The Emily of the title, last name Dickinson, is an annoying, unpleasant genius, and even her genius is questionable in this literary fiction about a young Amherst woman befriended by the poet.
Mistakenly assumed to have inherited her mother’s tuberculosis, Arethusa Chase spends a lonely childhood in her family’s Boston mansion, her only joy the private tutoring she receives. After her neglectful mother’s death, Arethusa’s father takes her on a recuperative visit to Barbados, where she changes her name to Miranda after acting in The Tempest. The Chases move to Amherst, where Mr. Chase is a professor. After her pert resistance to a local minister’s attempt to have her “profess,” Miranda receives an invitation to visit Emily, already a recluse in her father’s house. Soon, Miranda is expected every Monday. At first, Miranda is bewitched by Emily’s unusual wit, but as time passes, she recognizes Emily’s tendency to be needy, selfish, even spiteful. The snatches of letters and poems included do little to improve Miranda’s, or the reader’s, opinion of the shrewish poet. No matter, Emily’s importance fades as Miranda’s loves and career ambitions take center stage. When her fiancé, Davy, dies in the Civil War, he bequeaths to Miranda a foundation to carry out her progressive ideas on early-childhood education. She begins a school with her former tutor. Meanwhile, her cousin Kate dies and Miranda semi-adopts Kate’s young daughter. Miranda’s independence threatens Emily, who is by turns jealous and distant during Miranda’s now less frequent visits. When Miranda falls in love with the executor of Davy’s estate (his wife, shades of Jane Eyre, alive but incapacitated by brain sickness), Emily manipulates Miranda into confiding the graphic details and then writes an anonymous letter to the board of Miranda’s school attempting to expose the affair. Discovering Emily’s betrayal, Miranda ends the friendship.
MacMurray (1921–1997) was supposedly a great Dickinson fan, but with fans like her, who needs hostile, revisionist critics?