Queen of the Desert, some notes

As a “hyper-engaged” fan, one truly enters a state of mourning when one’s favorite is no longer on one’s screen. We know what he’s working on now: American Buffalo on stage in London’s West End. And we (the royal we) know we won’t be able to see him unless the play comes to the States and the stars align for us to get to where it’s playing. (Damianista IS seeing the play though, lucky so-and-so she is…so stay tuned for her story on seeing Damian as Teach, live). And we know his next project to start filming June is Billions on Showtime. So there we are with what’s he doing now and what he will be doing soon.

Now for what he has already done and what hasn’t made it to screen yet. We know that Damian Lewis has completed several films that are waiting on distribution. A film recently announced to have a U.S. distributor and set for limited release in September is Queen of the Desert, the story of Gertrude Bell, the female counterpart to that great explorer who got not one but two (or possibly more? ) films made about him, T.E. Lawrence, who we know as Peter O’Toole’s first, then Ralph Fiennes’ (and now Robert Pattison’s) Lawrence of Arabia. This post will be some theorizing on what we may be seeing in the film Queen of the Desert. Hopeful, longing, desirous theorizing, much like the letters Gertrude Bell (played by Nicole Kidman) exchanged with Charles Doughty-Wylie (played by Damian Lewis) for the few years of their problematic courtship.

Now, I’d heard the name Gertrude Bell before only in reference to her connection with Virginia Woolf, and then only in reference to the connection to Vita Sackville-West. You see, in Victorian England, there were apparently only a handful of women producing and writing and thinking of great big things, like feminism and sexual freedom. Their names were so few that they could all be spoken of in the same breath. Only with this upcoming film featuring Damian Lewis did I gain an education on who Gertrude Bell was and what she accomplished in her abbreviated but richly lived life.



Queen of the Desert is a film directed by Werner Herzog. I admit, as prolific a film maker as he is , I haven’t seen any of Herzog’s work, which dates back to the 60’s. From the still shots in various publications and the interviews he gave at Berlinale earlier this year, it’s obvious he’s a very thoughtful film maker, exceptionally driven (taking par for the course to put his actors through scenes knee-deep in sand the moment they land on set), and passionate about his craft. Herzog, with Damian by his side, gave an excellent interview for the German celebrity talk show Filmselskabet during Berlinale. Sadly, that interview seems to be gone from their site. You can, however, still see the cast and film maker’s extended press conference at Berlinale.
Also, as these stills show, Herzog seems to be a film maker keen on delivering the perfectly framed sense and mood of space.download

source: Queen of the Desert, official stills

We know of Gertrude Bell’s relationship with Charles Doughty-Wylie through the letters they exchanged. Doughty destroyed the letters he received from her, but Bell kept hers and they eventually landed at the Newcastle University where they remain elite members of their Special Collections. Curiously most of the collection at the Gertrude Bell archive has been scanned and is available to view online. These letters, however, remain something that must be seen in person. I found choice snippets of the letters within a chapter devoted to Charles Doughty-Wylie in the book Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell. Damian Lewis spent hours perusing the originals himself when he visited the library as he researched for the role.


And we also know that while on her voyages through the Arabian peninsula and beyond, Gertrude Bell kept one set of journals that she would make public and refer to when writing her books and articles on the region, while keeping another set of journals, meant only for the eyes of Charles Doughty-Wylie. Having read most of the entries in those journals in Gertrude Bell, The Arabian Diaries, I was at a loss to find anything that could at all be considered risque or worthy of subterfuge. They are mostly dry, academic reflections on the archaeological inventory she was taking on her voyages and tales of the people she was meeting, interspersed with her expert knowledge of Arabic, and mundane details about food and camels. She wrote vivid anthropological observations on this culture so foreign to her peers in Victorian England, her only goal being to increase the fount of knowledge of the area. At the end of each of these entries she would disembark from the academic dais and write wistfully poetic words about longing and absence and memory and the larger meaning of what she was doing. One such entry speaks volumes on her thoughts about her mission and can be viewed as the misgivings any researcher or academic goes through at some point in their work.

G. B. to D-W.
Feb 16. [16 February 1914]
I am suffering from a severe fit of depression today—will it be any good if I put it into words, or shall I be more depressed than ever afterwards? It springs, the depression, from a profound doubt as to whether the adventure is after all worth the candle. Not because of the danger— I don’t mind that; but I am beginning to wonder what profit I shall get out of it all. A compass traverse over country which was more or less known, a few names added to the map—names of stony mountains and barren plains and of a couple of deep desert wells (for we have been watering at another today)—and probably that is all. I don’t know what tete [offer] the Rashid people will make to me when I arrive, and even if they were inspired by the best will in the world, I doubt whether they could do more than give me a free passage to Baghdad, for their power is not so great nowadays as it once was. And the road to Baghdad has been travelled many times before. It is nothing, the journey to Nejd, so far as any real advantage goes, or any real addition to knowledge, but I am beginning to see pretty clearly that it is all that I can do.

There are two ways of profitable travel in Arabia. One is the Arabia Deserta way, to live with the people and to live like them for months and years. You can learn something thereby , as he did; though you may not be able to tell it again as he could. It’s clear I can’t take that way; the fact of being a woman bars me from it. And the other is Leachman’s way—to ride swiftly through the country with your compass in your hand, for the map’s sake and for nothing else. And there is some profit in that too.

I might be able to do that over a limited space of time, but I am not sure. Anyway it is not what I am doing now. The net result is that I think I should be more usefully employed in more civilized countries where I know what to look for and how to record it. Here, if there is anything to record the probability is that you can’t find it or reach it, because a hostile tribe bars your way, or the road is waterless, or something of that kind, and that which has chanced to lie upon my path for the last 10 days is not worth mentioning—two wells, as I said before, and really I can think of nothing else.

So you see the cause of my depression. I fear when I come to the end I shall not look back and say: That was worth doing; but more likely when I look back I shall say: It was a waste of time. It’s done now, and there is no remedy, but I think I was a fool to come into these wastes when I have not, and cannot have, a free hand to work at the things I care for. And this reflection is discouraging. It comes too late, like most of our wisest reflections.

That’s my thought tonight, and I fear it is perilously near the truth. I almost wish that something would happen—something exciting, a raid, or a battle! And yet that’s not my job either. What do ineffective archaeologists want with battles? They would only serve to pass the time and leave as little profit as before. There is such a long way between me and letters, or between me and anything and I don’t feel at all like the daughter of kings, which I am supposed here to be. It’s a bore being a woman when you are in Arabia.

These posts were meant solely to be read by this man she loved, mostly from a distance. And even though they were mostly perfunctory academic observations with only a hint of personal emotion tagged on at the end of each post, she saw fit to separate them out from her public work. Alas, just the idea of a single adventuring woman writing to a married man was reason enough for discretion I suppose, certainly in Victorian times.

The letters they exchanged, however, weren’t nearly as discrete. Talk about steamy. Nothing coarse or lurid, mind you. Restrained within the time and place they were written, but oh so passionate.

More in my next post.

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