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A Quiet Passion, a Film almost about Emily Dickinson

I so wanted to love this film! There were lovely things about it. The color and composition, for instance. The actress who plays Lavinia actually looks a lot like Lavinia and the actress who plays Emily as a girl is lively and charming. I liked her better than Cynthia Nixon in the role. Keith Carradine is good as the father, but oh, the movie is Slow!

I can’t figure out why the writer and director made such choices! The Emily that emerges is bitter, disappointed in love and angry. At times, she almost looks demonic! This is not and never was Emily. Almost 2,000 poems refute this image. The movie would have us believe that Emily, rebuffed by Wadsworth, spirals into deeper depression, mirroring her shut-in mother’s. But her mother was not always a shut-in. She took to her bed after her husband’s death and suffered through a long illness, then died. In the movie, she’s actively dying the moment we first see her!

The business with Wadsworth almost certainly never happened. Emily saw him preach once. They exchanged correspondence. Emily was not shattered by the married Wadsworth’s eventual move to San Francisco. I don’t think she was madly in love with him.

Even worse is Emily’s “best friend” in the movie, especially in the first half. Clearly, the writer and director fell in love with this character. She has all the best lines early on! It’s a shame she’s a fabrication. The character existed, yes, but she was younger than Emily and there is little evidence that they ever actually met, let alone became best friends!

The movie shows us that Emily and Lavinia meet Sue after she marries Austin. In fact, Sue was Emily’s best friend! They knew each other well for six years before the marriage. Why didn’t the director focus on this friendship?

Also missing are the parties! The Dickinson girls were vivacious. They were sought after companions. One young man proposed to Emily! No sign of any of this. Lavinia was a terrific mimic and comedian, but we’d never know it from this film. Why?

Also eliminated are the last ten-to-fifteen years of Emily’s life! Where is Judge Lord? Where is the scene, well documented, in which Lavinia walks into the kitchen and finds Emily in the judge’s arms, the two kissing? Lord doesn’t even appear in the movie! Neither does Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the great men of letters of the era. He visited her twice, at least, and saw her face-to-face at least once. We know this because he describes her in his journal. He gives us the great description of her in her coffin, too, just before the lid is closed. But in the film, he doesn’t exist.

Austin and Sue’s children, Ned, Gilbert, Martha, never appear or are mentioned. Little Gilbert’s sudden death was the last of twin blows from which Emily never recovered (Judge Lord’s death in 1884 was the first—he died after proposing to her).

other annoying inaccuracies…There is no record that Emily was ever furious about Austin’s relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd. The two were deeply in love and when they met in the parlor, they locked the door. Unlikely that Emily ever walked in on them and read them the riot act. In fact, there is no historical evidence that Emily objected to the affair, which lasted until Austin’s death.

At Emily’s funeral…why oh why didn’t the director put her in a white casket? What an oversight! Also, the casket was not loaded into a horse-drawn hearse and driven to the cemetery. As per her request, six of the workmen employed by the Dickinsons carried her through the gardens to the cemetery. And yes, in the film she is buried in the wrong cemetery! There are two in Amherst. The real Emily lies in the other one. Sheez!

So the film gives us a mature Emily who is spurned in love, bitter, priggish, angry and judgmental—all things Emily was not. That’s disappointing. The movie reinforces a popular image of a depressed, reclusive spinster who eccentrically wrote poems and tied them into bundles. It’s maddening, really.

The movie even misses out on a great closing scene—when Lavinia discovers 1,800 poems in Emily’s room and decides she must find a way to get them published.

This film pricked me until I bled. At first, I imagined Emily being quite cross about it all, but later she visited and let me know she was laughing at the thought that she had eluded everyone once again.

Virginia Woolf’s Birthday

“Now then is my chance to find out what is of great importance, and I must be careful, and tell no lies.” –Virginia Woolf

Yet, it was not always easy for Virginia to tell no lies. Relentlessly honest, intellectually demanding, still she loved jokes and, to some extent, gossip. Family members knew that if you wanted to keep a secret, you did not tell Virginia, though you wanted to tell her! On occasion, she enjoyed stirring pots among her friends. She would often astonish friends and strangers alike by ‘going off’ at a party or at tea, settling on someone for her attention, then launching into a brilliant biography of the person, which she invented on the spot. Vita Sackville-West caught this complex, wonderful character when, musing on her perfect name shortly after Virginia’s death, she observed that her given name was virginal, while her married name had a hint of the fang.

Virginia was coyote, a trickster. She loved games, confidences, jokes. “Exquisite self-containment.” That was her goal, and it could also be a description of the woman and artist she knew herself to be. Aflame, she lived at a pitch of ecstasy that only a genius knows.

While still in her teens, Virginia created the process by which she diligently worked at her craft, navigating through the immense canyons of bi-polar disorder to produce five great novels (To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years, Between the Acts), a brilliant satire that is also the longest love letter in English literature (Orlando), the best criticism I’ve ever read (the two Common Readers), five volumes of astonishing Diaries, terrific Letters and the inspiring, feminist call-to-action, A Room of One’s Own.

That Virginia deliciously haunts my waking and dream hours is an added benefit I could not have anticipated when I first met her. Intellectually, spiritually and romantically, she lifts me up. I commune and converse with her. Her unbridled, almost hooting laugh is daily music to me.
There is a wonderful way to get to know Virginia better, and that is to listen to her. I listen to her novels read aloud over and over, and I have a hot tip for you. If you can, get a recording of To the Lighthouse narrated by Virginia Leishman. Here is a link for you:

https://www.amazon.com/Lighthouse-Virginia-Woolf/dp/1419367323

Leishman is superb, beautifully modulating her voice from character to character and sounding so much like Virginia Woolf herself that it’s almost eerie.

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About ten years after her death, Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold, kept company on the terrace at their home (Sissinghurst). It was a fine, soft day and Vita looked up, asking her husband, “Of all the people you’ve ever known, who would you most like to see coming up to the house from the road?” Without hesitation, Harold said, “Virginia”. “Me, too,” said Vita, “me, too.”

Me, too.

Read A Friend’s Heart: Blog Post

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November 17th, 2014
Leonard and Virginia Woolf
What are men to do?

In 1920, Virginia Woolf published a brilliant story, A Society, which concludes that war and brutality are distinctly male in origin, and that the world will never know peace until men have babies and so acquire through experience reverence for all life.

My puny masculinity and gender-enlightened, awakening self agree, yet Woolf’s declaration and my agreement beg the question: what are men to do?

There is no solution in having babies. I’ve had three, or rather, I was a spectator/participant at the birth of three, and though I saved my wife’s life during the third delivery, I’ve never had any doubt that she always performed the heroic, transformative journey, not I.

Having babies, even once removed, has made me more dovish than hawkish; I do revere life more than I did before. Yet, I’m keenly and poignantly aware that I lack what Woolf required of me—a visceral, experiential connection, through giving birth, to life itself.

There is in all men a precious fragility that perversely seeks to crush what is fragile in others. Call it a motor impulse that makes an aggressive male driver suddenly yank the wheel of his Cadillac to the left so that he can squash a pelican that has wandered onto the blacktop of Highway 1 near Monterey. It’s the impulse that coaches and teachers use to shame young men for their perceived weaknesses. It’s the madness that drives the rapist and passive-aggressive abuser of children, women and men. Call it the make-war impulse. Men possess it, or are, perhaps more accurately, possessed by it, than women.

So, I ask you: what are men, and women, to do about this? I welcome your thoughts, your wisdom, your anger, your insight.

Book recommendation:
Washing the Bones: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Transformation by Katherine Ingram http://www.amazon.com/Washing-Bones-Memoir-Love-Transformation
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Consider these books for your library, reading pleasure and gifts. Share them with friends, colleagues and loved ones!

Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions and The More We Get Together: The Sexual and Spiritual Language of Love and other collections are available at my website www.robertmcdowell.net, and at www.IndieBound.org, www.amazon.com, and www.b&n.com or by request at your local bookstore.