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Interesting concept marred by poor characterisation
on 18 September 2010
Described as the archetypal lesbian novel and banned on publication, this book is disappointing not only in its completely dowdy depiction of a lesbian relationship, but also in its utter failure to create a believeable or indeed interesting relationship between its main characters. Radclyffe is an extremely old-fashioned writer in her use of prose: 'betoken' is a popular word, and her sentence structure is peculiar at best. It is hard to get past the over-blown descriptions of nature or discussions of the poetics of horses, and when you do it's hard to know whether it was really worth the effort.
The book begins before the conception of its main character, Stephen Gordon, and goes on to describe her childhood and her life into her late thirties. Stephen is a reasonably interesting character as a child: she is interested in fencing and horse-riding and in making her muscles as finally tuned as possible. I felt a cetain amount of sympathy for her as the book makes it obvious that she is different from those around and she cannot fit in to society. Her estrangement from her peers well evoked and Hall creates a sense of the loneliness of the only child and the loneliness of being different from this around you. Stephen's relationship with her father, Philip, is a very sympathetic one, and probably the best realised of the book. Philip realises that there is something different about Stephen before she does, and does not know what to do about it.
The story, such as it is, does not really get started until Philip's death, however. There plot and the point of the book hinges on Stephen's realisation of her own lesbianism, and on her two romantic relationships, each doomed in their own way. Throughout the book Hall seems intent on both prooving that Stephen, as a lesbian, or 'invert' as she calls it, is natural, and should be respected by society in her own right as an intelligent and noble person, but at the same time, through the damaging effect the lesbian relationships appear to have, not only on Stephen, but on those she loves, appears to be showing us that lesbianism is both unhealthy and damages those around it. These cross-purposes make the book's message clunky and difficult to follow, and this is only underlined by Hall's leaden prose.
The other major problem is the book is that it fails to get accross any sense of why Stephen loves the two women she comes to love, or why she is intent on pursuing the relationships. The two character she falls for, first Angela and then Mary, are not at all fleshed out, and come accross as vapid and empty. Angela is a downright unpleasant character, and it is never really explained why Stephen comes to love her at all or recognise anything in her. Very little is said about Mary, and she is simply uninteresting. As well as that, very little tenderness is created between Stephen and either of the women, and its hard to get a sense of what their romantic relationship is really like. Stephen tells them she loves them a lot, but it's very hard to see where her passion comes from or what she finds appealling about these women, or, indeed, why they are attracted to her. I could have forgiven this book a lot if it created an honest and interesting relationship between two women, but it simply does not. I didn't expect anything particularly erotic to occur in a book published in 1928, but a romantic relationship that was interesting and emotionally believable should have been possible.
This book is interesting as an early depiction of lesbianism, and because Hall was brave enough to say 'she kissed her full on the lips'. It contains descriptions of the Parisian lesbian bar life which are mildly interesting, and Hall's ideas about Stephen's nature, though peculiar, are interesting to read. This book does not really strike any kind of chord with the modern lesbian, but it is an interesting part of lesbian history. It is also a damning portrait of the society which cannot accept Stephen for what she is, and, rather comfortingly shows us that, while gay and lesbian rights may still have a way to go, they've really come a long way.
I can't say this book in an enjoyable read, because its characters are paper thin and it is fleshed out by many more paragraphs about God and God's will than is really necessary. The prose is clunky, and the fact that Stephen is depicted as a writer is a bit embarrassing, but the ideas and the picture of society which it presents are interesting enough to at least make it readable.