One Night in Maidenhead

Jean McNicol

  • Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits by Terry Castle
    Columbia, 150 pp, £15.95, November 1996, ISBN 0 231 10596 7
  • Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall edited by Joanne Glasgow
    New York, 273 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 8147 3092 2
  • Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline
    Murray, 434 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 07 195540 2

‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, that’s what she is, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me.’ Radclyffe Hall has long since been left behind, along with Joan Ogden, the heroine of her first novel, The Unlit Lamp, and the character to whom these words refer. The young women she had overheard, Ogden thought, were ‘aggressively intelligent ... not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair; women who did things well ... women who counted and who would go on counting ... They might still be in the minority and yet they sprang up everywhere.’ This passage, with its untroubled description of lesbianism, is unusual in Hall’s fiction – although it is true that even these confident young women exist only to point up Joan’s own failure in this respect and others. The portrayal of homosexual life in Hall’s famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, is much more gloomy and melodramatic, and bears little resemblance to her own not terribly tragic life.

Early in her suggestive and elegantly written study of Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall, Terry Castle admits that Hall’s ‘style is for the most part the antithesis of Coward’s – painfully discursive, polemical, almost entirely devoid of gaiety, archness or ambiguity’. Castle attempts to ‘Cowardise’ Hall, though allowing that ‘she may never be exactly sprightly,’ and to break down the stereotypical opposition she sees exemplified in the pair between the writings and the lives of gay men (‘worldly and facetious’) and women (‘humourless and self-involved’). She does this by tracing both their friendship – part of a ‘rich yet neglected’ history of ‘cultural relationships’ between gay men and lesbians since the beginning of this century (several of her examples are members of the Bloomsbury Group whose friendships can’t be said to have been ignored or used to further a theory of separate development) – and what she sees as their, more or less disguised, fictional portraits of each other.

Jonathan Brockett in The Well of Loneliness bears an unmistakable resemblance to Coward. Hall’s heroine Stephen Gordon (Radclyffe Hall was called John for most of her adult life) knows that Brockett, a playwright with soft white hands and an effeminate voice, is a man ‘who would never require more of her than she could give’. When they visit Versailles together he talks to her about Marie Antoinette and Madame de Lamballe. Rumours about Marie Antoinette’s lesbianism were current at the time and two Oxford dons, Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain, who in 1901 had seen an apparition of the Queen near the Petit Trianon, published an account of their experience, An Adventure, in 1911, around the time this scene is set. Marie Antoinette, according to Terry Castle’s essay on this subject, ‘plays the part of both seductive object of desire and visionary emblem of female-female bonding’. Certainly, the two women, who had only just met, lived together for the rest of their lives as ‘husband and wife’. Hall clearly expects her readers to be familiar with the stories about the Queen. Brockett says to Stephen that Marie Antoinette and Madame de Lamballe ‘must often have felt pretty miserable, poor souls; sick to death of the subterfuge and pretences. Don’t you ever get tired of that sort of thing? My God, I do!’ But Stephen doesn’t want to confide in him and his interest in her isn’t entirely friendly: he has ‘a hard, clever face with sharp eyes that were glued to other people’s keyholes. That was why Brockett wrote such fine plays, such cruel plays.’

Like Valérie Seymour (a character based on the American lesbian Natalie Barney, a well-known hostess in Paris), Brockett doesn’t particularly want to be ‘normal’, believes that ‘loneliness’ is not inevitable and that renunciation need not be necessary. Their appearance in the novel challenges its inexorable progress towards tragedy and melodrama, but they fail to prevent Stephen’s absurd self-sacrifice, as she forces her girlfriend into the arms of a man. Brockett abruptly leaves a low dive, refusing to take part in the ‘garish and tragic night life of Paris that lies open to people such as Stephen Gordon’, just as the book gathers speed for the final disaster, which is itself made possible by Valérie’s rather heartless acquiescence – she agrees to pretend that she is having an affair with Stephen. Brockett isn’t similarly compromised, and his presence in the novel remains, as Castle stresses, a ‘salutary incoherence, a rebuff to the dire’.

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