Friday, February 4, 2011

Butch Homage: "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself"

Oh, Radclyffe, Radclyffe, Radclyffe Hall.  I've never read The Well of Loneliness.  Is it okay for me to reject you because of your conservative political beliefs?  Guess I don't get to call you John, the way your friends did.

Hall wrote "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself" in 1926, shortly before starting work on The Well, and apparently it is rather like a short version of the novel.  Wilhelmina Ogilvy is what Hall called a "sexually inverted woman" and what we today would call a "gender-non-conforming individual," or "transgendered."  As a child she (Hall always refers to her with female pronouns) was a tomboy, which many girls are, but "she remembered insisting with tears and some temper that her real name was William and not Wilhelmina," which is not common, unless you're trans.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when this story is set, women's lives were so restricted that it's hard to tell sometimes if a woman is rebelling against her socially assigned gender role because she's trans, or because she just wants to do more than get married and have children.  Of course, by the same token, "inverts" often took up the cause of feminism, not necessarily because they identified as female, but because it gave them an opportunity to demand more freedom.  (Radclyffe Hall flirted briefly with feminism but I believe she ultimately rejected it.)

In the fictional Ogilvy family, William (shouldn't I call her William, if she said that was her name?) rejects the marriage market utterly.  Her two feminine sisters attempt to get married and fail.  After their father dies, William's womenfolk - her mother and sisters - encourage her to take over the male role and deal with all the things they don't want to be bothered with, like finances.  Not that they really approve of her butchness; it's just convenient for them.  She has no friends, no lovers, no one who understands her.

The years go by without any particular pleasure, and when war breaks out (World War I) William is fifty-six.  She realizes that now she has a chance to do things women are not normally allowed to do: she cuts her hair short, goes up to London, and pesters the authorities until they allow her to go to France and form an ambulance brigade.
During those years Miss Ogilvy forgot the bad joke that Nature seemed to have played her.  She was given the rank of a French lieutenant and she lived in a kind of blissful illusion; appalling reality lay on all sides and yet she managed to live in illusion.
Because war work is such a liberation for William, and because Hall would not have dreamed of criticizing the war, it's all presented as a great lark. There are no descriptions of battle, no deaths, none of the horrific details you can learn about in any book on the Great War.  Ambulances are mentioned - because that's the only way she could experience the danger and excitement of the front - but casualties are not.  (By the way, Hall based this plot point on the real-life exploits of her friend Toupie Lowther; she herself was extremely patriotic about the war, but not to the extent of risking her life for her country.)

After the war William sinks back into uselessness and misery.  One day she decides to take a vacation, and chooses, seemingly at random, to visit an island off the coast of Devon.  When she gets there she seems to recognize the place, and has a dream about her past life on the island, when she was a man and had a female lover.  I won't give away the ending.

Trans people have two choices:  to try to be as much like other people as possible, or not.
For Miss Ogilvy had found as her life went on that in this world it is better to be one with the herd, that the world has no wish to understand those who cannot conform to its stereotyped pattern.
Certainly Radclyffe Hall tried to conform as much as possible - or rather, she made a bargain with society:  if I agree with you about everything else, can I live my life as a butch and lover of women?  That  was her choice, and I can't disagree with other people's opinions on what they personally need to do in order to survive.  Hall wanted more tolerance for herself and people like her - that was her aim in writing works such as The Well of Loneliness. And yet I don't believe that conformity is what will save us.

"Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself" is the first story in The Persistent Desire: a Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle and published in 1992.  That's 66 years after the story was written - almost a lifetime.  Ironically, in 1992 lesbian publications were frequent and uncensored (usually) but butch and femme were verboten and transsexuality was still a perversion, according to lesbian-feminism and the world at large.  One wonders why that is.

Here's to the day when someone who insists that their name is William and not Wilhelmina gets taken at their word.

Recommended Reading: if you're interested in the intersection of queer experience and World War I, I highly recommend the book Lesbian Empire by Gay Wachman.  It is primarily about the work of lesbian writers, including Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, and the person who is probably my most favorite writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, but it discusses history and wartime propaganda too.  Did you know that the Germans recruited all the homosexuals in Britain to spy for them?

Also, here's some more information on Toupie Lowther:  tennis champion, fencer, decorated with the Croix de Guerre for her war work.  Lowther and Hall definitely lived more active - and hopefully happier - lives than fictional characters such as Miss Ogilvy.

1 comment:

  1. You could try "Marguerite".......