Monday, November 2, 2009

Radclyffe Hall: Congenital Invert

I recently read Sally Cline's biography of Radclyffe Hall.  I can't exactly recommend this particular book, because I found the writer's style annoying, but Hall is a fascinating subject and I do believe the research was well done.

Radclyffe Hall was openly lesbian, politically conservative and independently wealthy.  Those three things all go together: she could afford to be out, but because of her wealth and family pride she also feared social change . . . except when it might benefit her and her kind.  (Ironically, she was opposed to female suffrage.  I guess she didn't think the vote was very important.)  She was physically abused by her mother, and perhaps also by her stepfather, but she supported them financially throughout their worthless lives.

For her religious beliefs, she was a devout Catholic and also a strong believer in Spiritualism.  Perhaps one of the strangest things about her is that she and her life partner, Una Troubridge, carried on a longterm "posthumous" relationship with Mabel Batten, who was Hall's first significant lover and Troubridge's cousin.  (Incidentally, a surprising number of English lesbians "of good family" converted to Catholicism in the first half of the 20th century.  It was an act that allowed you to become both rebellious and steeped in tradition.  As Emma Donoghue puts it, "Being Catholic in England meant becoming slightly foreign, aloof from the establishment; as a church it was associated with the rich and the poor, but definitely not the bourgeoisie."  And of course, to be Anglo-Catholic was not at all the same thing as being Irish Catholic.)

Well, obviously I could go on about Radclyffe Hall all day.  But the reason I'm writing this post is to talk about her gender identity.  In her day, certain people were considered to be "congenital inverts."  "Invert" means that they were what we today call "transgendered" -- a male person living in a female body, or vice versa.  "Congenital" means that they were born that way, and just like today, that was seen to be an important moral point.  If you're congenital, it's not your fault.  You're not just doing it to show off, or to annoy.  You can't help it.

It was also assumed that your sexuality was defined by your gender identity.  Someone like Hall, who believed herself to really be a man (and pronouns are so confusing, by the way.  As far as I can tell, Hall always referred to herself with feminine pronouns, and most of her butch friends did too) would automatically be attracted to women.  Effeminate men were always attracted to men. 

In other words, no distinction was made between homosexuals and transgendered people.  In modern times a strong distinction is made.  I'm kind of ambivalent about this.  On the one hand, I wish there were more solidarity between the two groups.  The acronym GLBT gets used a lot, but the B's and T's often feel themselves to be tacked on.  On the other hand, I certainly don't want anybody making assumptions about anybody else.  Furthermore, it's heterosexist to assume that "masculine" people are only attracted to "feminine" people, and it's caused a lot of problems for trans people.

I have not actually read The Well of Loneliness, but I have read Hall's short story, "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself," which clearly depicts a butch identity.  And even though Hall's identity is not mine, it still means a lot to me to see us in print.  I don't think I would have liked Hall much as a person. But we have to take our history wherever we can find it, and I am grateful to her for speaking out.


  1. I'm reading RH now, so much is amazing to me the lifestyle / class stuff epecially.Don't care for the writers style either but I did crack up w/ the medium stuff. Was wondering what she meant exactly by invert tho I guessed and found this blog glad I did!

    1. Thanks! (Sorry for the delayed reply.)