I spent Saturday in Bristol for the OutStories Bristol Annual General Meeting. The official business was done very quickly because I have been taught how to run a meeting by the brilliant Mr. Standlee. This allowed us to get on with the more interesting part of the day, which was a talk by Dr. Jana Funke of Exeter University on the subject of Radclyffe Hall. I have a very nice recording which you can listen to here.
The meeting, by the way, took place in the Wills Memorial Building at Bristol University. It is a faux medieval fake, presumably built with the proceeds of the tobacco trade, but it does make for a nice backdrop. Goodness only knows what the face on the lectern is about.
One of the things that interested me about the talk is how much of Hall’s writing has fantastical themes. She does a lot of time travel and body-swapping. Both she and Virginia Woolf used these techniques to write about sexuality and gender in a way that would attract less attention, in contrast to The Well of Loneliness which was explicit and banned. It rather reminds me of Russian writers using science fiction to write about politics.
The other thing I latched onto was discussion as to Hall’s gender identity. Jana used female pronouns throughout because Hall and her acquaintances do so. However, she notes that Hall has a very masculine gender presentation. I could add to that the doubly-masculine name of the female hero of The Well of Loneliness, Stephen Gordon.
During the later 19th and early 20th Centuries most people conflated ideas of sexuality, gender identity and gender presentation. If you were an “invert” (the term used for homosexual people at the time) then you were expected to adopt characteristics of the other end of the gender spectrum. Lesbian couples were expected to be a femme and a butch, and the femme partner was not seen as an invert in the same way that the butch was.
Some people will argue that we can’t identify Hall as trans because the term did not exist back then. Certainly she wasn’t able to able to adopt it for herself. Nevertheless, there were people of the time who clearly identified in a way we now recognize as trans. Dr. Alan Hart had his top surgery in 1917 and went on to take testosterone once it had been identified by science and pioneered by Michael Dillon. The important question for me (and my thanks to the young lady in the audience who made this point) is whether Hall herself identified as a man.
You can do interesting comparisons of biographies to throw light on this. Michael Dillon (whose shortly to be published autobiography I have just been reading) clearly identified as male from a very early age. Alice Sheldon, on the other hand, was much more ambiguous. Her lesbian feelings seem to have so horrified her that she never acted upon them, and while she occasionally wrote of wanting to “be a man” it isn’t clear whether this is a gender issue or a yearning for the freedom and social status that masculinity would have given her, or a combination of both.
One thing that I learned from Jana is that Hall was known as “John” to her close friends, so she had in fact adopted a masculine persona. That definitely suggests more of a trans personality. Jana also pointed out a photograph in which Hall is dressed as a native American warrior (her mother was American and she fancifully assumed native descent).
What most gave me the sense of a trans person, however, is what Jana said about The Well of Loneliness, specifically its ending, which is not a happy one. At the end of the book Stephen Gordon fakes an affair with another woman so that her beloved Mary will succumb to the advances of a man and get married. As Jana noted, many modern lesbians dislike the ending. It is hardly a good advert for lesbianism.
Because I had been reading Dillon’s biography, his relationship with Roberta Cowell was in my mind as I was hearing this. We will never know for sure why she refused his offer of marriage. He appears to have been something of a misogynist, which would not have appealed to the independent-minded Cowell so fresh from a life of male privilege. There is some suggestion that she strung him along to get his help in obtaining surgery. But years later in her autobiography Cowell states that her marrying Dillon would be like two women getting married, suggesting that she rather literally thought he wasn’t man enough for her. That’s a very cruel thing for one trans person to do to another, but trans people are no more free of cruelty than anyone else.
Listening to Jana talk about The Well of Loneliness, I wondered about Stephen’s reasons for abandoning Mary. Did Stephen think that she wasn’t “man enough” for her lover, and that it was therefore her duty to step aside in favor of a “real man”? And does this mean that Stephen identified as a man, but was ignorant of other trans folks and so didn’t know that something could be done? If that’s the case, did that reflect Hall’s own feelings about gender?
Ultimately we can’t know. Because of the conflation of sexuality, gender identity and gender performance it is possible that Hall felt she could only be a proper lesbian by being a man, even though she identified as a woman. Certainly enough trans people down the years have been accused of being gays and lesbians who are ashamed of their sexuality, so the idea is very much in the public consciousness. But I agree with Jana that it is possible to read both Stephen Gordon and Radclyffe Hall as trans men rather than butch lesbians, and I think that the end of The Well of Loneliness makes much more sense if you do.
Wikipedia tells me that the novel ends with Stephen pleading with God to, “Give us also the right to our existence!” Chin up, old chap, we’ve done it for ourselves.