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 ...
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).