The niece of Siegfried Sassoon has criticised a new biopic about the poet for its negative portrayal of his Catholic faith.
Sister Jessica Gatty, a Sister of the Assumption, said that Benediction, a movie written and directed by Terence Davies, starring Jack Lowden in the role of Sassoon, was a “serious misrepresentation of the truth”.
She said the film was “admirable in many ways” but said there was “one deep flaw which needs to be exposed”.
“This is that failure and bitterness were not the end of his story, quite the opposite,” said Sister Jessica, who converted from atheism to Catholicism following conversations with Sassoon, who was married to Hester, her aunt.
“It is a serious misrepresentation of the truth which Siegfried looked for all his life,” she said, according to Independent Catholic News.
“The redemption which he sought in many different ways and which he longed for, was found in the last decade of his life when he came home to Christ in the Catholic Church. He was transformed. I can witness to this, so I need to speak out.
“I saw and knew him in his last years,” she continued. “It was from him that I caught a flame of faith as a young woman many years ago, and which has remained with me all my life.
“I have been an Assumption nun for coming up 50 years. It was an Assumption nun who, by writing to hm from her bed of sickness, opened the door to his conversion, and the profound peace and joy that pervaded his last years.
“The deep thanksgiving present within him towards the end was not present in the film. Indeed, the portrayal of his conversion in conversation with George his son, was rather grim. It spoke more of defiance and grovelling than of being received and absolved by a gentle mercy, opening him up to receive, in all humility ‘a faith that truly blessed his pilgrim path begun’. A Benediction indeed!”
Sister Jessica also said that the well-documented homosexual lifestyle that Sassoon lived for much of his younger life occupied much of the film yet “his `below waist self’ as he put it, his ‘imprisoned clay’, was not the driving force of his life, even though it had its importance”.
She said: “His real vocation was to be a poet. His prose was written mainly in support of his poetry. I have to admit too, that I found some of the poetry chosen as part of the film rather curious … In truth the authentic Siegfried is found best in his poetry.”
Sister Jessica added that although the film contained “great artistry” there was “very much more to his interior journey and that was missing in the film”.
Sassoon, who was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during the First World War, emerged as one of the great war poets when he became disaffected by the conflict, seeking to
alert the British public the horror of trenches through his poetry.
By July 1917, he could have been court-martialled and even shot for his “Soldier’s Declaration”, an unflinching statement of protest at the war which was read out in the House of Commons and published in the Times.
His execution was averted through the intervention of Robert Graves, and possibly Winston Churchill and instead he was sent for treatment for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, and it was there that for first time he met Wilfred Owen, who would become one of the most distinguished of all of the war poets.
In 1957 Sassoon shocked his contemporaries by converting to the Catholic faith. This came after he received a letter from Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin, superior of the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square, London, telling him she had discerned a “yearning for God” in his poetry. They became friends and she introduced him to the writings of St John of the Cross. Sassoon described her as the “greatest benefactor of my life”.
Sassoon asked Mgr Ronald Knox, whom he had met through Katherine Asquith, a friend and a convert, to receive him into the Church. But the priest was too ill so Sassoon was instructed by Dom Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, and he was received there on August 14, 1957 – without informing his wife, son, or friends.
In his new faith, Sassoon felt great joy, sometimes bordering on ecstasy. He built a chapel at his home in Heytesbury and would spend long periods in prayer. He read the sermons of Blessed John Henry Newman and was devoted to the poetry of the Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian Jesuit priest.
In his letters, he reflected that where peace in his life had been once “episodic and unreliable” it had now become permanent. He told Mother Margaret Mary that his first Christmas as a Catholic was “the most profoundly peaceful Christmas Day of my life”, adding: “I’ve never before known what real peace is.”
Preparing for the Easter of 1958, he wrote the poem Lenten Illuminations in which he acknowledges in the concluding verses grace and the presence of God within in his life, speaking to “that all-answering Heart abidant here”.
Most of Sassoon’s family did not wish to follow him into the Catholic Church. The exception was Sister Jessica.
She told the Guardian that their meeting had a profound effect on her. “I knew he had something,” she said. “Part of him seemed to connect to something much deeper. I had lots of questions and I felt he was someone with answers.” Walking in a garden, Sassoon showed her a petal and said: “You have to believe that someone created that.” She said: “I recognised at that moment that, yes, someone had. Siegfried was right.”
Strongly against the wishes of her family, in 1961 she became a Catholic and in 1976 joined the Sisters of the Assumption, the order to which Mother Margaret Mary belonged.
In her view, Sassoon’s writings brought him closer to God. “His poetry turned into prayer,” she says. “The attention that was there as he wrote poetry became the attention that turned to the source of poetry.”
Sassoon’s quest for truth led him in late 1959 into a friendship with Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey.
Stanbrook Abbey agreed to publish a volume of poetry about his movement to the Catholic faith under the title The Path to Peace. Sassoon grew closer to Dame Felicitas and when on September 1 1967 he entered the final hour of his life, a week before his 81st birthday, she felt a strong impulse to make the Stations of the Cross and to pray for the dying. Sassoon was laid to rest close to the grave of Mgr Knox, whom he admired.
Six years later Dame Felicitas published a study of him called Siegfried Sassoon: Poet’s Pilgrimage, a book which contains much of their correspondence.
In one letter, Sassoon tells his friend that he is weary of his “old body” and that he hungers for the “final revelation and summing up of what I’ve accomplished by that very mixed bag – my life”.
“All I know,” he tells her, “is that my pilgrimage has ended as a man before a crucifix finding sanctuary.”
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