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Not worth the scandal it caused
on 3 June 2002
If you're studying lesbian literature, obscenity trials or queer history in general, this book has unfortunately become foundation stuff and might be worth trawling through. If you're a young dyke just starting to read queer writing, it'll just make you feel hopeless and there are far better writers around. Radclyffe Hall may have been a pioneer and a martyr, and she does at least get marks for courage considering the atmosphere of the time, but as a writer she was mediocre (and apparently as a person she was a nasty piece of work).
Admittedly, the book is very much a product of its time. Sexual orientation was little understood, gender dysphoria even less so, and Hall appears to have got muddled up between the two. There is a mild stab at scientific explanation (Stephen's parents long for a boy, give her a boy's name, treat her as a boy to a certain extent - and surprise surprise, she grows up to like girls and dress as a man), and a very clear line drawn between "inverts" and "normals" that will make anyone grit their teeth long before they come to the depressing way in which Stephen "heroically" solves her final dilemma. The depiction of the relatively "normal" women Stephen loves as properly girly creatures, who are swayed by the perils of Sapphic passion but are still Real Women underneath, contains some pretty unpleasant stereotypes about bisexuals and "femme" women, and the characterisation throughout neither arouses sympathy in the reader nor particularly convinces.
Despite the obscenity trial, there is nothing scandalous in this book beyond the idea that a woman could love women: the dirtiest it gets is the all-concealing line, "...And that night they were not divided." (Sorry if that's a spoiler, but as a friend of mine said, "You mean I've read hundreds of pages about her miserable childhood for *that*?")
If you want lesbian sex, there are plenty of writers offering that sort of thing these days, and some of them even write about it well (Emma Donoghue, for instance, who is, incidentally, a vivid, moving and very funny writer). If you're after lesbian literature of that period, go to Virginia Woolf and co. (there are also some excellent anthologies, such as the "Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories" and "Chloe Plus Olivia", that take a literary-historical perspective). If you simply want a well-written book about love between women, again there is far better on offer: the previous two writers and also the likes of Jane Rule and Alice Walker. And if you're interested in transsexuality and the boundaries between genders (not to mention the people who fall in the middle), I can recommend Anna Livia's "Bruised Fruit" and Rose Tremain's "Sacred Country". Spare yourself this.