27 June 2017

An American poet's life in books and film - Emily Dickinson

The film A Quiet Passion depicts the poet Emily Dickinson entirely inside her home. Before seeing the film, I needed to understand Emily's inner life & family experience. Thank you Biography.

Let's start with Emily's father. Educated at Amherst and Yale, Edward Dickinson returned home, joined the family law practice and moved into the family house, The Homestead (1813). He was el­ect­ed to Massachusetts State Legislature (1837-9) and the State Senate (1842-3). Be­tween 1852-5 he served as a state represent­ative in the Congress and treasurer of Amherst College. Edward’s wife was represented as the passive wife of a domineering husb­and.

There were three Dickinson children: Austin, middle child Emily and younger sister Lavinia. All three child­ren attended the tiny primary school in Amherst and then moved on to Am­herst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College had grown. Austin was later sent to Williston Seminary.

Emily was at Amherst Academy until 1847. Her time at the Academy provided her with her first Master, the principal Leonard Humphrey. Although Dickinson quite admired him while she was a student, her response to his unexpected death in 1850 identified her grow­ing interest in passionate poetry. The other significant figure was Edward Hitchcock, president of Amherst College. a man devoted his life to main­taining the connection between the natural world and its divine Creator. He was a frequent lecturer at the Academy, and Emily often heard him speak.

Emily Dickinson 1847. 
Amherst College Collections.

At the Academy Emily developed a group of close friends. As was common for young, mid­dle class women, the formal schooling they received in the academies provided them with some autonomy and intellectual rigour. Many of the women’s academies required full-day attend­ance, with the same curriculum as young men’s educ­at­ion.

In the 1847-8 academic year, Emily attended Mount Holy­oke Female Sem­inary in South Hadley, a school noted for its religious stance. The school also prided itself on its connection with Amherst Col­l­ege, offering students college lectures in astronomy, botany, chem­istry, geol­ogy, mathematics etc. Later the curriculum’s C19th emph­asis on science reappeared often in Emily’s poems and letters.
So why was Emily’s stay at Mount Holyoke shortened from two years to one - reclusive­ness? home­sick­ness? lack of intimates? not fully part of school activities? father forbade it? lack of faith? No-one knew.

Just then Amherst was having a religious revival. The community loved the ministers’ strong preach­ing and the Dickin­son household was affected eg Vinnie and Edward Dick­inson soon counted them­selves among the saved. Austin join­ed the church in 1856, his marriage year. Christ was calling everyone; only Emily was standing alone in rebellion.

Emily’s departure from Mount Holyoke marked the end of her form­al schooling and prompted the dissatis­faction typical of educated young women in the mid C19th. Back at home, unmarried daught­ers were expected to resume their duti­ful, selfless nature ☹

Since receiving and paying visits were ess­ential to social standing, Vinnie and Emily Dickinson got busy. In a 1855 visit, the sisters stay­ed with an old Amherst friend in Philadelphia, and attended church with her. The minister was Rev Charles Wadsworth, famous for both his preaching and pastoral care! Short­ly after a visit to Em­ily’s home in 1860, Rev Wadsworth left town, and this led to the heart­sick flow of verse from Emily. The nature of her poetic love, to Wad­sworth and others, still prompts scholars to ask: what did Dickin­son’s passionate language signify?

Emily’s ambivalence toward marriage was telling. Married women, including her mother, had failing health and unmet demands that were parts of the husband-wife relationship. Writ­ing to Susan Gilbert in the midst of Susan’s courtship with Austin Dickinson, Emily distinguished between the supposed joy of marriage and the parched life of the married woman. Emily clearly looked to her future sister-in-law as one of her most trusted readers.

With their father’s move to Washington, Austin gradually took over his father’s role. His marriage to Sus­an Gilbert in July 1856 brought a new sis­t­er into the family, one with whom Emily had much in com­m­on. Dad Edward eventually returned his family to the Homestead, Emily’s childhood home. Now she was writing hundreds of poems and letters in the rooms she had known for most of her life. Even bett­er, Austin and Susan Dickinson settled in The Homestead, the new house next door to The Evergreens.

Emily never liked to visit others and didn’t invite people to visit her because the energy that visits required was mind-numbing. Was she a real recluse, or was she sim­ply being practical? Instead letter-writing was visiting at its best!

The late 1850s saw Dickinson’s greatest poetic period. Those 1,100 poems already carried the familiar metric pattern of the hymn. Clearly her years were filled with both poems and letters. And reading. Emily read the contem­porary authors on both sides of the Atlantic: Romantic poets, Charles Darwin, Brontë sisters, the Brownings, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and George Eliot (UK) and Longfellow, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson (USA).

The Homestead was the birthplace and home of the poet Emily Dickinson.
The Evergreens, next door, was home to her brother Austin and sister in law Susan.

In 1862 she wrote to literary man Thomas Higginson in re­sponse to his Atlantic Monthly, and sent him four poems. Hig­g­in­son was curious, but he didn’t yet see a published poet emerging from her “poorly structured” poetry. Instead he counselled her to work harder on her poetry before she tried pub­lishing it. None­the­less Em­ily’s unpublished poems circulated widely among her family and friends, since this audience was part of women’s liter­ary culture in the mid C19th.

Emily Dickinson died in Amherst in 1886, not publicly recognised during her lifetime. Only when her family discovered vol­umes of poems and posthumously published them in 1890 did she find acclaim.


Once I had read everything that was ever written about Emily Dick­inson, it was time to see the film A Quiet Passion. Cynthia Nixon’s role as Emily Dickinson was very moving, an intelligent woman who displayed her bizarre mixture of humour, wit, free thought and a pained soul. Emily's important attachment to her close knit fam­ily was lovingly displayed in the film, even when the pain caused by her father and brother limited her life even more. Only the sister Vinnie and the female friends were constantly supportive, regardless of 1850s religious values in the USA.

In the film, the reverend led the family in prayer. Only Emily remained seated while the rest of the Dickinson family got down on their knees.

The photography was lush, detailed and sensitively handled. The clothes were beautifully recreated, as were the architecture and decorative arts in The Homestead. And best of all, Emily’s poetry was recited through­out the film which was excellent for those in the audience who did not study Dickinson at university. But except for one editor who said women could never write well, it was not clear at all why Emily’s special talent was only recognised and published four years after her death.

The film was 2 hours and 10 minutes long. I would have eliminated the last death scene which was irrelevant to the Dickinson story and would have re­duc­ed the film by 10-14 minutes.

24 June 2017

A stately home, sex, class & power: the Profumo Affair

The Cliveden House land in the Chiltern Hills Bucks was owned by Geoffrey de Clyve­den in 1237. By 1300 it had passed to his son William who owned mills along the tree-less chalk escarp­ment high above the Thames. By 1569 a lodge existed on the site along with many acres of land.

It was on this very high, expos­ed site that George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687) chose to build the first Clive­den house. The Duke of Buckingham pulled down the ear­l­ier buildings and chose Captain William Winde as his architect. Winde designed a four-storey house above an arcaded terrace.

Although the Duke's intention was to use Cliveden as a hunting lodge, he later housed his mistress Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury there. In the Duke's eastern garden, flints have been laid in the lawn as a rap­ier dated 1668, to commemorate the duel between the Duke and his mistress' husband Lord Shrewsbury. Lord Shrews­bury died of his wounds, as told by Samuel Pepys in his diary.

John Evelyn, another diarist, visited the Duke at Cliveden in 1679 and recorded the following impression in his diary: "I went to Clifden of the Duke of Buckingham. On the terrace is a circular view of the utmost verge of the Horizon which with the serpen­tining of the Thames, is admir­able and surprising. The cloisters, gardens and avenue through the wood august and stately.”

Cliveden House, 2013

There were other significant renovations done to the house after the original 1666 version. But the most important was that designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1851, to replace the house destroyed by a terr­ible fire in 1795. Barry was a perfect choice; he had won the com­mission to design the new Palace of Westminster, way back in 1836.

The present Cliveden House is a blend of the English and Italian Palladian styles. The Victorian three-storey mansion sits on a 120m long, 6m high arcaded terrace/viewing platform which remains from the mid-C17t house. The house facade is covered in Roman cement, with terracotta balusters, capitals, keystones and finials. The roof of the man­sion is for strolling, and there is a circular view, above the tree-line, that includ­es Windsor Castle.

Whereas Charles Barry's original interior showed off a square entr­an­ce hall, a morning room and a separate stairwell, Lord Astor want­ed a more impressive entrance to Cliveden. He chose to have all three rooms enlarged into one, very large Great Hall. His aim was to make the interior as much like an Italian palazzo as possible. Most English of all is the library, panelled in gorgeous cedar wood.

Cliveden House, Great Hall

In 1984–86 the exterior of the mansion was overhauled and a new lead roof installed by the National Trust, while interior repairs were carried out by Cliveden Hotel. In 2013 further restoration work on the main house was carried out including the windows and doors.


I knew all about Cliveden’s architecture and decorative arts from both lec­tures and a tour. But I had forgotten about the Cliveden Set. After their marriage, American expats Nancy (nee Langhorne) and 2nd Vis­count Wal­dorf Astor married in 1906 and moved in­to Cliveden, a wedding gift from Astor's father. Nancy Astor became a prominent hostess at Clive­den House for a social elite; she att­racted a group of upper class and very in­fl­uential people in post-WW1.

Nancy Astor was the first female MP in Brit­ain, Waldorf Astor owned The Observer, Geof­frey Dawson was edit­or of The Times, Samuel Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Edward Wood Lord Halifax was a government minister and Edward Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons. Alas Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and, as the 1930s went on, increasingly pro-German. So were her most of her powerful colleagues in the Cliveden Set.

Profumo and Keeler

And I had forgotten that the Profumo Affair, an event that rocked all British countries in 1961, had started at Cliveden. There was a summer party at the Cliveden estate of 3rd Viscount William Astor in 1961; this was the very same weekend that Stephen Ward, Astor’s resid­ential osteopath, had a party. Lord Astor’s friends were mainly aristoc­ratic eg the Conservative politician and British Secretary of State for War John Profumo (1915–2006). Ward’s friends were less than aristo­cratic, including the sexy dancer Christine Keeler and her lover, the Russian military attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.

To cool down from the summer heat, Lord Astor walked his guests to over to the family pool where Profumo caught a sight of Christine Keeler swimming naked. It was love at first sight! Through Ward’s connections, the very married Profumo began an affair with Keeler, and rumours of their involvement soon began to spread. In March 1963 Profumo lied about the affair to Parliament, stating that he had never had sexual relations with that woman, with Miss Keeler. A short time later Profumo resigned, admitting with deep remorse that he had deceived the House of Commons.

The real tragedy was not that extra-marital sex took place at Clive­den House, nor that the British Secretary of State for War was forc­ed to admit that he had deceived Mrs Profumo. The real tragedy for the Conservatives was that the scandal led to the eventual downfall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. The op­p­os­ition Lab­our Party soon defeated the Conservatives in a national elec­tion.

The personal results were strangely unequal. Profumo began a career in charity and was honoured by the queen in 1975 for his work. He never spoke about politics in public again. Step­hen Ward was con­victed on two counts of living off immoral ear­nings, took an over-dose of sleeping pills and died three days later. After Christ­ine Keeler’s release from prison in 1964 and two brief marriages, the ex-showgirl largely lived alone.

It was never proven that Yevgeny Ivanov had attempted to entrap Pro­fumo or to use Keeler as an agent. And Profumo’s relationship with Ms Keeler was never proven to lead to a breach of British national sec­urity in Russia. Ivanov was recalled to Moscow in Dec 1962 and although his naval career continued back in the Soviet Union, he was assigned to a distant fleet well away from the centres of power.

20 June 2017

Les Darcy - Australia's greatest sporting hero or vilified WW1 shirker?

James Les Darcy (1895-1917) was born near Maitland in NSW, one of ten children of a struggling Irish Catholic family. Leaving primary school in 1907, Les worked then was apprenticed at 15 to a local black­smith. As his father was at times unemployed, and his elder brother was partly crippled, Les had to help his very large family.

Darcy made his first money in the boxing ring at 14. In 1912-13 he won several fights at Newcastle and Maitland. In Nov 1913 he lost to the Australian welterweight champion Robert Whitelaw, but his performance did att­ract­ the attention of the Sydney promoters. In July 1914 he appeared for the first time at the Sydney Stadium, against the Amer­ican Fritz Holl­and. Darcy was already a local hero — his supporters came from Maitland in two special trains. When Holland won on points there was a riot. But the experts need not have worried since Darcy had impressed the sports promoter Snowy Baker. He became the stadium's leading draw-card.

WW1 did not slow him down. In Jan 1915 Darcy fought the American Jeff Smith in a world welter­weight championship. He lost sensationally, but this only enhanced his fame. That defeat was his last: by Sept 1916 he had won 22 consecutive fights! He was now comparatively well off — each contest was netting him c£300, and he was also being paid for exhibitions and for acting in a film.

Teenage success story, Les Darcy
Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales

The political atmosphere was radically altered by the Easter Week Rising in Dublin and the Australian prime minister’s commitment to conscription. Passports were being refused to men of military age. Darcy began to come under pressure to enlist, but his ambivalence to war was aggravated by his Irish-Catholic background.

He wanted 4-5 fights in the USA to make his family financially secure, and then he would go to Canada or England to enlist. He sailed clandestinely from Newcastle in Oct 1916, the day before the national conscript­ion referendum. The patriotic press denounced him as a shirker.

In New York a major fight was arranged, but it was banned by New York Gov­ern­or Whitman, because of the manner in which Darcy had left Aust­ral­ia. The decision was disastrous for Darcy: American promoters began to lose interest in him, so he gave some vaudeville exhib­itions instead. After a bout he had arranged in Louisiana was also banned, Darcy took out US citizenship and vol­unteered for the American army. Yet another fight was arranged in Memphis Tennessee, and Darcy's call-up was deferred so that he could train.

In late April 1917 Darcy collapsed. He was admitted to hospital with septicaemia and endocarditis; his tonsils were removed but he developed pneumonia and died, aged 21; his fiancée by his side. His body was brought back to Australia and, after immense funeral processions in San Francisco and Sydney, was buried in the East Maitland cemetery.

Darcy had all the makings of a folk hero. His remarkable ring record, losing only 4 professional fights and never being knocked out, was associated with his extraordinary physique: a muscular body apparently impervious to the heaviest blows and a reach greater than his height (170 cm) suggested. He neither smoked nor drank, he spent most of his income on his family and he attended Mass most mornings.

His decision to leave Australia secretly, in breach of the War Prec­aut­ions Act, provided the controversy and the enemies, without which no hero-figure is complete: his lonely death gave him an aura of martyrdom. So powerful a legend did he become that fifty years after his death, flags flew at half-mast.. and a memorial at his birth­place was unveiled by a former Governor-General.


Three separate issues seemed to me to have worked against Darcy enlist­ing. Firstly he was seen as having been maligned due to his Irish-Catholic working-class heritage. Secondly he said he tried to enlist but he was under-age and his mother refused her consent. Thirdly he was one of 10 children of an Irish Catholic share-farming family, so family money would always be desperately needed. Only winning boxing championships would guarantee that income.

Was Darcy eluding conscription in Australia? No! A conscription referendum provoked furious debate, and when people voted in Oct 1916, the proposal was narrowly defeated. In 1917 the Prime Minister called for yet another conscription referendum. This cam­paign was just as heated as the first, with the most prom­in­ent anti-conscription activist being the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix. In Dec 1917 the nation again voted No.

Only by fighting in the USA, Darcy believed, could he further his career and finally guarantee his family’s financial future. Even though the press vilified him as a coward and deserter! But let us be clear - when he secretly stowed away to the USA on an oil tanker, the SS Cushing, there was NO conscription in Australia. Darcy may well have been leaving his homeland without a passport, but he was hardly in breach of critical wartime regulat­ions.

It was said that Americans were also caught up in war fever in 1916. Definitely it was the American State Governor who banned him from boxing! Definitely the American promoters abandoned him and American boxing fans sent him white feathers! This does not make sense at all. The USA was neutral in WW1 (until April 1917) and did not have conscription for its own citizens. What did Americans care if a Maitland lad did or did not enlist in the Australian army?

It must have been effective. Darcy volunteered for the US Army to avoid further criticism.

Darcy's grave
Maitland Cemetery
Photo credit: Maitland City Council

When Darcy died, he lay in state in a Sydney chapel. Seen as having been targeted by the Establishment due to his Irish-Catholic heritage, the funeral became an occasion for massive anti-conscription protest. Some 700,000 citizens followed his funeral procession from Sydney to Maitland (165 ks). A monument over Darcy’s grave in Maitland Cemet­ery was erected in his memory later that year. Darcy was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993 and was one of the first inducted into the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.

My question remains. How did Darcy go so quickly from a heroic boxing success (in 1914-15) to a vilified coward and shirker (1916), a secret escapee to the USA (Oct 1916) and new citizen of that country (April 1917), and finally death and national sporting hero status back in Australia (April 1917)?