Lesbian Fiction Herstory


After The Well of Loneliness

© 2005 by Lori L. Lake

"I have been made miserable by what you are keeping hushed."
~Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1935)

As I embarked on my study of Lesbian Herstory, I naturally came at it with preconceptions and assumptions. One major "fact" I believed was that after the publication and brouhaha over The Well of Loneliness, no openly lesbian books were published until Claire Morgan's The Price of Salt and the lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s.

How wrong I was!

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The Big Three

Virginia Woolf published time-traveling, gender-bending Orlando the same year (1928) as Hall's The Well of Loneliness. And Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was issued in 1933. The third member of what I like to call The Big Three, Djuna Barnes, published Nightwood in 1936. None of these novels were specifically, overtly lesbian, but in the sub-text you could read serious elements of lesbian issues.


Virginia Woolf
(1882-1941)


Gertrude Stein
(1874-1946)

 

I have always believed that those three oblique, subtext-rich books comprised the entirety of lesbian-related books in the Thirties. Even Q.E.D., the only work in which Stein wrote explicitly of a lesbian relationship, was not published during her lifetime. (Q.E.D. was written in 1903 and was finally brought out as The Things As They Are in 1950.)

It's easy to find photos, book cover images, and information about The Big Three. The fame of the works and lives of Woolf, Stein, and Barnes continues on even all these years after their deaths, but two other lesser-known writers took literary chances early in the twentieth century of which most current lesbian readers are not aware.

Djuna Barnes
(1892-1982)

We Too Are Drifting

In 1935, Gale Wilhelm published We Too Are Drifting - and with Random House, no less! A tale of drama and damnation, loathing and loss, We Too Are Drifting explored woodcut artist Jan Morales' life as she falls out of love with a first female lover and into a tortured situation with another woman, whom she loses in the end. Not a happy ending; apparently a result that lesbian readers had come to expect.

While writing Drifting, Wilhelm (1908-1991) lived with Helen Hope Rudolph in the San Francisco bay area. She and Rudolph were partners for over a decade, then broke up. The last 43 years of her life, Wilhelm lived with a second lover who has remained anonymous. I have turned up no photographs of Wilhelm in my research.
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Pity For Women

Then Doubleday brought out Helen Anderson's Pity For Women in 1937. The two characters, Ann and Judith, are filled with less loathing than Wilhelm's women in Drifting, but drama and loss still reign supreme. Lesbian literary historian Linnea Stenson says that Pity For Women is the first lesbian novel to show evidence of a resistance by the author - and characters - to the prevailing attitudes of prejudice and misunderstanding.


In this time of so much political and social discussion of gay and lesbian marriage, it's interesting to note that Ann and Judith, in Pity For Women, pledge themselves to one another using the words that Ruth spoke to Naomi in the Bible. ("Whither thou goest, so shall I….) As far as I can tell, this is the first instance of two women in lesbian literature attempting to formalize their union with one another. But it's not enough to save Judith and Ann. The women are separated at the end with one of them insane. Not a happy ending at all.


Torchlight To Valhalla

Gale Wilhelm's Torchlight To Valhalla (1938) marked the first subtle shift away from the tortured souls in the few previous novels containing lesbian themes. It might, in fact, be considered the first overt lesbian coming out novel. Young writer Morgen struggles with her identity as well as with the attention of a young male suitor only to finally accept that she loves Toni, a seventeen-year-old girl four years her junior. (I also found it interesting that for the first time in a lesbian novel, both characters are given androgynous names, Morgen and Toni. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but I liked that.)

Though Vin Packer's 1952 novel Spring Fire is generally given credit as the first novel in which the two heroines experience a positive ending, the 1938 Torchlight predates it. Further research revealed that Wilhelm's novel was issued in hardback, and Packer's in paperback, so that may be why distinction is made between the two. Likely in response to the success of Spring Fire, Torchlight was also reissued in 1953 as a paperback but retitled The Strange Path.


Naiad Cover for
Torchlight To Valhalla (1985)
Gale Wilhelm lived until 1991, but she never wrote another lesbian novel after Torchlight To Valhalla. The three "mainstream" books she subsequently wrote were critical and sales failures. In 1985, Naiad reissued both We Too Are Drifting and Torchlight To Valhalla. Used copies of the Naiad versions can still be gotten at various online sites. Helen Anderson never wrote any further lesbian books either, and copies of her Pity for Women are almost impossible to come by.

 

Conclusion

The 1930s were not quite the vast wasteland I had imagined. Next month we'll take a look at the war years and the 1940s.
If you are curious to learn about a particular topic or have information to share, please write to me at:
Lori@LoriLLake.com

Until next time!

Lori

This page last updated at 3:30 p.m. on April 1, 2005

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