They Were Not Divided

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)

So, it turns out I bought these books on the same day, in April 2000, in High Wycombe I assume, and chose the last couple of days of 2021 to finally read them. Both are, for better or worse, foundational lesbian novels.

Hall, it turns out, lived for a period in nearby Rye, which was clearly a queer old place for several decades (the great British watercolour artist Edward Burra was born nearby). This is the coming of age and beyond of Stephen Gordon, the only child, indeed only daughter, of Sir Phillip and Lady Anna Gordon. As a child, her father gives her a lot of freedom, to ride horses, to fence, to dress in masculine attire and ideally to go to Oxford (although presumably of this vaguely late nineteenth-century period, she’d not get a degree). She forms an attachment to a Canadian man, but reacts allergically when he kisses here, and thereafter has a series of crushes on women, some of which become intimate. When her affair with a neighbour is exposed, she is forced into exile, first to London and then to Paris, as the First World War breaks out. She starts a relationship with another ambulance driver, Mary Llewellyn, but this will not go well.

One line that echoes from the Oscar Wilde trials is “the love that dare not speak its name”, and not speaking is key. Sir Phillip has spotted his daughter is not like other women (to paraphrase the novel), and has been researching her pathology in books by Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing in his library. (Why does he have books on sexology?) But he can’t bring himself to actually say anything, before his untimely demise thanks to a cedar tree. Similarly, at least one of her tutors is a lesbian – employed by Sir Phillip? – and wants Stephen to speak loud and proud, but can hardly bring herself to say anything. I’d somehow gained the impression that the novel was worthy but dull – but it held my attention and anything the Sunday Express hated (they campaigned for its banning) is worth reading and celebrating.

The cover is by Gluck, the British painter, from her painting Medallion (1937), a double portrait of herself and her wife Nesta Obermer. My copy of The Price of Salt has a variant on the Edward Hopper Nighthawks painting.

I saw the adaptation, Carol, when it came out and I ought to rewatch it. Here Therese Belivet is an aspiring set designer, rather than an aspiring photographer, who meets the glamourous and older Carol Aird in a department store; in the film Aird forgets (“forgets”?) her gloves, here Therese has to get her address for a delivery. The two form a friendship and a relationship, and eventually they take a road trip to get away from her jealous husband, who is in the process of a divorce. On the road, the two lovers realise they are being pursued by a private detective and may be about to get exposed.

At this point, it could get more noir than it does, but the two can hardly escape from Manhattan. I confess I couldn’t quite see the appeal of Carol, but then she’s not my type. But I had a sudden memory of all those unsuitable attachments that Dick’s characters form in his late 1950s non-sf novels. I wonder if he read it? For me, not as great as Strangers on a Train or the Ripley novels, but clearly a landmark book. It does stay with Theresa’s viewpoint and it may not be entirely trustworthy of course.

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