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English Literature: Twentieth-Century  
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Lesbians in Post-World War I Literature

In the decade after World War I, a hitherto unprecedented representation of homosexual desire in literary writing includes striking portrayals of lesbians and a prominence of lesbian writers.

The war itself, and the ideological deceptions pervading it, contributed to this development, first by creating new separate communities of men and women, then by inspiring attempts at a new honesty concerning historical and social order in all aspects, sexuality included. But pre-war feminism and aestheticism, and a prestigious circle of American expatriate lesbian writers living in Paris (Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein, Renee Vivien) were no less contributory.

Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, and Rosamond Lehmann

The brilliant short story writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), for whom Oscar Wilde was an ego ideal, initiated her career as a writer alongside personal experiments with lesbianism in the years 1906 to 1908. The heroine of The Rainbow (1915) by D. H. Lawrence has a passing but intense sexual passion for her schoolmistress.

Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) varies the narrative of the heroine in The Rainbow: Here a liberated post-war lesbian undergraduate becomes an object of mixed desire and aversion for the novel's protagonist.

Compton Mackenzie

Vestal Fire (1927) and Extraordinary Women (1928) by Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) explore the need for a compensatory worldly success incited in homosexual men and women by the public condemnation of their desire. The latter novel shows the victory of one of its lesbian heroines, Rory, over censoriousness-induced competition for both love and public notoriety.

But these writers and writings are only signs of lesbianism's new cultural and aesthetic prestige as expressed in the work of Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), Virginia Woolf (1881-1941), and Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943).

Vita Sackville-West

Sackville-West, married to the bisexual English diplomat Harold Nicolson (1887-1968), portrays in her novel Challenge (1924) her elopement, from her own marriage, with the novelist-to-be Violet Trefusis (1894-1972) although the novel transposes the lesbian relation into heterosexual terms. Sackville-West became the object of a passionate erotic attachment on the part of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall

Woolf, who in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) had already represented her heroine's adolescent love for a schoolgirl friend, reimagines Sackville-West's character and life in the experimental and surrealist novel Orlando (1928), about a man who lives for four centuries after he becomes a woman at the age of thirty.

Orlando suggests the arbitrariness of gender divisions, of fixed erotic desires. And although Orlando once again figures Carpenter's intermediate type, Carpenter had claimed the type for biology, whereas Orlando suggests that biology itself is not nature, but artifice. The unnaturalness of homosexuality and sapphism is wittily averred by Woolf, on the grounds that no sexuality or gender is natural.

In stark contrast to Orlando, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which also appeared in 1928, maintains the innate, immobile fixity, hence the immovable nature and naturalness, of homosexuality. Because of Hall's detailed realism, which describes its heroine's erotic desires from the age of six, Hall's book suffered as Orlando did not: The Well of Loneliness was banned as obscene.

The contrast between Hall's and Woolf's books, rooted in their differing addresses to nature, typifies a long-continuing debate about whether or not homosexuality is innate or is a sociocultural product. In Hall, the deep-rooted nature of homosexuality cries out to Stephen Gordon, the novel's heroine, for expressive representation in literary art and in polemic.

But, consistent with Hall's differentiation of culture from nature, writing in The Well of Loneliness cannot bridge the gap between Stephen's culture and her erotic nature's longings. The demand that Stephen's kind of nature be represented, and have "the right to our existence," necessitates a committed self-sacrifice, a dark heroism of Carpenter-like proportions, that entails little pleasure and a guarantee of frustration.

Nevertheless, nature in Hall must make its claims militantly. Orlando, in contrast, rises above the battle for nature's rights, or, rather, wins the battle by taking nature less in earnest, by indulging the pleasures of artifice, and by avoiding the strain of heroisms and narratives that attempt cultural redemption.

Of course, Woolf is militant too, in her feminist tracts A Room of One's Own (1929) (where, among other things, she asks for fiction writers to produce stories about women loving women) and Three Guineas (1939); but she maintains her fiction as another intermediate form: between polemic and pure fabrication.

Woolf's alliance with continues into the 1930s, especially in the best-seller The Years (1937), one of whose central figures is an emigré Polish homosexual and pacifist.

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