Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge–and Auntie Mame?

In my recent post spotlighting the several lesbian party guests glimpsed in the background of Auntie Mame I mention how for several seconds a tiny little interpersonal drama seems to play out, conveyed through gesture and expression. What I didn’t note was how these women actually brought to mind two specific historical figures: longtime partners Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, perhaps the most well known lesbian couple of the early twentieth century. During the last years of the 1920’s, the exact period in which this scene in Auntie Mame takes place, Hall was at the height of her public notoriety due to public outcry against her novel The Well of Loneliness, culminating in an obscenity trial in British courts in late 1928. It’s kind of fun to think of her and Una dropping by one of Mame Dennis’s extravagant evening soirées, an unexpected convergence of queer modernist and mainstream Hollywood aesthetics.

Here is the first glimpse of the women in the tumult of the party:

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 2

as well as a closer look:

auntie mame lesbian guests closeup detail

Here is Troubridge and Hall in 1933:

Embed from Getty Images

In the photo above Hall isn’t wearing her signature hat and it is impossible to make out the details of her jacket and other garments, but there are undeniable similarities between Hall’s distinctive facial features and the woman on the far left, and the hairstyle of the woman on right very much resembles Troubridge’s silver coiffure of this period.

Throughout her adult life Hall almost exclusively wore masculine suits, while Troubridge alternated between masculine and more conventionally feminine clothing. Which is interesting, considering the most well-known image of Troubridge is the striking portrait Romaine Brooks painted in 1924 where she appears as a lesbian dandy with a severe bobbed haircut:

romaine brooks una lady troubridge portrait 1924

Brooks’s portrait has since become an essential image of pre-Stonewall lesbian iconography.

Nearly as well known is this handsome 1928 portrait of Hall in profile:

Embed from Getty Images

So did the filmmakers of Auntie Mame, portraying a wild bohemian party from the late 1920’s, intentionally make a sly reference to the period’s most famous lesbian couple? Impossible to say, of course, though it should be noted that it was something of an open secret in Hollywood that Auntie Mame‘s costume designer, the prolific Orry-Kelly, was a gay man, and he would almost certainly have been aware of Hall, and likely Troubridge as well. And it’s not at all a stretch to imagine that as both international celebrities and artistic figures, Hall and Troubridge would have found the oversized doors of Mame Dennis’s penthouse thrown wide open to them, their hostess delighted to have them join her assembly of “eccentrics.”

But whether or not these visual resemblances between these extras and Hall and Troubridge was a deliberate choice is, in the end, somewhat beside the point. By the 1950’s, when Auntie Mame was made, the figures of Hall and Troubridge were so firmly established in the public imagination as archetypes of lesbian identity and sapphic sartorial style that American film audiences would directly link them back to The Well of Loneliness and its famous author anyway–so why not extend them a cinematic invitation to the party?

PROVENANCE:

(Top to Bottom)

Auntie Mame
. Dir. Morton DaCosta. By Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Perf. Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1958. DVD.

Troubridge and Hall attending first night of When Ladies Meet (1933)
Credit: Sasha / Stringer
Getty Images

Una, Lady Troubridge (1924)
Romaine Brooks
Oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Radclyffe Hall (1928)
Credit: Russell / Stringer
Getty Images

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Book Review: LADIES ALMANACK by Djuna Barnes

[To continue celebrating Djuna Barnes this week and because I was thinking about it in light of a film adaptation currently in the works, I’ve decided to revisit and expand this review which was originally posted on Goodreads.]

“‘The Night-Life of Love,’ said Saint Musset, ‘burns I think me in the slightly muted Crevices of all Women who have been a little sprung with continual playing of the Spring Song, though I may be mistaken, for be it known, I have not yet made certain on this point.'”

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes illustration

Even after more than eight decades critics and scholars still squabble over what exactly Djuna Barnes was trying to accomplish with her Ladies Almanack. Is it an affectionate satire? An exuberant celebration? A sly denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?

Of course, this is Djuna Barnes we are talking about, so it’s probably all of these things, though perhaps “none of the above” gets even a bit closer to the heart of the matter. But these tensions touch upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes’s text—it somehow can manage to encompass nearly all interpretations one could possible pose, but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through “queered” form.

Djuna Barnes Natalie Barney

Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney, c. 1930.

The Almanack is deliberately constructed to work simultaneously on two different levels, with different sets of meaning available to different communities of readers. For the uninitiated the text can come off as a rather bewildering–perhaps even incomprehensible–take on medieval hagiography, with its mock-reverent depiction of Dame Evangeline Musset and her seemingly limitless benevolence toward young women in need.

Some readers, however, might also pick up that Dame Musset’s munificence is not purely altruistic in nature, but extends to a more sensual dimension that involves the women’s “Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most” (Barnes 6). But Barnes herself readily admitted that her Almanack was more than anything intended for “the private domaine” [sic], to be “distributed to a very special audience” (cited Lanser 164); that “special audience” was first and foremost Natalie Clifford Barney, as well as the many members of the lesbian-centric coterie that assembled around her in Paris. And not only was Barney & co. the audience that would be able to understand the layers of meaning shrouded within the narrative, they comprised of the subject matter themselves, as the text’s expansive cast of characters all had real-life counterparts that were being wittily caricatured (see below).

djuna barnes ladies almanack key

Key to the characters of Ladies Almanack I once made for a seminar presentation.

Privately printed and distributed, it’s interesting to consider how the Ladies Almanack was part of a spontaneous(?) flowering of literature published in 1928 that prominently featured same-sex desire–and sometimes dared even more–between women, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, and, perhaps most importantly in a purely historical sense, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (for a good consideration of the importance of the year 1928 to feminist and/or lesbian texts I highly recommend Bonnie Kime Scott’s important 1995 study Refiguring Modernism, Volume I: The Women of 1928).

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration

Original illustration by Djuna Barnes for Ladies Almanack

It is particularly enlightening to contrast Ladies Almanack to the latter of these novels, for not only does Hall, along with her longtime partner Una, Lady Troubridge, make appearances within Barnes’s text, but it throws into sharp relief Barnes’s own aim and approach in regards to both content and aesthetics. On the most obvious level, Barnes’s obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack is a far cry from Hall’s unambiguously presented apologia-cum-petition. But unlike the wealthy Hall who could use her artistocratic lineage and social privilege to withstand public backlash, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes, penniless and an American expatriate, it was “better to shroud [the overtly lesbian content] in obscurity, generating a prose whose meanings dissolve beneath a torrent of difficult words and sentences” (166).

As such, Ladies Almanack can’t just be considered an example of willful high modernist obfuscation; at the same time, its stylistic choices can’t just be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either. Rather, it’s something between, I’d argue, an alchemical concoction that attempts to avoid simply shoehorning queer–and intensely personal and private–topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which can make for a rough reading experience today in its relentless proselytizing), with the purpose of beginning to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by queerly cherry-picking elements from a variety of sources both historical and modernist, which makes it a kind of anomaly, much like her much more well-known Nightwood, within high modernist literature, of which she was one of the most prominent (if perpetually undervalued) figures.

All these factors–and many others I’m necessarily sidestepping at present–lead to a text that is at once both outdated and undateable, and as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.

And hell, it’s just an awful lot of fun.

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration 2

Djuna Barnes’s original illustration of Dame Musset’s funeral. Let’s just say it’s this is not the bleak scene you might assume it is…

WORKS CITED

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. (1928). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992. Print.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 156-68. Print.

Book Review: BETTER ANGEL by Richard Meeker

better angelI was only several pages into Richard Meeker’s sensitive queer coming-of-age novel when it occurred to me that what I was reading was the flipside to Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil, the novel I am currently in the process of writing my M.A. thesis on. Both novels were published in 1933 and both are often considered among the handful of texts that received publication in the first years of the 1930’s as the so-called “Pansy Craze” swept New York City and “book publishers race[d] to satisfy the public’s growing interest in the gay scene” (Chauncey 324).

Despite a shared historical context, however, in many ways the two novels couldn’t be more different from each other. If the direct literary antecedents of Ford and Tyler’s exuberant, highly experimental depiction of the various sexual hijinks of several bohemian queers can be traced to the rather hermetic queer “high modernism” of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, then Better Angel, with its adherence to classical narrative conventions, forthright prose style, and candid appeal to a likely skeptical readership, is certainly within the tradition of Radclyffe Hall’s great queer populist classic The Well of Loneliness (1928).

Much like Hall’s novel, Better Angel reads like barely-concealed autobiography (something that it was eventually confirmed to be). The narrative begins when Kurt Gray is thirteen years old , an only child growing up in a rural small town. He is a shy, often lonely young boy, more inclined toward reading, music, and daydreaming than sports or the other activities the preoccupy his male peers. His is inevitably ostracized for this difference, which is a source of great anxiety and emotional trauma:

“…at last, hesitantly, perhaps in a flood of tears, he would admit that the boys at school had teased him about his fair skin: ‘Where’d ya buy yer paint, sissy? Sissy! Sissy!’–when, with a body shaking and hands clenched, eyes strangely dark in his white face, he would sob, ‘Why–Mom–why, why, why? Why can’t they leave me alone?’” (8)

Sadly, Kurt’s harrowing experiences don’t read today like a quaint situation from of a now long-distant past; instead, they will likely resonate deeply with many contemporary queer readers in regards to memories of merciless schoolyard bullying (it certainly did for this one). At his indignant mother’s suggestion, Kurt slowly begins to believe that his differences should not be regarded as a mark of shame but as a sign of his intellectual superiority–and as he ages the outer stoicism he has carefully developed begins to be perceived as scholarly excellence, and he begins to be regarded as an aspiring composer of great potential. His talent becomes his ticket for escaping his small town (first to university in New York) and eventually to Europe (on an academic scholarship), where he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, aided by a close friendship he develops with his classmate Chloe, his first tentative sexual experiences with her tempestuous brother Derry, and embarking on a relationship with the quietly intense David.

Torment (Better Angel) - Richard Meeker

In the 1950’s the novel was reissued on paperback under the title “Torment”

What is particularly notable is how Kurt manages to accomplish this outside of the usual narrative tropes and historical trajectories common in queer stories of this era: he moves to New York City but deliberately avoids both the Village’s bohemian queer underworld and the queer enclaves embedded within the city’s vast theatrical and entertainment industries. Indeed, when the much more experienced David informs him of the social and sexual networks available to him, Kurt viscerally recoils, and instead throws himself into a world of aesthetic and egalitarian idealism, based on Platonic and other classical value systems (indeed, the Greek myth of Herekles and his favored youth Hylas plays a significant part in both the opening and conclusion of the narrative).

And, to his great credit, Kurt manages to succeed at his aims. Through the sheer force of his quiet self-will and self-control, he manages to construct a space for himself–and his personal happiness–outside of the more familiar currents of urban pre-Stonewall queer life. By the end of the novel, Kurt is dreaming of bucolic domestic living, renovating a rural farm for him and David to occupy while he teaches music at a progressive boy’s school in Connecticut.

Torment Cover Detail - Richard Meeker

“Torment” Cover Detail

Kurt’s personal idealism and self-restraint (which, admittedly, sometimes seems to border on the unnecessarily repressive), however, might turn out to be the source of his narrative preservation. Better Angel has been proposed as the first American queer-themed novel where the protagonist does not end in tragedy, whether it is enforced isolation, a rebuke their sexual orientation and past behavior, or even death; significantly, even in the 1950’s The Mattachine Society characterized Kurt as “perhaps the healthiest homosexual in print” (quoted Slide 128).

If earlier I drew parallels between Better Angel and The Well of Loneliness’s seemingly implicit intentions to be accessible to a general readership in terms of content, style, and tone, the great difference between the two texts is that contra Hall’s tendency to make Well a grand apologia, Angel rarely indicates any aspiration to be more than an earnestly told tale with the more modest intention, expressed in the epilogue appended many years later that it would reach “a good many of those who… would understand an appreciate it” (Forman 286).

Image

Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon (l. to r.)

Like most of the “Pansy Craze” novels of the early 1930’s, Better Angel did not receive much attention in the press at the time of its initial publication, and it was reprinted in the 1950’s under the more dramatic but less appropriate title Torment (Slide 128). Happily, the author was later able to attest that from the beginning “the book did rather well, and to my delight, reached a good many of those who, as I hoped, would understand and appreciate it” (Brown 286). Richard Meeker, as it turns out, was the pseudonym for Forman Brown, who, along with Harry Burnett (who the character of Derry is based on) and Richard “Roddy” Brandon (David’s textual equivalent), established the Yale Puppeteers, a puppet theater group which become renowned for its collaborations with Elsa Lanchester (Slide 128-9). I plan to devote a future post to Brown and his rather remarkable reemergence and belated recognition as the author of Better Angel, but what is worth noting here is that the three men together formed a partnership–creatively and otherwise, from all indications–thus extending the narrative of Kurt, David, and Derry beyond the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter.

According to Brown, many critics assumed that it was impossible for Kurt to enjoy a happy ending. However, the story his own life story, he insists, “demonstrate[s] how wrong a critic can be” (287). Such sentiments serve as a lovely–and unexpected–coda to this delicately rendered, still-underappreciated book.

Works Cited

Brown, Forman. “Epilogue (and Surprise Ending) for the New Edition.” Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York City: Basic, 1994.

The Mattachine Society. “Mission Statement and Membership Pledge (1951).” We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. Ed. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 283-85.

Meeker, Richard. Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park, 2003.