Lesbian (Anti-)heros and Androgynous Aesthetics:

Mapping the Critical Histories of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf


Clare Hemmings
The Gender Institute,
London School of Economics and Political Science


This paper examines the role of feminist and lesbian criticism of The Well of Loneliness and Orlando in shaping lesbian, feminist and queer culture in the twentieth century. In addition the role of biography of the authors of these texts – Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf – is interrogated in the same vein. I argue that the relative popularity of these authors and texts changes in accordance with what critics want lesbian/feminist desire to be, and that as a result we can read changes in lesbian/feminist culture through changes in representation of these two key texts.


Este artigo examina o papel da crítica feminista e lésbica em The Well of Loneliness e Orlando, ao modelar a cultura lésbica, feminista e queer no século XX. O papel da biografia dos autores destes textos – Radclyffe Hall e Virginia Woolf – é também interrogado no mesmo veio. Argumento que a popularidade relativa destes autores e textos alteram-se de acordo com o que os críticos querem que o desejo das lésbicas e das feministas seja, e que, conseqüentemente, podemos ler mudanças na cultura desses grupos através de mudanças na representação destes dois textos chaves.

I : Critical Terrains – an Introduction

In this paper I focus on how changes within lesbian, feminist and queer[1] critical perspectives effect our view of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf, via their texts (specifically, The Well of Loneliness and Orlando: a Biography, both published in 1928) and their biographies. In particular I am interested in how the changing ways that Hall and Woolf are remembered locates them within a late twentieth-century Western lesbian/feminist/queer Imaginary. I argue that to trace these critical memories is not only to give a contemporary history of the importance of these two figures, but also to provide a map of current concerns and impasses within sexuality and gender studies. Initially, I shall outline the contours of that critical and cultural map, providing two key reference points, and then look in more detail at the critical body that produces Hall and Woolf as both related and separate figures of nostalgia and the bearers of a lesbian, feminist or queer truth.

My first reference point is the disparity between friendship and inversion models in the lesbian/feminist/queer history of same sex desire between women. As most readers will no doubt be aware, a friendship model of same sex desire, exemplified in Lillian Faderman’s canonical 1981 text Surpassing the Love of Men, emphasises the importance for lesbian history of organic and sympathetic intimacy between women. This version of the history of same sex desire is explicitly developed as a feminist alternative to an inversion model, which is understood as deriving from and indeed remaining irredeemably tied to a misogynist sexological prescription (Jeffreys). In contrast, for those critics favouring the inversion model of same sex desire, where gendered opposition displaces biological sex difference, sexology’s taxonomies are understood as a discourse that allows “perverse” sexual feelings to be identified and thus expressed. In addition, critics such as Martha Vicinus have shown that to dismiss the masculine or passing woman (and her feminine counterpart) from lesbian history is to erase many contexts of same sex desire from the counter-cultural record purely on the basis that they do not accord with a particular contemporary view of lesbianism (Vicinus).

The lesbian/feminist/queer critical material I am concerned with in this essay both endorses and reproduces the split between a friendship and an invert model of lesbianism, where Woolf’s legacy is identified with the former, and Hall’s with the latter. The historiographer’s choice to prioritise a friendship or inversion model of lesbian identity (and thus favour Woolf or Hall) is far from a neutral choice. The two versions do not translate as differences harmoniously coexisting on a liberal playing field, but are, rather, produced as mutually exclusive vantage points from which to make sense of, and speak the truth about, lesbian history. In most cases, the historian of lesbian/feminist/queer identity and culture finds her historical like in a retrospective effort to create her own contemporary self as historically grounded inevitability rather than exception or aberration. Thus Faderman, Zimmerman and Jeffreys search for loving female companions, while Nestle, Munt and Halberstam identify explicitly gendered sexual outlaws as their ancestors.

This issue of historiography leads us to my second reference point for the lesbian/feminist/queer critical terrain I am concerned with here. The friendship-inversion split validates and is maintained by a parallel contemporary relationship between lesbian feminism on the one hand, and “old-style lesbianism” or later queer politics on the other, and becomes one way through which the differences of these later trajectories are articulated.[2] In other words, queer and lesbian feminism reproduce their differences through the ways in which they “remember” Hall and Woolf as significant for lesbian history. This is particularly evident in terms of the way each critical body understands the relationship between gender and sexuality. Hall is claimed for a (queer) history of the gendered lesbian subject; Woolf for a lesbian feminist history eschewing gendered (patriarchal) hierarchy. What is immediately interesting to me about this critical pattern is the explanation it provides for why feminine inversion has been so difficult for contemporary lesbian/feminist/queer theory to engage with. The masculine invert becomes the precursor to Judith Halberstam’s queer subject of “female masculinity,” while “femininity” in a female friendship model must choose its like not its opposite for love and companionship. The femme who desires female masculinity does not provide the desired lesbian narrative continuity that the two models insist on, since her predecessor, the feminine invert, is understood as destined for heterosexuality, rather than remaining “in the life” (Walker 881). The feminine invert that posed so much difficulty for Havelock Ellis will continue to elude the lesbian historiographer’s eye,[3] all the while lesbian/feminist/queer terrain continues to be regulated by an inversion ~ friendship opposition.

It is not just the contemporary femme who has to struggle to locate self-identical ancestors within this schema, of course. I am thinking in particular of recent historiographic interventions that render Hall and Woolf as bisexual and transsexual respectively (Prosser; Garber). Garber seeks a radical break from the friendship/inversion model as lesbian per se, considering both perspectives as founded on the repression of bisexuality. In this reading, Woolf is a figure of bisexual continuity, wrongly reclaimed for lesbian history.[4] Prosser’s approach is not to reject an inversion model as pertinent to Hall, but to rewrite that model as signifying transsexuality rather than lesbianism. Interestingly, while their investments may vary, all the above writers (of transsexual, bisexual, femme, queer and lesbian history) utilise similar historiographic methods to make sense of their specific critical and cultural locations.

The battle for Woolf or Hall as late twentieth century icon of lesbian/feminist/queer cultural history is, then, first and foremost a battle over the limits of that cultural terrain. If Hall and Woolf signify competing lesbian/feminist/queer traditions, then they are also become the vehicles through which some of these historical and contemporary differences are “resolved.” In the debates over Hall and Woolf’s place in lesbian literary and cultural history, such resolutions take the form of truth tales that seek finally to lay to rest any argument about their respective roles. In reading these truth tales in this essay, I am less interested in privileging one over another, than I am in establishing how the different and competing stories can be read as signposts to the shifting terrain of lesbian/feminist/queer studies. I am not, of course, the first theorist of gendered and sexual culture and history to link Hall and Woolf in this way – in fact the frequency with which these two authors are pitted against one another in critical texts is where the inspiration for this paper comes from. Lyndie Brimstone, for example, suggests that Hall and Woolf are “markers on the cultural map, provid[ing] reference points that help us establish who and where we are in the overall scheme of things” (87). Following Brimstone, my own preference is to use these figures to suggest the relationship among different ways of theorising, their proximity or distance from one another, the overlapping investments in making their biographies fit. This mapping necessitates relinquishing the presumption that there is a “right way” to read Hall or Woolf. I contend that this approach is particularly pertinent in light of the current contests surrounding the reclaimed sexual or gendered identity of both authors in the political and cultural realm. Thus the question of whether or not Hall is lesbian or transsexual, for example, is repeatedly asked as though one could say definitively either way. Similarly, with regard to Woolf, the struggle as to her sexual identity is ongoing – is she lesbian, bisexual, or experimental heterosexual? Re-interpreting Hall and Woolf in terms of our desires for them (rather than for the “truth” of their meaning) may provide a way of showing how they figure as part of the cultural memory of more than one identity or Imaginary.[5]

II: Critical Histories – Established Tendencies

Critical tension between Hall and Woolf is not simply a current concern. These women were understood very differently by their contemporaries as well. Through the publishing of The Well of Loneliness and its censorship in 1928, Radclyffe “John” Hall and her martyred masculine protagonist, Stephen Gordon, became firmly associated with the sexological category “invert,” and have remained so ever since. In the novel, Stephen’s masculinity resides in her body and is evidenced through her desire for a range of masculine cultural signifiers – education, sporting prowess, honour and respect, the love of a feminine woman. Her martyrdom resides in her relinquishment of her lover, Mary, for the sake of that masculine honour at the end of the novel.[6] Despite its tragic nature, for most of this century The Well has been “the lesbian novel” (Rule 50) of the English-speaking world. Hall described her own reasons for wanting to publish The Well as a desire to give “strength to the weak and the hopeless,” as well as a plea for increased tolerance of lesbians from heterosexuals, despite the potential “shipwreck of her own career” (qtd. in Nestle, “The Fem Question” 144). Her own life has of course been contrasted with that of her self-sacrificing heroine’s insofar as she lived for most of her adult life with Una Troubridge, despite recurrent difficulties (Troubridge; Baker; Cline).

In contrast, Woolf’s “lesbianism,” has not been taken for granted, primarily because of her marriage to Leonard Woolf. Unlike Hall, Woolf herself resisted declaring her desire for women openly, preferring to code it through her writing. Also published in 1928, Orlando: a Biography traces the “history” of its protagonist through several centuries and changes of sex. It was written for her lover Vita Sackville-West, but in this case there were no censorship trials or public scandals. Orlando’s allegorical, mock biographical form belies its status as what Nigel Nicholson termed “the longest love letter in history” (qtd. in Knopp 112) and protected the Bloomsbury name. Similarly, where they mentioned it at all, Woolf’s biographers initially downplayed her relationships with women. Most infamously, Quentin Bell notes of that affair that “I doubt very much whether it was of a kind to excite Virginia or to satisfy Vita” (111). Even within the feminist tradition “that has enshrined Virginia as its saint” (112), it is through the figure of Vita Sackville-West, who although also married, spoke of herself and was spoken of as a lesbian in her own time, that Virginia is positioned as “sapphist.” In direct comparison to Hall, Woolf’s person does not provide lesbian meaning in itself. Rather it is her writing, her aesthetic, and her passionate love as expressed in her letters to Vita, her diary entries, and of course, her prose, that result in Woolf becoming an integral part of a lesbian tradition that claims her as exemplary.

Woolf and Hall’s paths crossed directly over the censorship of The Well. While the Bloomsbury group defended the right of The Well to be published, in private correspondence they were vicious. Thus Woolf writes to Lady Ottoline Morrell that “the dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there – one simply cannot keep one’s eyes on the page” (qtd. in Cline 251). And Vera Brittain bemoaned what she considered to be the text’s regrettable conventionality: “Miss Hall makes her ‘normal’ women clinging and ‘feminine’ to exasperation” (qtd. in Rule 59). Woolf was scarcely less vicious towards Hall herself, writing in her Diary that Hall was “lemon yellow, tough, stringy, exacerbated” (Woolf, The Diary Vol 3 207). Already their different roles seem established – Hall, outspoken about her desire for women, less gifted in its expression; Woolf, subtle and marvelous in her expression, secretive and possibly fearful in her desire.

III: Critical Readings – Hall’s Transitions

Lesbian feminists of the early 1970s continued to acknowledge the importance of The Well and its author in terms of courage, while rejecting its consolidation of the dominant medical and psychological meanings of “lesbianism.” Thus, Focus: a Journal for Gay Women praises Hall’s courage in February 1973, quoting directly from the novel on the front cover – “We are coming and our name is legion. You dare not disown us” (Focus Front Cover) – while excusing her heterosexism in the pages of the text: “She has nowhere to look for models or examples except within the very society that rejects her” (Silk 3). This is a common theme in lesbian criticism of The Well from the early 1970s, which repeatedly views the novel and its author with a rather patronising although sympathetic eye, as an unfortunate but understandable condoning of “the myth of the Lesbian as a pseudo-male” (Martin and Lyon 22). The masculinity of the invert who desires women because she has the gender traits of a man, is thus condemned on a structural political level as embodying heterosexist models of gender and desire, while being excused on a personal level for not having a full range of options.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, sympathy for Hall’s positive role in making lesbianism visible is rapidly overtaken by anger at what is perceived to be her fusing of lesbianism and sickness or unhappiness. The Well comes to symbolise everything that lesbianism is not for a new generation of activists. So in 1981 Catherine Stimpson argues that “Hall projects homosexuality as a sickness – the abnormal illness is inescapable, preordained; an ascribed, not an achieved status” (Stimpson 363). For a political lesbian feminist movement of this era, lesbianism as sickness is the representation of patriarchal power and is thus incommensurate with lesbian freedom. Instead of narratives of damnation – “the ‘butch,’ the tears, the despair of it all” (Cook 718) – these writers yearned for lesbian narratives of liberation and open desire, as exemplified by Rita Mae Brown’s RubyFruit Jungle.

all as an early heroine, if not of a feminist, then of a sensitive and contextualised lesbian history. In particular, Esther Newton’s significant article “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian” from 1984, marks a turning point in critical attempts to position Hall and Stephen Gordon as of their own time, rather than answerable to contemporary lesbian feminist theoretical prescriptions. Newton’s social historicisation of The Well was followed by a similar effort on Teresa de Lauretis’s part to place Hall’s text as central to a lesbian literary history in 1988 (De Lauretis, “Sexual Indifference”). Along with Elizabeth Wilson, de Lauretis suggests that relentlessly positivist literary depictions of lesbian desire tend not only to be ahistorical, but also unrepresentative of the dangers and tensions of same-sex passion, potentially rendering it domesticated and profoundly unsexy. This changed focus prioritises the pleasures and practices of lesbian sexuality, its survival despite the odds, and the political resonances of a specifically lesbian (whether feminist or not) coding of desire.

These articles urging us to reconsider Radclyffe Hall’s position in the Lesbian Imaginary look forward to the resurgence of interest in butch/femme history and eroticism through the 1990s. To my mind, it is Joan Nestle’s work that bridges the gap between a literary-historical interest in the place of inversion in lesbian identity and the claiming of a personal and erotic investment in the same. In particular, it is Nestle who articulates the relationship between friendship models of lesbianism and the exclusion from lesbian communities of women wanting to express themselves in explicitly gendered ways (Nestle, A Restricted Country; Nestle, A Persistent Desire). Yet, interestingly, while Nestle speaks from an embodied femme position, the queer consolidation of gendered same-sex eroticism has more often focused on masculinity as the site of transgressive lesbian heroism. Judith Butler, Sally Munt and Judith Halberstam all celebrate female-bodied masculinity as both the performative reiteration signaling queer desire among women, and as peculiarly transgressive of heteronormative gender relations. The dual effect of this masculinisation of queer culture is both to isolate femininity (or femme) as unable to signify lesbianism in its own right, and, somewhat oddly given the post-structuralist emphasis in much of this work, to reconstitute the realm of the visible as the privileged site of sexual desire and transformation. Only dissonantly gendered bodies (drag in males; butch in female) can be seen to signal queer desire, in other words. Thus, in Heroic Desire: Lesbian Identity and Cultural Space, Sally Munt insists that: “Butch is the gospel of lesbianism, inevitably interpreted as the true revelation of female homosexuality. Explicitly and implicitly the butch stands for the lesbian in the Lesbian Imaginary” (54).[7] Hall is thus praised for “putting lesbianism on the map,” by virtue of the very masculinity that had once called her suitability as lesbian icon into question. By the late 1990s, Hall is seen as representing an “unambiguous stand on lesbianism, both in personal [and literary] terms” (Cline 250).

These shifts in perceptions of The Well can be traced through Michèle Aina Barale’s book covers of The Well from 1951, 1974 and 1981 respectively (Barale 244, 248, 252; Figures 1, 2 and 3). In the first cover the sensationalist history of the novel is emphasised – “denounced, banned, and applauded” – over and above the gendered differences of its characters. In the second cover from 1974, the masculinity of the taller woman is symbolically emphasised both by her height, and her penetrative relationship to the “natural flower” that is the object of her desire. These gendered differences are nevertheless softened by curls and frills, perhaps in deference to a 1970s androgynous aesthetic. The third cover image from 1981 sees the emergence of the cross-dressed woman, the lone heroine whose identity is shrouded in mystery, recalling Wilson’s emphasis on the dangers and frissons of lesbian desire. I have also included the cover from the 1992 Virago edition, where the profiles show strength and visibility, and where female masculinity no longer hides in the shadows (Figure 3). Interestingly, although the front profile is clearly intended to be the more masculine (indeed, to my mind, only existing familiarity with the text would indicate a female rather than male masculinity), the farther profile also lacks feminine frills, the differentiation between the two marked by the curve of an eyebrow, the length of the lashes and a hint of pale lipstick, rather than by any clearly defined gender difference. To my mind, one could read this as a rendering of the subtleties of codes of lesbian desire/difference, or as the disappearing of femininity from representations of those gendered codings.

We can also follow these different readings of The Well, the transitions and cleavages within lesbian/feminist/queer criticism, if we consider the following statement by Blanche Weisen Cook in 1979 concerning the paucity of knowledge about lesbians and literature in the 1950s. Cook narrates: “So most of us lesbians in the 1950s grew up knowing nothing about lesbianism except Stephen Gordon’s swagger, Stephen Gordon’s breeches, and Stephen Gordon’s wonderful way with horses” (719). For Cook, this statement is almost self-evidentially negative – swagger and breeches being all that is wrong with dominant constructions of lesbianism as the sexual invert of sexology. For de Lauretis and Newton, that swagger shows proud defiance in the face of a hostile world. For Butler, Munt and Halberstam, again, the “swagger,” “breeches,” and “horse-love,” are precisely what make Stephen a lesbian hero, complex, misguided and narcissistic as she may be (in true heroic genre, in fact).

IV: Critical Readings – Woolf’s Aesthetics

To read changes in lesbian feminist criticism through Hall alone would be to ignore the whole area of the “lesbian aesthetic” that is so central to lesbian feminism. Significantly, I think, writing celebrating Virginia Woolf as central to a lesbian aesthetic comes to the fore at the same time as Hall’s status as the subject of a lesbian literary and cultural Imaginary is called into question in the 1970s and early 1980s. The contest staged between Hall and Woolf is not only a struggle over lesbian history, but contemporary lesbian/feminist meaning as well. As a continuation of the “swagger” passage, above, Cook asks:

Now suppose we had read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando instead. Suppose we had known that Orlando, the timeless androgynous changeling, was in fact Vita Sackville-West. Or, just imagine we had read the letters as well – Woolf’s letters to Vita, her sister Vanessa, Dame Ethel Smyth, or Violet Dickinson, for whom she wrote a fantasy of an erotic and nurturing female utopia. (719)

Cook answers her own rhetoric by suggesting that: “well, to begin with, some of us might never have swaggered” (719). And, in the same vein, one might also assume that “some of us” might have written beautifully, not stodgily, and pursued androgynous mutuality rather than gendered hierarchy in our relationships, in accordance with the lesbian feminist principles particular to the late 1970s. Two years later, in 1981, Catherine Stimpson also advises her reader to reject Hall’s “riddling images of pity, self-pity, and of terror” that are unable to “console” (369), in favour of narratives of “the enabling escape, the lesbian’s rebellion against social stigma and self-contempt” (364). Although she does not mention Woolf explicitly (perhaps because of her chosen emphasis on the “carnality” of lesbianism – see below), Stimpson uses a similar formula to Cook’s, privileging the utopic over the tragic as effectively more lesbian. It is this imagining of lesbianism, as woman-loving, as emphasising friendship and passion over marital obligation and convention, that informs Louise de Salvo’s article in 1982, “Lighting the Cave.” De Salvo places the Woolf – Sackville-West “amorous friendship” as central to the emotional and literary development of each participant. In doing so, Woolf’s position as the embodiment of the romantic friendship genre of lesbian history is secured, as is the (temporary) privileging of that trajectory over and above the “damned inversion” model as suggested in my introduction. To underline the point: Woolf’s “life’s work” becomes pivotal from the 1970s onwards not for lesbian history per se, but for the fusing of lesbianism and feminism, such that by 1992 Elizabeth Meese can begin her experimental piece on Virginia, Vita and the gaze by stating unequivocally: “I always write about the lesbian : the woman as though she were a feminist, as if she (all three of us) occupied the same body” (85).

Woolf’s association with lesbian feminism is primarily evidenced through her interest in and representation of androgyny, which is understood to provide the key to the merging Meese takes as her starting point. Orlando’s androgyny – from man to woman, sequentially, and man and woman in one body, the “and/or” of both title and protagonist (Bowlby) – provides an alternative object and subject of “lesbian” desire from the masculine woman. Woolf’s character, Orlando, becomes a way of reversing the fortunes of contemporary women – she can inherit her ancestral home where Vita Sackville-West could not – and provides a model for the “active woman” that transcends her sex. Androgyny in the text, too, provides moments of sexual transgression that the “knowing” (or lesbian) reader can take pleasure in (the layered cross-dressing that makes the “real sex” of the protagonists less secure). Meese argues that: “In a sense, critical interest in androgyny in Woolf’s work prepares us for and distracts us from as it disguises her lesbian interests” (89). In other words, androgyny can be used to disavow lesbianism, but can also be the “lesbian code” that allows Woolf to be that ideal post-1970 combination of lesbian : woman : feminist. In historiographic terms, Woolf/Orlando’s androgyny becomes an extremely useful vehicle to allow lesbian critics to reject masculinity as the a priori sign of same-sex desire, without having to embrace an equally politically dubious femininity in its stead. Thus, a female friendship model can be preserved via the Woolf – Sackville-West relationship, while its subject is seen to transcend gendered roles.

Woolf’s androgyny is not limited to the protagonist in Orlando, of course. Approaching Woolf’s androgyny in textual terms Bowlby argues that “it may be that the very possibility of putting the question in the form of the “and/or,” without demanding a definite, single answer, is already “feminine,” in the sense of preceding or challenging the confidence of an unequivocal judgement” (44). It is not only lesbian characters that become important for a lesbian literary tradition from the 1970s onwards, but also lesbian style, in particular a style that challenges what is perceived as traditional masculine narrative form. This form has been described by a plethora of lesbian/feminist critics as one based on male linearity and certainty (Farwell; Roof), which secures the dominance of male phallic language (Cixous), and continues the objectification of women and their location as obstacles to the realisation of the heterosexual male hero’s destiny (De Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative”). In this vein, Barbara Smith states in 1977 that “if a writer’s work on sentences refuses to do what it is supposed to do, if there are strong images of women, and if there is a refusal to be linear, the result is innately lesbian literature” (33). Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing, with its non-linearity, caressing language, character and reader, is as important as androgyny, therefore, in marking her place in the lesbian feminist Imaginary which seeks to break with that masculine narrative form.

Woolf becomes important for second wave lesbian/feminist criticism, then, because she (temporarily) resolves difficult questions about what a lesbian is, what kind of texts she produces, and who the reader of these texts might be. What produces Woolf’s body as ideal for the confluence of lesbian : feminist : woman is the fusion of her desire for women and her euphoric expression of that desire. She allows Adrienne Rich’s assertion that we exist on a “lesbian continuum” all women have access to, and Stimpson’s insistence on the “carnality” of lesbian desire – “lesbianism partakes of the body, partakes of the flesh” (364) – to coexist in one body, while ensuring that Barbara Smith’s lesbian literature is penned by a woman (rather than James Joyce, say). Similarly, we can see how a lesbian/feminist focus on androgyny is able to absorb friendship models of lesbian history, but not the masculinity that a lesbian/queer trajectory later embraces as its own, sewing the seeds for the “negotiated separation” of feminist and queer criticism in the early 1990s (Sedgwick; Abelove, Barale and Halperin).

Again, we can trace these shifts in the position of Virginia Woolf for a lesbian critical Imaginary in the images on the front covers of Orlando in 1965, 1980 and 1992 respectively. In the first cover, the sexual androgyny is laid plain in the pairings, as is the direct reference to Woolf herself (figured bottom left, as she was in numerous photographs, with hair back and intense, unsmiling face). This representation combines both aspects of Woolf’s importance for a lesbian critical tradition, as I have suggested. The second cover rather interestingly foreshadows the later image on the cover of The Well of Loneliness in 1992 (Figure 3) in its image of a lone figure, hidden in shadow. But unlike the earlier image, here we do not know if the Orlando shown is a woman or a man. Represented in isolation what is perhaps suggested is the androgyny of the changeling Orlando condensed here in a single, rather confrontational image. The final cover seems to have little in common with the previous two representations, or indeed, with those used by publishers for The Well. By 1992, of course, the lesbian feminist approach that has heralded Woolf as its icon has begun to receive considerably less attention than the queer celebration of butch masculinity, and this is no doubt reflected in the comparable covers of the two texts from that time.

V: Cartographies of the Present – Conclusion

These contests over Woolf and Hall with respect to lesbian/feminist/queer meaning remain unresolved, but what I hope I have shown is that our object of inquiry is less the relative appropriateness of Woolf and Hall as lesbian subjects, but rather the ways in which debates over this appropriateness provide perspective on the critical terrain from which they derive. Attempting to delineate the contours of that map in its specificity can help up make sense of contemporary trajectories that may otherwise appear to have “come out of nowhere.” The queer emphasis on “female masculinity” as the epitome of lesbian or queer heroic transgression, for example, can be historicised in relation to lesbian-feminist claiming of androgyny and femininity as innately lesbian. And importantly, the emergence of “new” figures of cultural concern, the transsexual and the bisexual, can be understood as an integral part of a lesbian/feminist/queer critical approaches, rather than an appropriation or dismissal of the same.

As well as providing us with a map of internal differences, tracing lesbian/feminist/queer critical perspectives in this way also marks the limits of that map. Let us consider, for example, the fact that within the lesbian/feminist/queer critical material I have been concerned with here, Hall and Troubridge’s fascist alliances are either omitted from their history altogether, or relegated to the margins of significance. Where they are mentioned, it is in an uneasy or apologetic way. So, the influential biography Our Three Selves attributes Hall and Troubridge’s open support of Mussolini through the wearing of Italian ribbons on their lapels to their love of fashion and style, explicitly positioning Hall as juvenile and easily influenced (Baker 312).[8] Similarly, the otherwise well documented snobbery of the Bloomsbury set, as well as the fascist links of the Sackville-Wests,[9] are directly countered by critical work within a lesbian/feminist/queer trajectory. This absence or displacement marks a desire for Hall and Woolf to remain “uncomplicated” by the very tensions that have marked the critical traditions that they come out of.

So the closing questions I want to ask are: what does it mean that a queer privileging of masculinity over femininity as transgressive sign takes a white, upper-class figurehead from the 1920s without addressing that context further than its relation to sexology? And how does a lesbian feminist ease at understanding androgyny as an only gendered rather than classed aesthetic both mirror and produce the terrain of its own inquiry? Mapping the importance of Hall and Woolf for the development of lesbian/feminist/queer critical work requires us to ask difficult as well as empowering questions of the terrain we call home.

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[1] I am interested in the overlaps between these fields insofar as they conceive of the lesbian subject of late nineteenth and early twentieth century history and culture, rather than the full extent of each particular field. What I understand as this field will become apparent in the course of this article. Direct references to the field will be signalled by the term “lesbian/feminist/queer.”
[2] There are clearly a number of differences between the ways in which butch-femme couples in the 1940s-1960s and queers in the 1990s experience and articulate their relationship to inversion. Broadly speaking, in the former context, ‘inversion’ is understood as natural and inevitable and in the latter context as performative, as a prioritising of gender over and as a way of exposing the a priori meanings of the sexed body. Since I am concerned in this paper with the contemporary terrain of sexuality and gender studies, I will be focussing primarily on the queer relationship to the inversion model here.
[3] In a slightly different vein, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeleine Davis acknowledge that in prioritising lesbian identity in their search for butch/fem histories in Buffalo, New York, they were bound to end up with “the stories of significantly fewer fems” (18).
[4] Garber notes that her perspective may “repeat the gesture of fragmentation and compartmentalization, the gesture of essentializing” (354-5) that she herself is highly critical of, yet is unable to conceive of an alternative means to validate a “bisexual present.”
[5] See The Bisexual Imaginary for a similar discussion of the role of Oscar Wilde in the Imaginaries of overlapping cultural communities (Bi Academic Intervention).
[6] Elsewhere I have discussed the ways in which Mary’s return to heterosexuality at the end of the novel is problematised by reading The Well from the point of view of its feminine protagonist (Hemmings).
[7] Munt’s work is reminiscent of Bertha Harris’s celebration of the lesbian as outlaw or monster in 1977.

[8] Baker also describes an occasion when John and Una joined local fisherman in a sing-song in August 1935: “ ‘At the end,’ Una reported, ‘John gave them a toast: “Italia” and they replied “Erviva” and all gave and received the Fascist salute’ ” (312). See also Your John, for the collected letters of Radclyffe Hall to Evguenia Souline, which document Hall’s Fascist sympathies in detail (Glascow).

[9] Harold was involved in Oswald Mosley’s New Party (and the newspaper Action) in the early 1930s (Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf 30; Salvo 213).

Clare Hemmings is Lecturer in Gender Studies and Gender Theory at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published a range of articles on sexuality and gender, most recently,  " 'All my life I've been waiting for something...' ": Theorizing Femme Narrative in The Well of Loneliness (Columbia University Press, 2001).She is the co-editor of The Bisexual Imaginary: Representation, Identity, and Desire (London: Cassell, 1997), and guest editor of "Stretching Queer Boundaries: Queer Method and Practice for the 21st Century," Sexualities, 2 (4): November1999. Her book Bisexual Spaces is forthcoming from Routledge in 2002.

E-mail: C.Hemmings@lse.ac.uk

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