If you’ve been around here long enough, you know here at The Fandomentals we love our Dutiful Princesses, and 2019 yielded a new one in the form of Sue Gilbert in Dickinson.
As a refresher, a Dutiful Princess is a character (man or woman) who wields power, usually because they inherited it, and this power creates a deeply ingrained sense of duty. They are usually crap at communicating feelings, especially with their family, so they create conflict while trying to avoid it. Because of this, they have deep internalized guilt.
In many ways, Sue (played by Ella Hunt) embodies the trope perfectly: she follows the rules even if it hurts her, represses her feelings like a champ, and has layers of internalized guilt. On the other hand, she lacks some key ingredients.
In a way, Sue is a very special character because she is a Dutiful Princess in the making.
We meet her at a very low point in her life. Her entire family has died, leaving her alone in the world. We don’t get much information about her family life, but we can gather she did her duty by her family’s sickbeds as they agonized, one at a time. She sheds exactly one tear over her family the entire ten episodes, and that’s that. Her reality is such, no point in crying about it.
As a woman in the 1860s, there are precious few things she can do to survive, and the most obvious choice is accepting a proposal of marriage from one Austin Dickinson, who happens to be the brother of her best friend lover.
“I am all alone in this world. I’m destitute. If I don’t marry Austin I will literally starve to death.”
This starting point sets her story apart from some other princesses like Eleanor Guthrie or Tenzin. She didn’t inherit power. In fact, she didn’t inherit anything at all. Given the situation, she does not seem to have much power over anything or anyone. At least she assumes she doesn’t at this point. It is why she is willing to follow Austin to Michigan should he choose to move there, even though it would break her heart to leave Emily behind.
Now, while she may not have realized her power yet, she is the queen of repressing feelings. There are precious few moments throughout the season where Sue expresses or demonstrates her feelings for Emily. This is especially glaring when you count the times Emily (who I would argue is the anti-Dutiful Princess) professes her adoration for her.
However, she does love Emily, and it will break her heart to be married to Austin, living a few feet away, yet unable to be with her. More to that point, it does hurt her to hurt Emily.
This is where we start peeling the layers of guilt, another vital ingredient of a Dutiful Princess. Just like Madi would let John Silver die for her duty to her people, even if it breaks her. Marrying is what must be done, and Sue will go through with it.
Still, this doesn’t mean the dutiful princess doesn’t feel guilt over the hurt they cause.
And boy, does Sue feel guilty. The closer you look, the more layers of guilt you see that you can peel back. It runs deep because in many ways, Sue’s very existence causes hurt—particularly to Sue.
For synthesis, let us enlist the causes for her internalized guilt. Sue feels guilty for:
- Breaking Emily’s heart by marrying Austin.
- Hurting Austin’s feelings once he discovers their relationship.
- Feeling jealousy when Emily went for someone else.
“I guess it was selfish of me to think that I could marry Austin and you’d just stay here in this house… like a pet or something.”
Last, but not least, Sue feels guilty for loving Emily in the first place. Oh, yes. It isn’t something that is openly discussed, but it is always there. Sue loving Emily is wrong according to every single parameter of their society.
Every time she addresses her feelings for Emily she does so in this shy, pained way. Like she isn’t entitled to them at all. It isn’t as though she has no feelings for Austin whatsoever, but the ghost of her love of his sister will undoubtedly haunt their union.
As the story progresses, we see Sue trying to deal with her guilt. Emily and Austin don’t help. They are both “princesses” in the sense that they come from money and privilege and are used to have their way. They fight over Sue like she’s a dog toy until it becomes unbearable and she has to go away. At this point in her story, she is still a bit prone to let her feelings get the best of her sometimes. Sadly, she’ll pay a steep price for it.
It is only when she returns, and finds Emily willing to let go of her fighting and her insistence if she stays, that Sue realizes the power she does have, and has always had. It is not political, nor is it too obvious, but it is no less there: it’s love.
Everyone loves Sue. She is fit for this society in a way that most of the people around her are not, most especially the Dickinsons. She can charm the pants off anyone, even the jealous girls who resented her for marrying the “great catch” Austin Dickinson. Sue may not be dazzling or grand, but her understated demeanor and gentle nature do wonders for her.
She can have Emily and Austin and all the Dickinsons eating from the palm of her hand forever. She doesn’t abuse this power, though. It’s important to note that she is pregnant by the end of the show, which puts her in a difficult position as it is. Close to the end of the season, Sue is fighting her transformation into the Dutiful Princess. She has one last moment of weakness, right before her wedding, where she finally admits out loud that she doesn’t want to marry Austin, that she’s terrified of being a mother. Sue hates that this is the way it is.
“I don’t think I can do this. I mean all of it, marriage, motherhood, it’s… It’s too much, it’s all too much. And I hate the fact that… you are not doing it with me.”
In the end, however, she does her duty; she ignores Emily’s pained cries upstairs as she marries Austin, and doesn’t look down at Emily’s window as she looks up at her. She may not think it in her moment of weakness, but she will excel at all of it.
She will do her duty as his wife and ignore Emily’s and her own pain even if it kills her, because, as Julia put it, “her broken heart isn’t all that important.” She’ll keep the house and obey her husband and have his children because it is what she must do. She will continue to put on a show to society in any given room and be the straight man to the comedians that surround her. Austin will make near-sighted jokes and she’ll laugh accordingly. And she will bear it, gracefully, when the woman she loves dies before her. Her feelings will not get the better of her, those days are done.
Curiously, becoming Austin’s wife does confer some authority onto her. The Dickinsons are, after all, one of the most influential families in Amherst. By marrying into the family, Sue earns the last ingredient she was missing and becomes the Dutiful Princess.
Images Courtesy of Apple TV+
*A previous version of this article said the Dickinsons lived in Concord, a mistake caused by reading Little Women at the time this article was written, I apologize for my city confusion.