One of my current projects is trying to understand Rose Allatini, author of the remarkable novel Despised and Rejected (1918).
Since the novel was prosecuted and banned, it is not surprising that Allatini seems to have shirked the subject of deviant sexualities in her later fiction. The 1935 novel Girl of Good Family (written under the pseudonym ‘Lucian Wainwright’) is largely autobiographical, and includes many references corresponding to events of Allatini’s own life, but avoids any hints of same-sex relationships, and does not touch on what must have been one of the most dramatic and upsetting episodes of her life, the prosecution and destruction of her novel.
What I have found harder to understand is Allatini’s conversion, round about the time of her novel’s banning, to Theosophy, a fashionable creed that mashed together elements of eastern religions, including ideas about reincarnation. What drew an obviously intelligent and aware young woman to this belief?
Recently, though, I have been re-reading Radclyffe Hall’s short story ‘Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself’, written in about 1926, though not published until the thirties. It’s an odd story, but makes sense of a link between homosexuality and Theosophist ideas.
The story begins at the end of 1918, when Miss Ogilvy is watching the disbanding of the Ambulance Unit that has been her life for the past three years. Hall describes her ‘tall awkward body with its queer look of strength, its broad, flat bosom and thick legs and ankles’. With hands thrust deep into pockets, Miss Ogilvy straddles her legs ‘as though she were still standing firm under fire while the wounded were placed in her ambulances’. Hall is signalling clearly that this woman is a ‘invert’ like herself, or like Stephen, the hero/ine of her novel The Well of Loneliness.
After the ‘undignified, pitiful ending’ of the ‘those glorious years at the Front’, Miss Ogilvy returns to the England where she never fitted in. As a girl she had ‘loathed sisters and dolls’ but had loved weight training, even though her mother told her that ‘a young girl ought not to have muscles.’
Miss Ogilvy lived an isolated spinsterish life till she was in her fifties, but when war was declared she saw her chance, cut her hair short, offered her services to a French Ambulance and proved herself ‘competent, fearless, devoted and untiring.’
When she returns home after the War, it is to a dull world that can find no use for her talents:
Wars come and wars go but the world does not change: it will always forget an indebtedness which it thinks it expedient not to remember.
Eventually chance takes Miss Ogilvy to an island off the Devon coast, where, oddly, she seems to remember things she could not possibly have known. When her landlady shows her a prehistoric skull dug up on the island, she is overcome by a strange anger:
[H]er eyes, which had never wept since childhood, filled slowly with large hot difficult tears.
Then the narrative lurches.
Miss Ogilvy knew that she was herself […] and yet she was not Miss Ogilvy at all, nor had she a memory of her.
She is extremely tall, and ‘Her arms and legs which were closely tattooed with blue zigzag lines, were extremely hairy.’ the story begins to use the pronoun ‘him’ to describe this person. The beautiful girl by her side worships him, and they achieve a rough, violent sexual union:
‘No…no…’ she gasped. For, divining his need, she was weak with longing to be possessed; yet the terror of love lay heavy upon her, ‘No…no…’ she gasped.
But he caught her wrist and she felt the great strength of his rough, gnarled fingers, the great strength of the urge that leapt in his loins, and again she must give that quick gasp of fear, while she clung close to him lest he should spare her.
After their lovemaking, the narrative breaks to tell us that next morning Miss Ogilvy was found dead, with her hands thrust deep in her pockets.
It’s a strange and powerful story, and it’s surely referring to the Theosophist doctrine of reincarnation. In a previous life Miss Ogilvy had been that caveman; he is part of what she is, and partly explains her sexual nature. Making contact with her deep identity means that Miss Ogilvy has ‘found herself’; she is complete.
Other explanations of homosexuality a hundred years ago were demeaning. ‘Inverts’ could be seen as a crime against God and normality, or as a medical anomaly. The theory of reincarnation offered a dignified and positive reason for homosexuality. Confused or unconventional sexuality became explicable as the result of a former, differently-gendered, identity manifesting itself.
Is this the thinking that underlies the suggestion in Despised and Rejected that Dennis had ‘the soul of a woman in the body of a man’?
I’ve now got hold of Allatini’s 1921 novel When I was a Queen in Babylon, which I think will treat of Theosophical ideas. I’ll report back here when I’ve read it.