Richard Dellamora’s lively and comprehensive study of the novelist and pioneering gender and sexual dissident Radclyffe Hall aims to walk a fine line between biography and cultural studies. Dellamora asserts that biographical readings of Hall’s works, the most common approach of criticism to date, have largely failed to capture the challenge Hall poses to conventional models of gender and sexual identity. By subsuming her radical challenges to contemporary norms under psychologizing rubrics, they reduce Hall’s radical experiments in literature and life to mental conflicts and interpersonal dynamics. However, Dellamora does not simply turn away from biographical material, or even from biographical readings of the major texts. Instead, he contextualizes the biographical in terms of the dizzying array of movements, ideas, and influences out of which modern lesbian public culture began to emerge in the early years of the twentieth century.
Along the way, Dellamora reminds readers that many of the apparent lines in the sand that define contemporary norms of gender and sexuality were arrayed very differently in the relatively recent past. Hall was politically conservative, but radical in her exploration of female desire. She was openly gay and drawn to the bohemian underworld, but was also a member of the Catholic Church. In life she was connected to the group of experimental writers now known as Sapphic modernists, but her own works tended to be antimodernist in both style and spirit. This collection of beliefs and interests seems to border on incoherent to contemporary readers, but as Dellamora shows, they struck neither Hall nor her contemporaries as problematic. Hall emerges from the book as a powerful exemplar of queer thought and practice, who regarded gender, sexuality, and their literary expression not as fixed directives, but as an open field for experiment and reinvention
Radclyffe Hall was born in 1880 and died in 1943. She thus witnessed some of the most traumatic events in European history as well as the emergence of myriad possibilities for gender and sexual dissidence: the New Women of the fin de siècle, suffragettes and other feminist activists in the teens and twenties, and a growing gay and lesbian public culture between the wars. She was 15 years old at the time of Oscar Wilde’s trials, a watershed moment for an identity position which, if we are to believe Michel Foucault’s periodization, had effectively been in existence for little more than 25 years. Although Wilde’s trials looked to many like the end of a certain kind of sexual freedom, Dellamora shows that it in fact opened up novel directions for sexual self-fashioning. Much the same thing is true of Hall’s own experience with the court when her most famous work, The Well of Loneliness (1928), was prosecuted for obscenity. Rather than vanishing, as the authorities hoped, the book instead became a key work in the formation of the lesbian public sphere. Dellamora points to a now-lost trove of letters Hall received from admirers who saw themselves in her fictional portrait of the “sexual invert” Stephen Gordon and her lover Mary Llewellyn.
Dellamora tells the story of Hall’s life and writing through the many movements and influences with which she engaged on various levels. Hall was deeply involved in a range of spiritualist movements at the turn of the century, for example. In addition to familiarizing herself with the doctrines of Theosophy, which informed a number of her works, Hall became a member of the Society for Psychical Research. She participated in Society séances, and published an essay in the Proceedings of the Society in 1919. As Dellamora argues, spiritualist theories and practices were not just a casual interest of Hall’s, but became a medium, as it were, for the imagining of female-female desire. In her article for the Proceedings, to which Dellamora devotes a particularly interesting chapter, Hall reports on a series of sittings she had conducted with her long-term partner Una Troubridge in 1916 and 1917. Hall seeks to make contact with her former lover Mabel Batten, who had died recently in a violent automobile accident, and who had formed the third point in a love triangle involving Hall and Troubridge. As Dellamora notes, these sittings were an experiment both in spiritualism and in gender dissidence. Adopting, on the one hand, the implicitly male subject position of the scientific researcher, Hall enacts, on the other, the pervasive modern lesbian fantasy of a telepathic bond between two women. The essay also takes the form of a lesbian coming-out story, revealing Hall’s erotic relationship with two women in what turned out to be scandalous detail.
Hall made similarly creative use, in Dellamora’s telling, of Anglo-Catholic rituals and traditions. Anglo-Catholicism had long been a refuge for sexually dissident men and women in the Victorian age. Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, and fin-de-siècle figures like John Gray, Michael Field, and Marc André Raffelovich publically declared their allegiance to Rome. As Ellis Hanson and others have shown, Catholic art and liturgy offered a powerful source of imagery for imagining same-sex desire. Dellamora notes in particular the influence of Wilde’s sacrificial language in De Profundis (pub. 1905), a work Hall knew well. Blending Catholic with sexological discourse, Hall depicts characters like Stephen Gordon in terms that evoke both Marian and Christic imagery. Devotion and sacrifice become modes through which new ideas about gender and sexual identity emerge.
In other chapters, Dellamora describes the ways in which Hall’s writings interact with a range of other figures from the fin-de-siècle to the inter-war years. In chapter one, Dellamora reads Hall’s early poetry in terms of the seemingly incompatible influences of the Sapphic tradition embodied by decadent and aestheticist writers like Algernon Charles Swinburne and Michael Field and the antimodernist pastoral strain of figures like A. E. Housman. In chapter four, he analyzes Hall’s first completed novel, The Unlit Lamp (1924) in the context of feminist responses to Freudian theories of feminine sexuality. Chapter five reads Hall’s autobiographical novel The Forge (1924) as a commentary on the inter-war Parisian culture of sexual dissidence in which Hall and Troubridge participated alongside figures like Colette, Natalie Barney, and the painter Romaine Brooks. Dellamora turns in chapter six to the similarities between Hall’s third novel, A Saturday Life (1925), and the scandalous works of the playwright Noël Coward. Other chapters find Hall experimenting with cross-gender identity, Buddhist-influenced pantheism inspired by her friendship with May Sinclair, and the theories of early sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing.
Hall’s most enduring achievement is, of course, The Well of Loneliness, and Dellamora devotes two chapters in whole and part to it, provocatively reading the novel as an anticipation of contemporary debates over gay marriage. Couching Hall’s depiction of Stephen and Mary’s relationship in terms of recent studies of queer kinship, he suggests that Hall uses the (pseudo-) scientific theory of sexual inversion in the novel to argue for the civil and social rights of homosexuals. Hall speaks to a gay and lesbian readership, but also, and quite self-consciously, to the larger body of clergy, educators, and psychological professionals who might become advocates for her cause. This approach unfortunately alienated both Hall’s more bohemian friends, who saw marriage as a bourgeois relic and were in search of an ideal of lesbian exceptionalism, and the public authorities, who prosecuted Hall’s publisher for obscenity shortly after the novel was published. As Dellamora notes, the authorities were tellingly disturbed not by the novel’s explicit sexuality—in fact, there is none—but precisely by Hall’s effort to treat lesbian marriage as normal and natural. The Well of Loneliness emerges not only as a crucial text in the formation of a specifically lesbian identity, but also as an important forerunner of current legal and cultural efforts to legitimate gay marriage.
On the whole, Dellamora’s book is a valuable addition both to scholarship on Hall and to the critical literature in gay studies and queer theory surrounding questions of kinship and family. Although it focuses narrowly on Hall’s life and writing, it also provides a pre-history of contemporary debates over gender and sexual equality, and reminds readers that modern sexual identities have been very different in the past and are likely to undergo new transformations in the future.
Matthew Potolsky is Professor of English at the University of Utah. He is the author of The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), and Mimesis (Routledge, 2006), and is co-editor of Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).