The Imaginary World of my Life as an 18th Century Dapper Dyke

Seeing myself in Radclyffe Hall, Dykeon Tortured by Queer Pathology

In 1899, two years before Radclyffe Hall would use her inherited fortune to clothe herself in tailor-made menswear, my apartment was built in a Dutch settlement then called “The Town of Bushwick.” Though the Brooklyn neighbourhood has now seen over a century of commercialisation, my building maintains its red brick facade, creaky wood floors, and in the backyard past a difficult door, a fountain, that although now full of branches and lazily decorated with strung lights, is still quite stately. My favourite feature of the place, however, is on the wall just before the locked gate. A painting of a wintry scene, browning with time, that I’d like to think depicts one of the February snowstorms of Stephen Gordon’s beloved estate, Morton.

“I felt overwhelming shame for having disrupted generations of unquestioned heterosexuality.”

In moments of internalised homophobia, I’m a British heiress, my resentful gaze upon an engaged couple embracing along the English Channel coast. It once hit at a Stumptown in Washington Square Park. I was sitting on the patio when a straight couple passed by hand in hand, their parents and grandparents trailing behind them like a walking family tree; cueing within me the familiar guilt, isolation, and jealousy. Though I love being queer and have never had an interest in marriage, when I left this coffee shop and passed a storefront display of wedding dresses, I felt overwhelming shame for having disrupted generations of unquestioned heterosexuality. That night, I returned to an empty dorm room, and a version of Stephen’s thoughts on that seaside rang in my head: “to know that the whole world was glad of your gladness, must surely bring heaven very near to the world.”

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Radclyffe Hall was a writer most notable for her 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, a culmination of five books which follow Stephen Gordon, an Englishwoman from wealthy family, as she grapples with her sexuality from childhood. A woman who, after being driven from her home, eventually becomes an author and settles into a lesbian relationship. In the first book, an omniscient narrator describes Sir Phillip Gordon’s overwhelming intuition that his pregnant wife, Anna, will give birth to a little boy, and in their excitement, the couple names the child Stephen in utero. When the baby is born female bodied, Phillip remains steadfast to the name and she is baptised in their church as “Stephen Mary Olivia Gertrude.” From her conception, Anna Gordon harbours an unexplainable repulsion to Stephen, and though her husband refutes her inclinations that anything is unusual about her, he has a secret hypothesis about the child that he takes to his early deathbed.

“I was sitting on the patio when a straight couple passed by hand in hand, their parents and grandparents trailing behind them like a walking family tree; cueing within me the familiar guilt, isolation, and jealousy.”

As with many novels in the cannon of lesbian literature, readers have speculated for years whether Radclyffe Hall’s work of fiction is an autobiographical account of her own life. Like Stephen, Hall too preferred cropped hairstyles and suits, once pursued a much older woman, and benefitted from generational wealth. Moreover, she too identified as an “invert,” a term that long predated the naming of homosexuality, and stemmed from “sexual inversion,” a term often used as a catchall for early psychoanalysts to describe things like homosexual behaviour and gender dysphoria. Her high level of education, and the fact that she lived in the country where much gender and sexuality research was being conducted during her lifetime, likely account for Freudian themes and allusions to queer pathology in her novel. After being banished from Morton by her mother, Stephen goes into her deceased father’s study to retrieve his books and finds his copy of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, with her name written in the margins.

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Most recently, it hit in a dream. I was in a friend’s backyard back home wearing a sundress, and could feel the familiar tickling of my old hair, bleached-blonde and billowing, against my exposed neck and back. I was gripping the sort of dispensed lemon-water concoctions that are served at high school graduation parties, and I stood alongside a fictional boyfriend whom I’d been with for years. Even when I’m not sleeping, I become preoccupied with these hypotheticals, contemplating how things may have gone if I’d settled into a straight relationship, or never moved to New York. Perhaps I’d be moving about my safe and content life assuming my strange feelings were the product of a general sexual disinterest. It’s the proximity to normalcy that Stephen feels when she declines to marry a man with whom she’d had a short-lived friendship, and her family grieves what could have been. “They had been so eager to welcome the girl as one of themselves.”

In her adulthood, Radclyffe Hall was able to sustain a long-time relationship with artist Una Troubridge, and the pair’s economic privilege allowed them to live their lives together in comfort despite the prevailing attitudes of their time. Nevertheless, when I become inundated with the thought that my queerness is an immutable affliction, I can’t help but feel pain of a young Stephen Gordon, finding explanation for herself in a book which theorises her sexual orientation is an illness, or writing to her unrequited love: “I don’t know if there are any more like me, I pray not for their sakes, because it’s pure hell.” I wish I could tell her that there are so many more like her. I wish I could promise her that one day it will not be hell.

Words by Brittany Cortez.