Tormented Genius Women

I have a thing for tormented genius women.

Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.

Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.

What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The BrontesI haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.

Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.

(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)

quiet passion
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia Dickinson.

A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:

The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.

kidman woolf
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.

paltrow plath
Paltrow as Plath, with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes

Cheerful, right?

Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.

tom and jane
James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane

While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.

 

handmaid 2
Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!

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