Damian Lewis is set to hit limited big screens September 15, incarnated as Charles (Richard) Doughty-Wylie in Queen of the Desert. What can we expect or hope to see? As discussed in Georgina Howell’s book, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, the love affair between CDW and Gertrude Bell was lived largely on paper and pen. The two rarely spent time together, and when they did it was often in mixed company. Among that mixed company they would be the ones last at the table or next to the fire, still talking after the party had drifted off, still exchanging ideas and observations about the places in the Middle East they both had the privilege to travel and explore. Before GB started her diaries for Richard, which I spoke of in my last post, they had a rich correspondence. In these letters, they spoke to each other and about each other with a lavishly poetic vocabulary that leads to all kinds of imaginings on what we’ll see between Damian Lewis and Nicole Kidman enacting this couple on screen.
CDW and GB connected most over the exotic land they were both exploring. Their story takes place in a time when England was at the cusp of empire-building, and, arguably, they were both a part of the colonial mission. Of course any talk of colonialism opens up a can of nasty worms. So it’s important to know that even though CDW was a soldier and GB a covert intelligence officer, their journey, both together and apart, was driven most by their need to explore and to witness the world first hand, not necessarily to put the mark of the Empire upon it.
Recounting his first meeting with GB, CDW said: “GB walking in covered with energy and discovery and pleasantness.” And what was GB’s first impression of him? Howell tells us: “‘He is very nice,’ Gertrude noted almost shyly. Given her usual expansive way to expressing herself, the four words are noticeable for their brevity, as if she were suppressing whatever else might be said or felt about him.” Gertrude in her late 30’s was at the peak of her career and attractiveness; she glowed with excitement and was able to captivate everyone around her with stories of her adventures. As loquacious and upbeat as she was, she saw that CDW was anything but. He seemed to have a certain darkness to him: “He was serious in mind and grave in demeanor. She felt there was little laughter in his life.” The more she got to know him, the more she realized how deeply he held his beliefs: “He was both spiritual and unflinching.” Here was a man just as much an adventurer as herself, just as curious and impulsive and passionate, but, unlike her, very tied down to a standard of behavior he was committed to maintaining. He was well-read, well-spoken and, most importantly for GB, did not resent the time and passionate energy she put towards her work. Howell writes: “There was the euphoria of sexual attraction that they both felt; and for the novelty of being with a man who was not wary of her, nor alienated by her exploits, nor anxious to hide his ignorance of the subject she discussed so knowledgeably.”
He was drawn to her intellect and independence. And she was drawn to the fact that she had at last met an equal, a man equally drawn to travel and exploration, who wasn’t content to rest on his Victorian laurels into a conventional Victorian life.
CDW was a bit of a rogue. He had had other affairs and perhaps, at least at the beginning, imagined his dealings with GB would be yet another extra-marital dalliance. This clip from the film may allude to the time when he first realizes this woman isn’t going to be another easy affair. Damian Lewis is playing it like GB is bound to be another of CDW’s elicit conquests. When she pulls away, he’s intrigued that she may be different than other women with whom he’s had affairs. As CDW seems to be at a loss for words, simply repeating words said by GB, Damian Lewis is playing shyness, curiosity, confusion, and he’s totally playing the rogue as he takes out his cigarette seconds after she pulls away. What he doesn’t seem to be playing is desire, so this may well be the scene when the spark hasn’t been lit fully yet.
In this clip, GB is referring to a painful relationship she had with Henry Cadogan (played in the film by James Franco), which ended with his death. It’s hard to tell in this scene, but, according to Howell, GB’s relationship with Henry didn’t go as far or as deeply as her relationship with CDW. So it seems she’s using her trauma over that relationship simply as an excuse to not get too close to this desirable and handsome man who has just kissed her, a man who she knows is very much married.
Though this clip leaves us guessing, their relationship wasn’t simply a game of Victorian cat and mouse. CDW seemed to genuinely respect and admire GB’s professional accomplishments. He was as attracted to her mind as he was to her body. Clearly, CDW was a man drawn to strong independent women. After all, his wife was no slouch either. Judith Wylie was a highly educated widowed woman who insisted that both her husbands hyphenate their surname with hers after marriage. She was committed to operating a hospital in a war zone, no small task.
CDW’s seeming generosity to the feminist cause (well before feminism became a cause) may have arisen from the fact that GB would never be his wife or a mother to his children, so why pass manly judgment on what she did as a career? Even if this were true, Gertrude did not sense in him any sort of flippant or dismissive attitude towards her career. She saw her equal in every way and sensed he did too (they were even the same age). She was enamored of him for that and for the raw sexual attraction she felt for him. Even when “he had never given her any cause for hope on this score.” To Gertrude, he offered only words as a form of commitment:
I have often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly, little and much, as the blood took me, or the time or the invitation, or simply for the adventure –to see what happened. But that is all behind me.
In their correspondence, she held back nothing. She had not the time nor inclination to play teasing games or manipulations. Howell tells us “There was no reserve, no evasion or calculation in her own communications.” She blatantly told him she wanted to be with him at all costs. She wanted to be with him exclusively, not just as a mistress. “She did not intend to start a sexual relationship with him, merely to continue the exquisite mutual delight of his attractive and attracted presence.”
And so they wrote and wrote and thought and thought and longed for each other. Wisely, albeit frustratingly, CDW remarked that the energy behind sexual attraction may be more useful as a vehicle for inspiration than for the act itself. The dance, the pull, is more tangible, more conducive to personal and spiritual growth than the consummation. He wrote:
These desires of the body that are right and natural, that are so often nothing more than any common hunger — they can be the vehicle of fire of the mind, and as that only are they great.
They had one opportunity when they could have acted on their desires. He was in London alone and asked her to join him there and she did. He wrote:
Write to me there…while I am alone, let’s be alone.
They proceeded to spend four days and nights together. Howell tells us, “Gertrude and Dick sat on by the fire together, talking and looking at each other. To her it was a dream: It would have been like this if they had been married.”
But, for whatever reason, their union remained unconsummated. After that time physically together but not together, they went their separate ways again and continued to write. The longing hadn’t abated since that meeting. It only grew more pronounced.
In recalling their time together and the fact they didn’t go all the way when they had the chance, CDW wrote:
It was right…and the sober part of me does not regret — the drunk part regrets and remembers until he goes to sleep.
When she momentarily withdrew and wasn’t writing to him or when he wasn’t getting her letters, he wrote:
Where are you? It’s like writing to an idea, a dream..Is it that gloom that is so black tonight? Or is it the regret for things lost, great and splendid things I find in your book, your mind and body, and the dear love of you, all lost…Would you like me to write you a love letter — to say how glad and gratified and humble I am when I think of you.
When he finally did hear from her again, his hope was renewed:
..desert has you, you and your splendid courage, my queen of the desert — and my heart is with you. If I was young and free, and a very perfect knight, it would be more fitting to take and kiss you. But I am old and tired and full of a hundred faults…you are right — not that way for you and me– because we are slaves, not because it is not the right, the natural way– when the passions of the body flame and melt into the passions of spirit—in those dream ecstasies so rarely found by any human creature, those, as you say, whom God hath really joined– in some divine moment we might reach it—the ecstasy. We never shall. But there is left so much. As you say my dear, wise Queen — all that there is we will take.
But, ultimately, no matter the hope, reality was too much for either of them to bear. He wrote:
To the things you say of some future in far places, they are dreams, dream woman.
And how did it all end? History has been written so I don’t think of this as a spoiler but consider this a warning anyway.
Earlier in his career, CDW was known for many courageous deeds and bold military maneuvers. When Turkey was in the throes of a nationalist rebellion as the Young Turks were slaughtering Armenians, CDW “donned his old uniform” and lead Turkish troops through the streets, took a bullet, and went back to save thousands of lives. He was honored for this by both his home country of England and by Turkey. Given this show of courage and preparation, what are we to make of his last foray into battle? CDW walked onto a hill in range of the enemy in the midst of battle, carrying only his cane. Inexplicably, he had left his firearm behind. He walked casually up this hill and was promptly shot in the head. Was this a case of foolish soldiering or, more likely, hopelessness and despair over never having the woman he desired above all?
GB never recovered from their affair either. She went on to have more adventures but she never loved again. Ultimately she wanted to go on but in a work-fueled trance, cut off from all emotion. She wrote:
[I] want to cut all links with the world..This is the best and wisest thing to do…I want the road and the dream, the sun, the wind and the rain, the camp fire under the stars, and sleep, and the road again.
One can only hope that Herzog is able to convey their spoken, yet perpetually deferred and never acted upon, desire on screen. One can only hope that the depth of a romance lived only in words can be translated into something visual. I’m resisting reading too many reviews of the film for fear of spoilers, so all I have is the confidence (and imagination) to say that Damian Lewis will do his utter best to convey the heat.