Emily Dickinson, 1847
In the 2017 Terence Davies film, “A Quiet Passion” about the life of the poet, Emily Dickinson, we see Emily, played brilliantly by Cynthia Nixon, formally asking her father (Keith Carradine) if she may write during the wee hours from 3:00 a.m. when everyone else is asleep till morning when the rest of the household awakens. He amicably agrees. Pleasantries, like “Thank you for asking!” and “It’s your house, father!” are bandied decorously about. Emily was obviously trapped in a kind of domestic prison, which she skillfully contrived to work to her advantage.
The 19th Century is not my favorite era. Every time I see a movie or read a story about the 19th Century, I exclaim, “Something happened to us after 1850 and I don’t know what it was! We lost our minds!”
Something turned us from natural ways into a forced, artificial, hyper-contrived lifestyle of cities, factories, mass production, and rigid social codes that held women to confining social standards. Of course, nothing is so simple that one can pinpoint an act or an event that warped our brains. However, there was a movement toward the artificial begun by the Industrial Revolution and sealed by mass production and the mass migration of farm workers and servants to the cities for factory jobs. Why hunker down on the muddy, stinking farm when you could have a nice rented room with a few other girls or guys, go to the movies or the dance hall or the bar at night and have a few laughs with your friends?
As soon as we abandoned farming as a way of life, women lost a lot of the natural power they had accrued simply by being good at what they did – marketable skills they had developed through time, skills that were necessary for life - skills like raising chickens, keeping livestock, gardening, herbalism, midwifery, cooking, brewing, sewing, fancy sewing - now tossed aside for factory jobs, slum living or, if they were married and their husbands had good jobs, servitude in the home, obedience to a man’s whims and desires, and, possibly, death from infection after childbirth because doctors still did not wash their hands.
The prophet Nostradamus, who was also a brilliant physician, had been healing the Plague in the 1530s by cleansing infected clothing and beds with fire, teaching people to be clean, and cultivating roses (for the rose hips, the fruit of the rose plant) which he planted everywhere he traveled while he taught people how to make preserves for the winter from this valuable source of vitamin C, the natural immune system booster.
However, nearly 400 years later, in the Victorian era, doctors were still arguing about the need for washing their hands after working with cadavers before examining women who had given birth. “Our hands just get dirty again,” they whined. Women were not important enough for them to wash their hands.
What happened? I’m not a devoted scholar of the period, however, I have been able to pinpoint something so bizarre it will make you cringe – a list in a women’s magazine – the same kind of list you might see today – 10 Ways to Power Down! 5 Things Successful People Do in the Morning!
In the United States, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most important women’s magazine to the upper and middle classes of the United States and Great Britain, popular also with men who wanted to listen in on what women were talking about. With a circulation of 150,000 by 1860, Godey's published a list of the ideals of “The Cult of True Womanhood.”
"True women," according to this ideal, were supposed to possess four cardinal virtues:
1. Piety – She was devoted to God. She prayed, taught her children to pray, and went to Church, with her children, every Sunday.
2. Purity – She came to her husband as a virgin and remained faithful to only him. Her vagina belonged to her husband.
3. Domesticity – She was dedicated to her wifely duties at home, which, besides caring for her children, also included housework, shopping, cooking and possibly some approved and practical domestic hobby like gardening, sewing or knitting – not for commercial gain or salary.
4. Submissiveness (to husbands) – He was the Lord and Master within the home.
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children
Queen Victoria, as far away as the Mother Country, publicly applauded these virtues as declared by Godey’s, for she, herself, enjoyed the happiest of marriages, albeit with lots of servants and absolutely no need to worry about keeping a roof over her head. No one in the United States seemed to recall the American Revolution less than 100 years previous. They reveled instead in Queen Victoria’s blessing of domestic idealism. You could say these ideas are as old as the hills. You’d be right. But, published in this form, this list became a dangerous, deadly, violent, subversive excuse for men to dominate their wives at best or beat/rape/murder their wives at worst. Men are still taking full advantage of the kind of entitlement this fateful list of Godey’s has given them and the mad rush to comply to them by every man and woman in the upper and middle classes of the world. We are witnessing terrible excesses of behavior every day, from our current President’s grabbing pussy and eliminating health care for women to police violence to restraining orders ignored to rapist custody rights, all inspired and encouraged by the ideas in Godey’s list.
Throw in Puritanism and you have a lovely recipe for domestic asceticism, which brings me again to Emily Dickinson and the film, “A Quiet Passion.”
One of the first scenes we witnessed was of the family settling down to their evening prayer. The Dickinsons were entertaining their new pastor, who attempted to lead the family in prayer. Emily was the only one who refused to kneel and pray. She had some kind of sass back about why. I also despise the wordiness of the upper classes in this era. So contrived. I have no idea what she said about God, but I was able to surmise from it that Emily had her own concepts that the family quietly ignored and did not dispute.
When Emily asked her father if she may write during the hours of 3:00 a.m. till morning we witnessed another example of male dominance. The scene in the film, however, was made palatable by Emily’s humor and the obvious love and affection between her and her father. The first religious scene may have seemed strict and uncomfortable, but I think Emily’s family life was one of devotion and deep love.
I watched a video from the Emily Dickinson Museum of a tour of her bedroom, which you may see here. The docent told a story I think reveals a great deal about Emily: One day, Emily walked into her room with her niece. She turned and closed the door, taking an imaginary key in her hand, she turned it in the lock. “This,” she said to her niece, “is freedom!”
I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay published in 1929 which stated that a woman needed only her own income and a room of her own (with a locked door) in which to work in order to produce her art.
It also reminded me of a quote from a man who worked with troubled teens, some of whom had killed their abusers. He said they’ve told him in therapy, “When the bars slammed shut on my cell, I never felt so free.” Eerie.
I’ve always been of the opinion that Emily did not isolate herself out of shyness. I think she didn’t have anyone worth talking to. Nor do I think Emily’s life was as austere as Terence Davies made it out to be. Her religious thought was one of a struggle to reconcile God with pain and mortality. Yes, her poetry is very concerned with death. But Emily brings a lot of humor to the subject. “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me.”
Terence Davies’ film focused a great deal on Emily’s philosophy and her poetry – that was appreciated. Many films about writers seem to forget their actual work. Usually, filmmakers like to focus on excesses of drink or sex or madness.
However, something Davies seemed to forget was that Emily was a gardener. Emily and her sister, Lavinia did the gardening. Emily’s poems are full of her delight in the garden, in birds, in Nature. She had a great deal of knowledge that she transcribed into her poetry, some of which you may read here. Emily was very attracted to the married editor and publisher Samuel Bowles, who called her “Daisy.” Victorian customs were not all bad. Emily enjoyed the Victorian practice of giving bouquets with secret floral meaning. "On their first meeting, Emily greeted literary mentor, editor and correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson with two daylilies. She identified with them (her auburn hair) and they supposedly symbolized coquetry." The film was full of flowers, which I loved and enjoyed immensely, because I sometimes rate films by their flowers. However, these flowers – in the vases and in the garden - never changed. In the film, it was always summer. And the plants behind the bench Emily sat upon seemed potted and assembled for the shot; they did not naturally alter their bloom or their color with the season. The hydrangea remained always white tinged with green, the color of high summer, just before the blooms begin to deepen into blush, then deeper and deeper rose tones, then copper in the fall. It was never winter in this film, and we know that winter comes to Amherst, Massachusetts.
The film was brutal in its handling of Emily’s struggle with Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. After one particularly difficult scene, a woman in the audience when I was seeing it, got up abruptly and said, “I can’t take this any more!” She left by one of the parking lot exit doors.
As a macrobiotic person, it was very hard for me to watch Emily make all the mistakes that led to her ailment. Particularly, baking. Emily did all the baking in the home. Baking is very unhealthy work. It’s extremely dehydrating in a way that cannot be balanced by simply drinking water. One has to change one’s diet to include softer, more moisture retaining foods, like corn, moistly cooked grains, fat green vegetables, root vegetables and desserts like fresh fruit or cooked applesauce. I do not know exactly what Emily ate on a daily basis, but as a macro, I can work backward from her disease. I do know that she fainted one summer day while baking. I also know that a 19th Century method of relieving Bright’s disease was a dietary recommendation of abstaining from alcohol, cheese and red meat, all of which are very dehydrating when eaten over long periods of time during which she was also baking, probably every day. The act of baking is dehydrating enough, because the intense oven heat is literally absorbing all the moisture from the air, but Emily was also eating the bread, in effect, eating it twice, while she baked and after. Her body was responding to the signals she was giving it – shrivel up, lose water, tighten, shrink, then, stop functioning. You will also notice from the film that Emily’s lungs were also affected; she had difficulty breathing. Standing in a baking kitchen every day had also strained her lungs. Baked goods are yummy, but when eaten too often they can be dangerous – yes, not just in the 19th Century, but now! In our time, that includes muffins, bagels, dried cereals, pizza, and sandwiches, all of which now have added sugar, chemicals, preservatives, dyes and loads of salt!
Note: Emily’s schedule of working hard for at least three hours in the middle of the night, then baking, would have further affected her illness. Sleep would have been better for Emily’s kidneys.
Also a part of “The Cult of True Womanhood” was the placing of virtuous women on a pedestal. Besides the four virtues of Godey's list, good women, in Victorian times, did not consume alcohol with the total abandon of men. If they drank wine or liqueurs, it was modestly. Women were encouraged, however, to drink sugary drinks – sugar water in summer (lemonade, in the film or orangeade were popular summer drinks) or tea with lots of sugar – and eat sugary cakes, cookies and candies. Sugar weakens the human body. Sugar takes nutrients from the body. Sugar also “dirties” the blood, which it is the job of the kidneys to clean. Emily probably ate and drank plenty of sugar, as she was encouraged by the delicate, elite sensibilities of the times. Her kidneys, already compromised by baking, and not sleeping as much as she should, would find all that sugar difficult to process.
We are still suffering from Victorian thought on the matter of the freedom of women. We are still feeling the ripples from Godey’s list of "True Womanhood." However, Godey’s Lady’s Book may have redeemed itself a bit with its long-time editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who “encouraged women to improve themselves intellectually, to write, and to take action that would improve the moral character of their communities and their nation.” Hale promoted Vassar College, advocated for female physicians, and published many of the most important female writers of the nineteenth century. Frances B. Cogan, author of All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (University of Georgia Press, 1989) argued that because of Hale’s ideas, Godey's could be said to support "Real Womanhood" more than "True Womanhood."
Luckily, Emily Dickinson has lived on through her poetry and the poetry of her life.
But, have such lists gone the way of Victorianism?
Not gone. Not forgotten. Here’s one still functioning - click here. The sentiments will not look unfamiliar.
©Patricia Goodwin, 2017
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest book is Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author.