Friday, December 28, 2007


Above and below: British actor James Murray as Dick Dewy
in the 2004 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.

Alright, alright, I admit it: I’ve got a thing for a guy with sideburns. No, not just your regular sideburns, but those over-sized ones sported by the likes of 1960s’ crooner Engelbert Humperdinck or the smoldering, often tortured male protagonists in any number of film adaptations of classic English novels.

This rather superfluous fact about myself hit home (literally) last Sunday evening when, snowbound in St. Paul, I found myself in front of the telly unable to resist watching the BBC's 2005 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (1872).

Actually, it was actor James Murray as handsome, passionate (and, yes, generously sideburned) Dick Dewy that I couldn’t resist.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. To be honest, I wasn’t until this past Sunday night. It’s cited as Hardy’s lightest and most comedic work, and has been described as a “rollicking ode to the goodhearted rural traditions of 1840s [English] town life.

Here’s how outlines the story:

When a young educated woman with the preposterous name of Fancy Day (played by Keeley Hawes) returns to her small rural village of Mellstock to care for her father, she finds herself pursued by three very different men: The poor but handsome Dick Dewy (James Murray), the crude but wealthy Mr. Shiner (Steve Pemberton), and the erudite but pompous Parson Maybold (Ben Miles). The story is slender but enjoyable, with hints of class conflict and the changes due to come from the impending Industrial Revolution.

Now, truth be told, I don’t think I’m the only gay man to be drawn to those handsome, dashing, and romantic men of English historical fiction. Dick Dewy may be the latest of such characters to appear on my radar, but there have been others – Horatio Hornblower , for instance, comes to mind.

Above: Ioan Gruffudd, sans sideburns,
as Horatio Hornblower.

And it’s not just gay men who find the looks and antics of such men attractive. In 2004, the Orange Prize for Fiction conducted a poll in which almost two thousand women voted the character of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice as the most popular “fictional romantic character” and “the man they would most like to go on a date with”!

Above: Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the
1996 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Writing about the results of this poll and the popularity of Mr. Darcy-type figures in general, Cherry Potter makes the astute observation that, in reality, “dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and later fall in love with, often . . . turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.”

Dick Dewy, you may be pleased to know, doesn’t really fit the Mr. Darcy mold. Said another way, he may wear (and look good in) a Lord Byron-style poet’s shirt, but he’s free of the characteristics of your typical Byronic hero. For a start, he’s not arrogant. Neither is he self-critical, painfully introspective, moody, or self-destructive. And he’s certainly not a loner rejected by society. For Mr. Dewy, there’s no wandering about desolate and windswept moors, as with the case of poor Heathcliff. No, people actually, er, like Dick.

For instance, unlike Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (who loathed Mr. Darcy upon first encountering him) Fancy Day is quite taken by the handsome and charming Dick Dewy. From the get-go, there’s a strong sense of mutual attraction between the two. And, for all its simplicity, Dick’s gentle brushing of his hand against Fancy’s as they wash their hands together in a bowl of water, conveys a potent sexual energy that both of them clearly sense, share, and are drawn to explore further.

Yet if Fancy is to follow her heart and marry Dick, who, it needs to be said, works as a humble carrier in the village, she would be marrying beneath her social class. Her well-meaning old Dad is adamant that either the wealthy Mr. Shiner or the handsome and learned Parson Maybold would be a far a better “catch” for her. Needless to say, after various trials and assorted misunderstandings, Fancy and Dick find true love with each other

It’s a journey beautifully depicted in the following video by Ladyhawke87, who artfully blends scenes from Under the Greenwood Tree with the Dana Glover song, “It is You (I Have Loved).”

So, what’s the message I take from Under the Greenwood Tree? Well, it’s a simple one, as all the important messages are: love knows no boundaries – be they class, race, or gender. History and current events document that humanity’s realization of this truth, though slow at times to dawn, has nevertheless dawned and continues to dawn.

The story of Under the Greenwood Tree also reminds me that love vanquishes ignorance and fear – our own and others’. In the face of life-affirming and life-giving love, strictures on love between consenting adults – be these strictures ecclesial or societal in origin – are inevitably shown to be the feeble and foolish things that they are. History and experience demonstrate again and again that such strictures are no match for the human flourishing that authentic love brings forth in the lives of partnered individuals and, by extension, their communities. I compare such victories to the gentle yet relentless growth of flowers through cracks in seemingly impenetrable concrete. Yet grow these beautiful and resilient little flowers do, and in their courageous awakening and growth they weaken the concrete and allow more life to flourish. So often, that’s how change in our society and church occurs. It’s difficult, to be sure, but also beautiful, life-giving, and inspiring.

Finally, as I watched Under the Greenwood Tree alone in my house, with snow gently descending outside my windows, I was reminded of how much I miss being in love and sharing my life with another. Without doubt, intentional and committed relationships bring an added dimension of focus, clarity, and energy to one’s life. I really believe that being connected with another in this way energizes and compels us to be the best we can be – on multiple levels of our being.

As a gay man who is not called to celibacy yet who is not partnered with another, I sometimes struggle to stay hopeful and true to this vision of what love and, by extension, sexual expression should be about. Aspects of gay male culture undoubtedly encourage gay men to view themselves and others solely as objects for sexual gratification. That may work for some, but not for me. Now, having said that, I also have to acknowledge that I resonate with author Thomas Stevenson who, in his book Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men, writes:

No doubt, a greater degree of personal relating can take place more commonly within the context of a growing committed relationship. But that is not to say, categorically, that personal relating can never take place within so-called promiscuous behavior, notwithstanding the very prevalent dangers of depersonalization that so often surround and happen with promiscuous behavior.

Stevenson’s book documents the experiences and insights of numerous gay Catholic men. He refers to these men as “witnesses,” and when summarizing their thoughts on different types of sexual experiences and relationships, notes the following:

There is a difference between losing oneself and losing oneself. On the one hand, our witnesses are concerned with the ways in which promiscuous behavior can leave one with a sense of emptiness, or destroy one’s self respect or even one’s life. These are very real possibilities of losing oneself. On the other hand, there is the losing of oneself in an ecstasy of giving and receiving persons. Whereas the first way of losing oneself tends to lead, in matters of degree, to nothingness, the second tends to lead, in matters of degrees, to fullness and bliss.

I also appreciate the perspective of Coleman Barks who, when writing on the love poetry of Rumi, reminds us that:

At the core of each person’s nature are unique seeds of desiring, which flourish through the development of personality, not through any suppression of it. We are not to become pale renunciate ciphers with no wantings. [Desires] are not to be thwarted but lived, transmuted, and incorporated. This is the art of forming a personality. Only when we live [our desires] do we learn that those satisfactions are not what we truly wanted. There’s more, and we are here to follow the mysteries of longing beyond where they lead. The purpose of desire is to perfect the longings, for at the core of longing is the Friend, Christ, Krishna, the emptiness . . . The great love at the center of longing has no fear in it.

And then there’s this wonderful
observation from D. Stephen Heersink (aka the Gay Species):

Mechanical Sex, the kind that sex manuals teach their readers to enjoy with abandon, quickly becomes pedestrian, indeed mechanical. Get it up, get it in, and get off. On the opposite side of the spectrum is sexual, or more accurately, ‘erotic” love. These extraordinary occasions are pregnant with meaning, intimacy, caring, sharing, mutuality, and immersion. But this requires an investment in the other, and some measure of self-control by one’s self. The “significance” is when the eyes, lips, and breath of the Other is itself so captivating that one is not aware of any of the mechanics.”

The insights of Steveson, Barks, and Heersink make a lot of sense to me. I resonate with them and believe that most other people - open to the presence of the sacred in human life - would also. They are insights that reflect a very wise and compassionate way of understanding and talking about the complexities of sexual desire and experience.

Unfortunately, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexuality fail to reflect such complexity and diversity. As a result, the people and relationships that embody these realities are dismissed and maligned. Like the vast majority of gay men, I don’t fit either of the limited and dehumanizing stereotypes officially promoted by Roman Catholicism. I am neither a martyr to celibacy nor an irreligious hedonist consumed by promiscuity.

Indeed, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not very good at being either celibate or promiscuous. Instead, I’m dedicated to a searching life “somewhere in between.” It’s not a desperately searching life, but rather one filled with hope and the joy of pilgrimage, one that is respectful of honest doubts, and open to different types of authentic relationships (and thus to God present in my life and the world in different ways).

I trust that one day one of those “types of relationships” will be defined and sustained by the mutual attraction and connection I’ll share and express (sacramentally and sexually) with another man. Together we’ll endeavor to ensure that such “mutual attraction and connection” serves to welcome and nurture many different types of experiences that, in the words of D. Stephen Heersink, will be “pregnant with meaning, intimacy, caring, sharing, mutuality, and immersion.” They’ll be life-giving, in other words. (So much for expressions of gay love not being “procreative”!)

I’m grateful that I live at a time when such life-giving sharing and expressions of love between two people of the same gender are increasingly being recognized, affirmed, and accepted – by individuals, families, societies, and faith communities. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, for as theologian Maria Harris notes in her contribution to the 1999 anthology, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: “[In our current times] the human race undeniably has a different understanding of sexuality from what it had in the past.”

Harris goes on to observe that: “Studies subsequent to the two Kinsey Reports have confirmed the fact that the human race has an imaginative diversity of sexual expression. Sexual intimacy between consenting partners of same sex seems to be nothing less and nothing more than part of that wonderful range of expression.”

In embracing and articulating awareness of such diversity, Harris invites contemporary Christians to “see homosexuality as part of God’s creation, sanctified by the Incarnation.” She goes on to write:

The world of our bodily senses is not a veil that obscures divinity. The material world, whatever its groans and travails, is the expression of divine goodness. The best impulses of that world – the genuine struggles for the fulfillment of bodily existence – cannot be dismissed . . . People’s sexual expressions have to be seen within that context.

Now I realize, of course, that the characters of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day are just that: fictional characters. Yet they can also be seen to represent real people who at certain times and within certain contexts in the evolution of human consciousness, challenged the strictures, rules, and societal norms of their day in order to allow love to break and shine forth. Such breaking forth continues today. We see it in the efforts and struggles of same-gender couples to live authentically as partnered couples.

I see “the greenwood tree” as a metaphor for life – in all its unfolding beauty and diversity. There’s room in the cooling shade of this tree’s welcoming and sheltering branches for all of us. It’s here in this realm of consciousness and compassion that I intend to dwell and flourish as a human being. And who knows, perhaps in my flourishing I’ll attract and be drawn to my own Dick Dewy. He won’t be a hero or a savior, but simply another man open to that special type of relationship and journey to which we’ll both feel called to share with one another. And, in all honesty, he can be with or without overgrown sideburns!

Recommended Off-site Links:
All Things James Murray
Mr. Darcy is to Die For
– Cherry Potter (Sydney Morning Herald, October 20, 2004).
Animal Energies - excerpts from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing by Coleman Barks.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
This “Militant Secularist” Wants to Marry a Man
Somewhere in Between
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Sons of the Church: A Discussion Guide
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part I)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part II)
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex


crystal said...

My favorite of that type of movie is Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson version). I'll have to look for Under the Greenwood Tree.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article. I floated on in looking for articles about James Murray, and found that you had listed my site as a resource for your article. I love what you had to say, and agree with a great deal of it.

Thank you. I enjoyed reading your reaction to one of my favourite films(and actors)