Published: July 2, 2001 By

[1]   JAGOSE: Your book, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture, constructs a genealogy of what you term Sapphic modernity. The 1928 obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is very prominent in your account, as it is in most histories that trace the post-war evolution of modern lesbian identities The Lady's Pictorial, March 25, England and elsewhere. However, your analysis of the trial and its far-reaching cultural effects unsettles many of the received understandings of lesbian history it is commonly understood to confirm. Speaking generally, your book’s revisionist intervention accomplishes this in two ways: on one hand, through new archival research, it corrects historical “fact”; on the other, it argues that current sexual knowledges have been erroneously projected back on to the post-war period under discussion. Let’s take your front cover as a miniature exposition of these two forces at work more generally in your book. Here, the portrait of the mannish Mrs Tudor Wilkinson (figure 1) seems legible in terms of a now-recognisable lesbian subcultural style, a legibility apparently underlined by the book’s title appearing beneath, colour-synched with her lipstick but which functions more properly as a caution, for those of us who still need it, not to judge a book by its cover. Can you talk a little about this?

[2]   DOAN: I knew early on that I wanted the front cover ofFashioning Sapphism to feature a period photograph of a woman few would recognize, unlike the familiar image of Radclyffe Hall; someone who most of us today might assume or suspect — almost without thinking — to be a lesbian. In this way, the cover design does indeed underscore one of the book’s main arguments; namely, that certain clothing styles at this time were more likely to be thought playful or elegant than a clear marker of sexual identity. From the perspective of a viewer in the 1920s, Mrs. W. may have been happily married to Mr. W. or she may have been married and a lesbian or any other permutation. The point is that her manner of sartorial expression would not have necessarily denoted sexual identity, although it could have. All we really know about this woman is that she moved in fashionable circles in London society, and embraced — perhaps only once in this particular photograph — a popular fashion for some women. I’d like to think that the cover entices yet unsettles, and invites the reader to rethink certain assumptions. On top of all that, of course, Mrs. W. is herself wonderfully sexy and alluring.

[3]   JAGOSE: And if Mrs Wilkinson goes largely unrecognised today, Radclyffe Hall enjoys a kind of hyper-iconicity: her name, like her style, a metonymic code for lesbianism. Hall is a crucial character forFashioning Sapphism — not simply because of the obscenity trial but also because of her relation to sexology, her sartorial style, her management of her public image and so on — yet the Hall of your book is markedly different from the Hall previously in critical circulation. In what ways does Fashioning Sapphismcontest or complicate more customary representations of Radclyffe Hall?

[4]   DOAN: The phrase “hyper-iconicity” is quite apt. Radclyffe Hall in Spanish Hat by the photographer Douglas, 1926.Radclyffe Hall is typically seen as the embodiment of a hyper-masculine butch style, as articulated in the writings of the sexologist Havelock Ellis. What I’ve tried to recuperate in my study is the way in which Hall was perceived before she was represented by the print media solely as the embodiment of a sexual category. Readers ofFashioning Sapphism seem most surprised to learn that Hall was not considered especially masculine in the 1920s (figure 2). Her haircut was thought to be the most feminine of all the short cuts popular at the time, and she had her hair done at Harrods — not a barbershop. Even Hall’s famous sartorial choices were on the feminine side of what was known as the “severely masculine mode.” Journalist (and lesbian) Evelyn Irons, for instance, later recalled that Hall had “jabots and ruffles which I thought was rather effeminate” (113). Nor did Hall and her partner Una Troubridge dress in a bizarre manner, wearing, as some biographers have claimed, clothing from a costume shop. The couple studied fashion magazines and built their wardrobes not from men’s tailors in Savile Row, but from the most chic of London’s department stores for women. Radclyffe Hall with her dog, Collette. Daily Mirror, April 13, 1927.Hall always wore a skirt (figure 3) and conducted herself in a completely womanly way — in short, Hall didn’t really model her protagonist, Stephen Gordon, after herself. It was only when Hall’s manner of self-presentation became inextricably connected to lesbianism after the trial that her elegant style came to be seen as mannish and harsh. But while Hall may have been something of a fashion slave, she certainly wasn’t the slavish disciple of Ellis that many critics have presumed. Her novel is less a seamless replication of Ellis’s theories of sexual inversion than a recirculation of popular myths about lesbians, based on concepts both embraced and rejected by several sexologists. In fact, it seems that the greatest influence onThe Well of Loneliness may have been the radical socialist Edward Carpenter, whose concept of an “intermediate sex” formed the basis of his utopian evolutionary theories.

[5]   JAGOSE: So how did you develop the utterly compelling version of Radclyffe Hall presented inFashioning Sapphism, a version, as you note, at odds with most current readings of her. I don’t mean only what archival materials did you analyse, what methodologies did you engage with but, more importantly, what motivated you in the first place to question the received image of Hall?

[6]   DOAN: To be honest, I never began the project with the intent to question the received image of Hall — it happened quite by accident. Initially I was captivated by images of boyish women in the 1920s. My first impulse was to explore how gender lines had blurred as a consequence of some of the social changes during the First World War. This led me to examine the ways in which gender was represented in magazines such as PUNCH and the tabloid newspapers. I remember coming across material on Hall in the project’s early stages, but rejecting it because her image struck me as too “mannish” for inclusion in the project! As the project developed, of course, I couldn’t get away from her even if I had wanted to. Although I’d assert adamantly that this book isn’t about Radclyffe Hall, she nevertheless makes an appearance in nearly every chapter. I expended a lot of energy resisting her. If a new image of Hall emerges, it’s due to the fact that I simply excavated new archival sources that challenge some aspects of the historical record.

[7]   JAGOSE: I’ll take your hint and nudge Hall from the spotlight. Another person who figures strongly throughout your book is Mary Sophia Allen, a commandant in the Women Police Service whose enthusiastic pioneering of female policing is underwritten, at least in part, by her passionate attachment to her masculine uniform. Compared to the 1920s vogue for masculine stylings in fashions for women, how does the semantic register of the masculine uniform function?

[8]   DOAN: With the outbreak of the First World War, women could be seen wearing every sort of color and style of uniform, including breeches. I’ve looked at hundreds of photographs of uniformed women in the Imperial War Museum and the Metropolitan Police Historic Museum in order to solve the conundrum of why and how the uniformed female body produced such a range of conflicting spectatorial effects.

[9]   DOAN: Although the military or police uniform — Mrs. Sophia Stanley. Undatedeven when modified for the female body — was inevitably masculine and masculizing in terms of cut and design, not all women who wore it registered in similarly masculine ways within public culture. For example, Mrs. Sophia Stanley, a leader in women’s policing whose uniformed appearance more closely resembled a scout leader than an officer of the law, found it possible to claim some of the authority invested by her uniform yet retain her femininity (figure 4). She not only managed to look more feminine in her uniform, which captured the shapely contours of her female body, but also dealt with men in a more feminine and demure manner, and did not seek police powers on par with men, such as the power of arrest. While Stanley won the approval of the London Metropolitan Police (Met), Mary Allen and her group did not. In an attempt to drive Allen and her cohorts out of policing, the Met disingenuously claimed that Allen had copied the “official” uniform, thereby conveniently ignoring the fact that Allen’s rather more hyper-masculine uniform was designed much earlier by Allen’s colleague and partner, Margaret Damer Dawson (figure 5). Of course it wasn’t really the design that riled the Met, but they focused on the uniform, even though there were other means of attacking Allen. On the left, Margaret Damer Dawson OBE, Commandant, Women's Police Service, with Sub-Commandant Mary Allen OBE. C. 1916.Why did the uniform become so central in this power struggle? I think it was because it emblematized Allen’s claim to masculine power. The Met — an organization of uniformed men — knew that to strip away Allen’s power they would have to strip her of the uniform.

[10]   DOAN: Ironically, although the uniform restricts movement and literally forces physical conformity, uniformed women, such as Allen and Valerie Barker (alias Colonel Victor Barker), discovered the freedom to explore a dimension of their “female masculinity,” to draw upon a concept critic Judith Halberstam explores with such thoroughness in her groundbreaking study,Female Masculinity. Allen and Barker both passed in their uniforms for what they were not, but it may have been Allen who was punished more severely, even though she was, in a sense, more honest than Barker, who daringly, though deceptively, passed herself off as a military officer and a gentleman (figure 6). Of the two women, it was Allen’s performance of female masculinity which was considered — by the police authorities — far more threatening and socially dangerous, even though Barker passed as a man and committed actual fraudulent acts, going so far as to marry her female partner in a church and thus falsify the marriage register. Passing successfully in a bogus uniform was, Valerie Arkell-Smith, alias Colonel Victor Barker. Daily Mail, March 7, a perverse way, deemed more admirable by the popular press because it was possible to fall back on familiar reading strategies of women who cross-dressed for personal reasons, such as to improve their financial status or to escape an abusive relationship.

[11]   JAGOSE: And one of the things your book is careful to do is foreground not simply the differences between an Allen and a Barker but to show how their differently weighted female masculinities resonate with and against a more general masculine fashion for women. As you observe in your book, twentieth-century commentators frequently err in reading 1920s women’s boyish or mannish fashion codes in terms of lesbianism. You argue instead that this misreading is only possible retrospectively since female masculinity was a sartorial style, indexed not necessarily to sexual identity but modernity. However, if the ubiquitous cropped hair, mannish dress, cigarette and monocle of the 1920s can be understood in terms of fashion, this does not close down female masculinity as a semantic field. Your book calls for a critical receptiveness to “the multiple interpretative possibilities of the performance of female masculinity” (97). Can you give me some idea of what those possibilities might have been for 1920s England?

[12]   DOAN: Viewers in the 1920s, quite simply, would have had choices that are less available to us now. This is because the interpretation of the “masculine woman” within public culture would have been dependent on what might be termed “insider” information, in other words, who knew what. Someone clued into newly evolving subcultural codes or familiar with the slender body of information on female sexual inversion advanced by sexologists might have been tempted to link mannish clothing on the female body with lesbianism, but this would have been only one possibility among several.

[13]   DOAN: The reading of “female masculinity” relied on other, often overlapping, factors, such as age or class. A woman of the county set, for example, who bred dogs or who had embraced more tailored clothing as a sign of her emancipation or pragmatism may have appeared as a dowdy holdover — called the “New Woman” — of pre-war days. Tatler, April 14, 1926.Even today, I’m startled by the mannish dress of some upper-class English women who attend sheep dog trials, for instance. The cultural ideal promulgated in most fashion magazines in this era was “boyishness”: women were thought hip if they possessed slender, youthful bodies and sported extremely short hair cuts (figure 7). The aim was to look as boyish as possible, though always to be recognized as a boyish female — or flapper — rather than as a boy. The press dubbed this sort of woman the “boyette.” Some of these women were members of the smart set, known as the Bright Young People — often aristocratic or upper-class, this group was numerically insignificant, but their exploits received much attention in the press. Such women would have been seen as highly fashionable, and many middle- and working-class women tried to emulate them. Obviously, older women were somewhat disadvantaged. Yet women of Radclyffe Hall’s age — that is, no longer young but not too old — could also adopt a more austere fashion that was advertised in fashion magazines as the “severely masculine mode,” and still appear as chic rather than as lesbian. Social class too played an important role because it was obvious to many observers whether or not women were wearing, on the one hand, expensive ready-made masculine fashions for women from the elite shops or, on the other, shirts and ties nicked from a brother’s wardrobe. Some of the newspaper photographs I found depicted working-class women at seaside resorts who obviously wanted to sport the “look,” but didn’t have the financial resources to actually look chic or elegant.

[14]   DOAN: Another possible way to interpret the “masculine woman” was as bohemian or eccentric, as seen in the press coverage of the artist Gluck, who began cross-dressing in her late teens. Gluck by E. O. Hoppé, Royal Magazine, December 1926.
To make a splash for the opening of her new art exhibitions, she donned men’s clothing more suitable for country pursuits that she had acquired from expensive men’s tailors (figure 8). Some savvy observers might have connected Gluck’s lesbianism to her clothing choices, but generally the connection to sexuality might not have been as obvious then as it seems now. What we’ve lost is a sense of the fluidity and openness that made the 1920s so exuberant. We’re so invested in a kind of progress narrative — that life for lesbians today is so much better than in the dark days of pervasive homophobia and the censorship of explicit lesbian writing — that we fail to see how our own interpretive frameworks might be, in a sense, impoverished. We shouldn’t forget that the fixity of labels or the connection of accessory to identity has a cost too. In our ostensibly more enlightened age, female masculinity in sartorial expression is more rigidly connected to sexual identity, just as are labels and categories of sexual identity. Isn’t that part of the appeal of the word “queer”?

[15]   JAGOSE: Well, yes, at one level I guess queer’s appeal is its refusal to close down on categories of sexual identity, its preference for holding them open as permanent sites of transformation. What I am wondering now is what were the historico-cultural conditions under which female masculinity came so easily to lose its semantic mobility. That is, why do you think toward the end of the 1920s female masculinity as a sartorial style started to harden off into a legible sign of lesbianism? I mean, I understand from your book that the prominent public circulation of images of Radclyffe Hall during the obscenity trial of her novel made a strong association between the aesthetics of her self-presentation and the subject of female inversion more generally, but given that this was already an available connotation of masculine dress in women, how did this one reading come to dominate, eliminating female masculinity’s pre-1928 range of meanings which included not only, say, stylishness but even heterosexual femininity?

[16]   DOAN: Some of the phrasing of your question is telling, in that you speak of loss and the elimination of possibilities. Feminist historians and literary critics have tended to read the events of late 1928 in a somewhat negative light, but it’s worthwhile, I think, to ponder not only what was lost but also what was gained. In the broadest sense, what happened as a result of the obscenity trial represented both an “opening up” and a “closing down,” as a result of several significant socio-cultural shifts.

[17]   DOAN: The first major realm of change concerns the ways in which, in the early decades of the twentieth century, but especially just after the First World War, many of the “findings” of the sexologists on topics such as sexual inversion began to circulate beyond the narrow confines of medico-legal circles. It’s notoriously difficult, of course, to track the dissemination of sexological discourse into public culture, but we know that during this period the educated elite, including feminists, were becoming familiar with some of the categories of sexual behaviors and identities devised by men such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, as well as the radical socialist Edward Carpenter, whose concept of the “intermediate sex” or the “homogenic attachment,” greatly influenced Hall in writing The Well of Loneliness. Scholars such as Jennifer Terry, Lisa Duggan, Jay Prosser, Harry Oosterhuis, and the contributors of a volume of essays I’ve co-edited with Lucy Bland (Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires), have begun to rethink the impact of these new sexual discourses. With a more nuanced, complex approach to sexology, we’re beginning to appreciate how sexology wasn’t so much a strategic tool of oppression for many “female inverts” in the first quarter of the century, as it was a modern new “science,” which possessed an appealing explanatory power, offered new labels and categories, and enabled the formation of subcultural sensibilities, even of a self-conscious style. However, on a more popular level, this dissemination of sexual science encouraged the circulation of a clearer, though perhaps more reductive, notion of what a lesbian might look like. Trickle down effects, though, do just that: trickle down, slowly. What the trial, and the massive publicity surrounding it, achieved so brilliantly was an acceleration of a process already underway. Moreover, because that publicity was highly visual, the newspapers, quite literally, gave female sexual inversion a human face. The multiplicity of euphemistic phrases would give way to crisply precise medical terminology.

[18]   DOAN: One other major change was that the trend of highly masculine clothing for women had more or less run its course around the time of the trial. After about a decade of success, the fashions began to shift — again, gradually — to the “new feminine” style. Hall, who quite consciously appropriated the “severely masculine mode” as distinctively lesbian, was irked when some of her friends abandoned that look in favor of this new trend. It’s not clear whether the movement toward feminine clothing for women was accelerated by the newly stigmatized “look” of the lesbian, but we do know that the two sartorial styles overlapped for a period of time. At this point, very late in 1928 and into 1929, Hall herself seemed to be aware that it was her fashion sensibility that was becoming the “lesbian” look, as far as the newspapers were concerned. It’s also worth noting that Hall’s own first name became a byword for lesbian, just as Oscar Wilde’s name had stood for male homosexuality in an earlier era. So, various factors were at work: the rise of sexual science and the decline of the fashionably boyish or mannish look for women.

[19]   JAGOSE: Let’s talk about the rise of sexology. While it is notoriously difficult to plot the dissemination of sexological knowledges through public culture, as you argue in your book, the 1920s was a significant period in the popularisation of sexological discourses. You stress the mediated trajectories of sexological information and demonstrate the various ways in which different and often contradictory sexological texts were negotiated by contemporary readers, by fictional characters and, not least, by the subjects of sexological case histories themselves. How does your representation of sexology as a multivalent discourse available for a range of context-specific inflections enable a revision of relations between sexual science and, in this instance, homosexuality?

[20]   DOAN: As literary critic Rita Felski and others have pointed out, during the middle decades of the twentieth century, sexology was largely dismissed and discredited as an outmoded and old-fashioned pseudo-science. Among the first historians of sexuality to recover certain of the key writings on homosexuality were lesbian feminist scholars such as Lillian Faderman and Sheila Jeffreys. While their assessment of sexology’s impact on sexual minorities has been valuable, their critique tended to focus more on the damaging effects of stigmatizing labels and narrow categories. This wave of feminist critique has been slower in coming to terms with how sexology — or more accurately, particular observations by certain of the sexologists — also worked in positive ways. Of course, there were law-makers or homophobes in the print media who exploited sexological materials for their own political agendas, but those same materials also alerted “inverts” that they were not alone and facilitated self-understanding. In other words, sexual science could be all things to all people — both harmful and helpful.

[21]   DOAN: In my own work, I suggest that while sexology could be deployed as a tool of oppression, as seen in the parliamentary debates when some lawmakers relied on letters by experts in the field in an attempt to extend the Labouchère Amendment (the criminalization of “gross indecency” between men) to women, it could also empower individuals curious about, or puzzled by, their sexuality. For example, members of the educated elite, including lesbian novelists, who gained access to this body of knowledge in the early twentieth century eagerly exchanged volumes among their circle and regarded themselves as enlightened and progressive because they had read such material. It is this sense of sexology — as a dynamic and powerful new discourse — that I’ve tried to recuperate in the study, so that we begin to think of lesbian writers who negotiated the theories of sexual inversion, such as Hall, Bryher or Rose Allatini, not as innocent dupes or victims of a repressive patriarchal discourse, but as modern women probing a brave new science, one thought to be on the cutting edge. And I’ve not chosen the word “negotiate” casually — some of these writers studied sexology in considerable depth, but not uncritically, as is evident in the case studies of Havelock Ellis. Hall, for example, incorporated just about any source that came to hand, even if contradictory, into her novel on female sexual inversion.

[22]   DOAN: Let’s not forget too that one of the most controversial positions about homosexuality still flourished in the 1920s, namely, the belief in the innate superiority of the invert. Carpenter was probably the most vigorous and outspoken advocate of the view that the “intermediate race” possessed rare and unusual gifts, such as the unique ability to view life from both the masculine and feminine perspectives. Far from representing homosexuals as abject or degenerate, this view stressed the homosexual advantage, so to speak. And this is precisely what permeates The Well of Loneliness, as articulated by the protagonist Stephen Gordon’s tutor, Miss Puddleton: the inverted are superior to the non-inverted. This belief was so widespread during this era that a radical such as the socialist feminist Stella Browne felt it necessary to insist in a scholarly paper that inverts were equal to, though not above, heterosexuals.

[23]   DOAN: Careful reassessment of the role of sexology at this particular historical moment — how it was used, negotiated, and abused — reveals that this mode of “scientific” enquiry was never a coherent, unified and monolithic construct, but a multivalent field of investigation, fraught with its own internal disagreements and intellectual reversals. There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that those homosexuals who delved into the theories of inversion were perfectly capable of rejecting what seemed like nonsense and accepting aspects that made sense in their own lives.

[24]   JAGOSE: Part of that homosexual negotiation of sexological knowledges involved the literal circulation of relevant texts or reading lists among readers whose stake in them was personal rather than professional. Your book suggests that these practices of circulation and citation indicate in part “the existence of an incipient community of female and male inverts” (135). Similarly, your work on women’s fashion argues that a lesbian sartorial style emerges toward the close of the 1920s which maps on to the possibility of claiming “an unambiguous lesbian identity” (125), communally held and hence communally recognised. In recent years, as you know, there has been a great deal of scholarly interest in the dating and documenting of the rise of homosexual communities or sub-cultures. I wonder whether you could comment on your sense of the emergence of a lesbian subculture in England or, as your subtitle puts it, the origins of a modern English lesbian culture?

[25]   DOAN: The answer to that question may be just too enormous to tackle as I feel this is really the purpose of the entire book. But your question does make me realize that the emphasis in the subtitle should be on the word “origins,” because the study is less engaged with describing an actual thriving public lesbian subculture — that is, with visible codes known within a group and perhaps beyond — than with tracing several of the social, political and cultural conditions that facilitated such an emergence in the first place. I’d like to think that the book issues an invitation to other historians of sexuality interested in twentieth-century cultural formations to build on these findings, because there’s still much more research that needs to be done if we’re going to have a more nuanced understanding of modern lesbian subcultures in various class, national, or racial contexts. I found Alan Sinfield’s study, The Wilde Century, extremely helpful in thinking about how one particular image came to represent within public discourse the homosexual. In many respects the legal situation for Wilde and Hall were hardly comparable, but both cases offered for public consumption what Sinfield has called a “brilliantly precise image” (3). One of my favorite anecdotes from my own book is when Evelyn Irons recalls walking down the street in London in the fashionably masculine mode around the time of the trial and truck drivers calling out to her, “oh, you’re Radclyffe Hall, miss.” This incident is reported with regret because Irons was upset that the cover had been blown, but the anecdote demonstrates vividly how quickly the process began to happen. Clearly, in a very short period of time, the consequences of continuing to dress in the manner of Hall after her photograph had been splashed in all the newspapers gave anyone the power to “out” someone. I also refer to a gathering in 1932 in which several women, in turning up to honor Radclyffe Hall, apparently dressed like her: stiff collars, monocles, cigarette holders, the lot. The sporting of such accoutrements that were by that time no longer part of mainstream fashion, means that something was beginning to happen — a particular style or look had caught on that signalled most unequivocally and unambiguously female sexual inversion.

[26]   DOAN: What I don’t really discuss in the book is the fallout in the aftermath of the obscenity trial, that is, what happens over the next decade or so. Historian Alison Oram has been tracking some of the changes in newspaper coverage of women who were exposed as cross-dressers throughout the interwar period. Her findings are fascinating because she points out that the typical explanations these women offered (“I did it to better myself financially” or “I did it to survive”) did not disappear overnight with the publicity surrounding the obscenity trial. The tabloids seem to have been so invested in one sort of plausible explanation, probably finding it quite provocative or titillating, that it was tenable for many of the cross-dressing women interviewed to claim that they were just good friends with the woman they lived with — their exploits were treated as light amusement, a kind of harmless lark. Very gradually — I think by the late 1930s — even that explanation vanishes, and the implications of two women living together could not be avoided, even if the women weren’t involved sexually. The tide really turns.

[27]   DOAN: As visibility increased, so too did homophobia. When Una Troubridge, Hall’s partner, petitioned the Home Office in 1948 to reconsider the ban on The Well (as she hoped to include it in the republication of Hall’s major works), all the relevant files were drastically purged and then closed for one hundred years — an extraordinarily long time, even by the government’s standards.

[28]   JAGOSE: One of the recurrent points in your book is that if our contemporary perspectives are naturalised as interpretative frames it is possible to miss or misread the significance of the historical record. Given this interest, it is perhaps no surprise that you focus on the photograph as a dense sign for these co-implicated processes of authentication and misrecognition. Rather than read the photograph as a transcendental artefact, you tend to direct attention to its framing or its changing historical context, arguing that the carefully styled publicity portraits of Gluck and Hall, for instance, came to be read more narrowly post-1928 as visual evidence of lesbianism.

[29]   JAGOSE: I am particularly interested in your reading of the career of a 1927 photographic portrait of Hall and Troubridge at home in South Kensington (figure 9). Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge. 1927.You argue that once The Well became a subject of controversy in the media, images of Hall “harshly cropped” from this photograph circulated, less as a portrait than the hardened off, iconic representation of lesbianism (187). While this image has become something of a legacy for lesbianism — the cultural masculinisation of the lesbian raising as a persistently vexed issue the invisibility of lesbian femininity — is it only practical considerations of newspaper layout and possible litigation action that prevented the original portrait in its entirety being recoded as lesbian? That is, is it a circumstantial effect that lesbianism achieved cultural visibility in the person of the masculine woman rather than as a relational connection between women? (I may be going too far now and will need you to rein me back into a historical scrupulousness but perhaps even the “elegant home furnishings” with their connotations of upholstered decadence and their anticipation of a Parisian aesthetic Brassai would very shortly claim for sexual perversity might have readily been pulled into a lesbian mise en scène … )

[30]   DOAN: Let me seize on your characterization of our “contemporary perspectives” as “naturalised,” since one of the major objectives of my book is simply to remind readers that viewing contexts have changed. The cropping of the 1927 photograph of Hall and Troubridge by the editorial staff at theSunday Express may well have been the result of purely pragmatic concerns (figure 10) —
 Sunday Express, August 19, 1928but the point is, without documentation, we can only speculate on motivations and rationales. And speculation is a tricky business — I’ve come across only one response to the version of Hall created by theExpress and that was by feminist Vera Brittain, written decades later. Of course, we want to figure out what’s going on with the 1927 Fox photo — practically every reader I’ve spoken with has given me her or his own reading! Who among us can resist the urge to tease out the potential significance of such an oversaturated visual image? I just want to caution readers about projecting our readings onto viewers in the late 1920s.

[31]   DOAN: Let me take a moment, however, to respond to your comments about the “connotations of upholstered decadence” and the connections with “sexual perversity.” I’ve been working on a new essay exploring what might be termed Hall’s “conservative modernity”; specifically, I examine two interviews she gave to the (lesbian) journalist Evelyn Irons for the Daily Mail. In a 1927 article entitled “How other women run their homes,” Hall informs her readers that she’s a “super” homemaker, who enjoys dusting and polishing her furniture — while Troubridge sees to the food preparation. So, we see hints of a household comprised of two women, with an odd division of labor, but nevertheless a familiar arrangement of cozy domesticity. This article coincided with Hall’s winning the Femina Prize, so it was basically a bid for publicity. A year later — literally one day before The Well of Lonelinessappeared in bookshops — the second interview appears, and this one is entitled “Woman’s Place Is the Home.” Here Hall divides all women into two groups: first, “the majority of women — the wife and mother type,” and second, women such as herself (though she doesn’t say so in so many words), “potential amazons,” or women with special and rare talents or abilities. If we return to the question of the “cropped versus uncropped” Fox photo with these two interviews in mind, we can see the availability of even more interpretative strategies. It could be argued that Hall presented herself in the Fox photo as part of a campaign to redefine “normalcy” — as if she’s saying, “here we are — distinctive and exceptional women — pioneering new domestic arrangements.” The framing of Hall by the Express might then be seen as even more damaging because such severe cropping both frames the mannish lesbian and completely undermines Hall’s attempt to carve out a new (domestic) space within modernity.

[32]   DOAN: Feminists might be uncomfortable with Hall’s conservative politics, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that she was willing to use her celebrity status on behalf of a “lesbian positive” agenda. Yes, Hall was elitist, perhaps even reactionary, but what is staged in the original uncropped Fox photo is a kind of visual redefinition of “normal” in the domestic arrangements of two women. This is partly why I concluded the book with an extended discussion of this provocative photographic portrait: it’s a visual shorthand for everything that has gone before, the evolution of an icon at the moment when a lesbian subcultural style goes public.


Works Cited

  • Bland, Lucy and Laura Doan, eds. Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981.
  • Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila. The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930. London: Pandora, 1985.
  • Oram, Alison. Changing Representations of Cross-dressing Women in the British Popular Press, 1914-1960. Work in progress.
  • Oosterhuis, Harry. “Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s ‘Step-Children of Nature’: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity.” InScience and Homosexualities. Ed. Vernon A. Rosario. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 67-88.
  • Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Moment. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.