, unlike most of the other female writers, did not seem very much interested in seeing it published.


Zilpah Grant and Mary Lyon opened the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1828, the school that Emily attended as a young girl. Both Lyon and Grant advocated female education and separate schools for girls, arguing that their education for women took into account what they believed to be the female’s dissimilar mental capacities as well as their destiny to become housewives. “Along with erudition in anything from philosophy to astronomy, the seminarians acquired preparatory training for the home sphere” as women learned about the “domestic science.”

(Ryan, p. 93)

The Play in Focus

The plot

This one-woman play follows the life of Emily Dickinson between 1845 and 1886 at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Through a first-person monologue, Emily tells stories about the Dickinson family, her religious crisis, and her romances and unrequited love, also revealing others’ perceptions of her.

Emily’s family consists of her mother and father and two siblings, her sister Lavinia and a brother named Austin. Theirs is a close family. When Mrs. Dickinson suffers a stroke, Emily and Lavinia take responsibility for maintaining the household. Emily’s father holds the children to strict rules that give the impression that he is uncaring and unemotional. However, beneath that veneer, Emily’s father shows excitement over such natural events as the aurora borealis and a willingness to bend his rules regarding Emily’s bedtime so that she may write. The family bond is revealed again when Austin marries Susan Gilbert. The couple move into the house next door to the Dickinsons’ and the family ties are retained.

Emily grows up in a very religious household; her father leads the family in prayers each morning and night. As a young girl, however, Emily finds it difficult to accept Puritanism because she finds it too restrictive. Additionally, she does not like the religion’s portrayal of God as strict and threatening, a convention employed to secure moral obedience to its tenets. Emily prefers to think of God as a friend and believes she can relate to him by writing her poetry. Emily admits in the play that she does not feel persuaded to profess herself a Christian even though all of the other members of her family have experienced religious awakenings. At the age of twenty-five, she decides to stop attending church altogether, writing that “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church/ I keep it, staying at Home” (The Belle of Amherst, p. 31).

Within the Amherst community, many of Emily’s neighbors consider her unbalanced and refer to her as “Squire Edward Dickinson’s halfcracked daughter” (The Belle of Amherst, p. 3). Emily has earned this reputation because of some bizarre habits—she wears white dresses, drops off poetic notes to neighbors and hides when callers came to visit. According to Emily, this behavior is part of a game in which she likes to portray herself as an eccentric poet.

The influence of nineteenth-century poetry

Emily reveled in the “joys of language and mysteries of poetry” (Chambers-Schiller, p. 100). When she read poetry, she experienced a physical reaction. Her whole body went cold and she felt as if the top of her head had been taken off (The Belle of Amherst, p. 7). She particularly enjoyed reading the poems of other mid-nineteenth century writers, especially the works of female British poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Emily was drawn to Browning, whom she felt demonstrated that women could have talents outside of taking care of the home.

Massachusetts poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leader of the transcendental movement, and Henry David Thoreau also influenced Emily. She read Emerson’s Essays as a student and received a copy of his Poems from Benjamin Newton, her father’s law clerk. Emily’s father owned two copies of Thoreau’s Walden in the family library. During a visit to Amherst in 1857, Emerson stayed with her brother, Austin, in the house next door to the Dickinsons. It is probable that Emily spoke with Emerson at that time and attended one or more of his lectures.

In 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a professor and literary critic, informed Emily that her poems were not publishable because of their irregular meter and problematic style. He had offered the same feedback about the poems of Walt Whitman. Whitman soon had a book of his poems (Leaves of Grass [also covered in Literature and Its Times]) published under his own name and then republished several times over in the span of his life, but Emily had only seven anonymous poems published during her lifetime.


After spending many years as a musician and singer, William Luce turned his attention to the writing of “mono-dramas” or one-person plays with a particular interest in female writers. He worked as a composer and playwright for television shows as well as Broadway theater. He enjoyed writing plays about famous literary women, as demonstrated by The Belle of Amherst, as well as mono-dramas about Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, and Emily Brontë.


At age fourteen, Emily writes a letter to a school friend stating that she thinks she will be the belle of Amherst by the age of seventeen with scores of admirers. In reality, the young men of Amherst are not enamored of Emily. She receives no valentines and is ignored at the local dances.

Emily never did marry. She however, fell in love with a minister from Philadelphia named Charles Wadsworth. Emily heard Wadsworth preach in the 1850s and began to correspond with him. Ignoring the fact that he was already married, Emily wrote many love poems to Wadsworth and asked him to come to visit her in Amherst. Wadsworth visited Emily in 1860 and then departed for the West Coast to live in San Francisco. She continued to write poems about him: “So We Must keep apart/ You there—I here/ With just the Door ajar/That Oceans are and Prayer/And that Pale Sustenance/Despair” (The Belle of Amherst, p. 60).

To give a full sense of Emily Dickinson, William Luce immersed himself in her poetry and correspondence to her friends. He pieced together various incidents in Emily’s life and integrated her poetry to develop a play spanning forty-one years of the poet’s life as told from her own perspective. According to Luce, the format of the one-person play worked best for the story of Emily Dickinson because “she was seclusive, an individualist to the highest order” and therefore stood as the best person to tell her story (Introduction to The Belle of Amherst, p. xiv).

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Changing role of women

During the 1970s, a strong feminist movement emerged that advocated equality between women and men. In 1966 Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, and a small group of women founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), a group dedicated to gaining equal rights for women, similar in many ways to the movement born of the Seneca Falls Convention in the midnineteenth century. In the 1970s NOW pushed for political changes and lobbied successfully for the passage of the Education Title IX Act (1972), which required that women be given equal opportunities in school admissions, job hiring, and team sports. The next year, the Supreme Court struck down state laws against abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade. More significantly, women were choosing to remain single rather than marrying. In 1975, 23 percent of all women were single, a much higher figure than the 13 percent of the 1830s. In short, the 1970s was a decade of increasing freedoms for American women. It was in this atmosphere that William Luce decided to bring to the stage a woman poet who was out of step with most women of her time in terms of religion, marriage, and work and did not receive much attention during her own life.

Reviews of the play

The Belle of Amherst opened in Seattle, Washington, in February of 1976 and then moved to Broadway, where it received laudatory reviews. Critics applauded the play for its ability to bring together Emily Dickinson’s poetry, letters, family tales, and memories in a way that portrayed her reclusive life. One critic commented that Julie Harris, who acted in the role of Dickinson, actually became her during the play. Luce was lauded for his ability to merge the poetry with the text of the play. In 1987 a television production of The Belle of Amherst won an International Emmy Award for its adaptation of the play.

For More Information

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Boiler, Paul F. American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974.

Chambers-Schiller, Lee Virginia. Liberty, a Better Husband: Single Women in America; The Generations of 1780-1840. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Johnson, Thomas H., and Theodora Ward, eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Luce, William. The Belle of Amherst: A Play Based on the Life of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

McDannel, Colleen. The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Ryan, Mary. Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. New York: New Viewpoints, 1975.

About this article

The Belle of Amherst

Updated About content Print Article