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Social Invisibilities

Radclyffe Hall’s Short Fiction: A Humble Ethics of the Flawed

Tina Terradillos
p. 167-182


La note d’auteur qui précède la nouvelle “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”, titre éponyme du recueil publié par Radclyffe Hall en 1934, inscrit la nouvelle dans la lignée de son roman à scandale The Well of Loneliness, invitant ainsi à associer l’humble à un genre littéraire et à un attribut (gender), notamment pendant la Première Guerre mondiale. La variété des personnages et des situations élargit cependant la définition de l’humble au-delà de la dysphorie sexuelle avant de renverser la perspective : plutôt que d’être humble, on en vient à être rendu humble. Si les personnages semblent en effet privés d’agentivité dans leur relation à l’autre, leur invisibilisation sert de ressort pour résister à la dépossession. Alors même qu’il échoue parfois, ou peut-être précisément pour cette raison, ce procédé mène à une éthique de la faillite étudiée à travers les choix éditoriaux de Radclyffe Hall et leurs conséquences sur le genre littéraire.

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1Radclyffe Hall’s 1934 single published volume of short stories opens on the eponymous story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” preceded by the following author’s note:

This story, in which I have permitted myself a brief excursion into the realms of the fantastic, was written in July 1926, shortly before I definitely decided to write my serious study of congenital inversion, The Well of Loneliness.
     Although Miss Ogilvy is a very different person from Stephen Gordon, yet those who have read The Well of Loneliness will find in the earlier part of this story the nucleus of those sections of my novel which deal with Stephen Gordon’s childhood and girlhood, and with the noble and selfless work done by hundreds of sexually inverted women during the Great War: 1914-1918. (Miss Ogilvy 6)

2Given the definition of humble as “of lowly condition or rank” (online OED), such a note may be read as an invitation to consider Hall’s story as humble since it places it under the direct notoriety of her so-called “bible of lesbianism.” Hall thus orientates the readers’ way of dealing with the humble in terms of genre and also of content. Incidentally, most critics have examined “Miss Ogilvy” as shedding light on The Well of Loneliness, and adopted a gendered perspective on her work resulting in a near-exclusive focus on The Well to the detriment of her seven other novels. Taking a broader view, Ann-Marie Einhaus’s admission that it is “virtually impossible to agree on any other common denominators than that a short story ought to be a piece of prose fiction, and that it ought to be relatively short” (10) might strengthen the belief that the short story is a humble genre, even a minor one compared to the novel. If Hall’s stories portray characters of lowly condition living ordinary lives notably during the First World War—in other words if they explore a thematic humble, they do not make it possible to define the genre more accurately than Einhaus does. Still, Hall and her critics belittle “Miss Ogilvy” in the same way as short fiction dealing with the First World War suffers from canonical prejudices, according to Einhaus. Indeed, Hall’s gallery of characters and contexts widens the scope of the humble beyond gender dysphoria before shifting the perspective from being humble to being humbled. Her characters are dispossessed in the double sense given by Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou of the surrender of the sovereign, autonomous subject and of social and economic deprivation (2). Still, although the protagonists seem deprived of agency in their relationship to the other, they come to reverse their humble status seen as a “disposition marked by the absence of self-assertion” (online OED) and use it as leverage to resist dispossession. As Butler and Athanasiou argue, “dispossession implies imposed injuries, painful interpellations, occlusions, and foreclosures, modes of subjugation that call to be addressed and redressed” (2). Similarly, Sally Cline’s biographical work and Hall’s archives show how the author’s conception of writing can nuance and blur the generic boundaries she nevertheless hints at in the aforementioned note. This results in what could be called an ethics of the flawed. If Hall’s stories have remained a terra incognita, the concept of the “humble” as a critical tool will allow me to rediscover and explore them through the way Hall’s editorial choices inform her treatment of the genre.

Delineating a Humble Genre through Humble Motifs

  • 1 Dellamora examines “The Rest Cure—1932” in chapter 10 of his monograph.
  • 2 Agnès Cardinal’s anthology (“Women’s Writing of the First World War,” Reference Reviews 15.4 (2001) (...)

3When Hall published her short story collection in 1934, she had not published any work since The Well six years before, which may explain why she used its notoriety. She belongs to the category of “successful authors” who can afford publication because they “are mostly also successful novelists” whose short stories “will usually lag far behind [their] novels in sales” (Einhaus 20). The Well thus appears as the benchmark by which Hall seems to assess “Miss Ogilvy.” Besides, her story seems to be doubly humble as a rough version of the novel; its brevity or lack of depth would also make for its less “serious” nature. Editorially, Hall chose “Miss Ogilvy” as the title story and as the first story in the collection, thus also placing the whole volume under the influence of her novel and inviting to read it in gendered terms. Critically speaking, it has resulted in the near-exclusive focus on “Miss Ogilvy” to the detriment of the other four, even humbler, stories: “The Lover of Things,” “Fraülein Schwartz,” “The Rest Cure—1932,” and “Upon the Mountains.” Only Richard Dellamora1 has analysed one of them,2 still through the prism of gender. Incidentally, in the perspective of the humble, the notion comes to be associated with the sexually inverted and the misfit whose minor status would confine them to the margins. If this editorial stance influences the reader’s horizon of expectation, it proves reductive as the volume portrays a gallery of humble characters who are either poor or foreign in wartimes, and include primitive creatures or animals shown in their everyday activities. Stylistically, the stories are characterised by their relative brevity, rather impersonal narrative voice, and a realist style with the exception of “Miss Ogilvy” in which Hall admits apologetically that she has “permitted [herself] a brief excursion into the realms of the fantastic” (Miss Ogilvy 6).

4Following Hall’s invitation, it seems pertinent to start examining the humble with the character of Ogilvy. She is first shown at the very end of the war when her ambulance Unit is being disbanded after three years which “had completely altered the complexion of her life” (7). Indeed, her work at the front allowed her to overcome the lowly condition of what was then called a mannish woman, and “[forget] the bad joke that Nature seemed to have played her” (14). Since childhood indeed, she had been a “queer little girl” (14) who had been given an “awkward body with its queer look of strength” (14) and favoured “the stable-boys as companions, preferring to play with footballs and tops” (9). As her body, manners and clothes betrayed her transsexuality (to use today’s terminology), she continued to be set, and feel apart as an adult: “she was not at all like other ladies” (13). Consequently, her “relation to the opposite sex was unusual” (10) while “her strangeness” (10) alienated her from other women and her own self, as the title ironically suggests. The lexical field marks the protagonist as a misfit suffering from isolation: “Men had not wanted her” while girls and women’s foibles “set her outside the sphere of their intimate lives, so that in the end she must blaze a lone trail through the difficulties of her nature” (10). From a generic as well as a thematic prism, the story emphasises how definitions shift from a condition deemed humble to a minor status actualised by a position on the fringe of canons or society. With Ogilvy, the humble appears as a gendered attribute and as a way of relating to the other, including oneself. The humble takes on a less clear-cut hue when it refers to the other transsexual women working in her Unit at the Front: some manage to fit in rather happily, again with heterosexual norms, unlike Ogilvy who hates the domesticity it entails. Finally, she chooses to escape by going to an isolated island. There, she travels back in time to the Stone Age where she reincarnates in “Man” who meets “Woman.” The humble takes on another dimension as humans are divided into those two simple categories as if gender and identity had then been crystal clear. In fact, the humble refers to a would-be primitive state of humankind characterised by a strong physicality where the senses allow an effective and truthful connection with others; besides, language consists less of words than of meaningful sounds, a humble admission coming from a writer. The time travel eventually makes it possible to qualify the editorial stance and to see in the humble character of Hall’s story a temporal and spatial outsider as Ogilvy does not fit in post-war Britain or on the Stone Age island where she dies (while the courage she displays during the First World War is ignored).

5Hall’s short story collection widens the scope of the humble to the theme of lower social conditions, a constant motif in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. “The Lover of Things” opens on Henry’s family background, reminiscent of Dickensian descriptions of poverty associated to alcoholism, diseases, and filth. After their father’s death, the five children are “an ill-fed, ill-tempered, ill-washed lot who quarrelled and howled in and out of season—this because they had many bodily woes and were not infrequently hungry” (33). Henry is repelled by the “hideous . . . dismal rows of equally poor and neglected houses” (35) that he finds “‘ugly…’orribly ugly!’” (35), which is why he keeps silent and distant at home while he starts wandering the streets of London especially where shops display antiques. Henry’s attitude isolates him from his mother and siblings, whom he does not look like at all (34), as well as from other people. Indeed, material poverty entails a repression of emotions as Henry’s “aloofness . . . seemed to set him apart from [his mother’s] gruelling struggle for existence” (34) “as though he were lacking in comprehension” (41) or felt “no compassion” (49) while his mother feels too plagued by her living conditions to show her children love.

6In this story, the humble betrays an inability to feel that makes Henry “scarcely human” (49). Or might it stem from an inability to voice his own feelings? “[H]e honestly did not know what to say, for how could he put his thoughts into words? If he did so, in spite of her back she would strike him” (42). The end of this quote suddenly reverses viewpoints and sheds light on Henry’s mother’s biased outlook: hers has served as the benchmark by which her son has been portrayed. The character of Henry is marginalised by his mother’s bitter resentment at a shared humble economic status neither can improve upon, but his lack of feelings may actually originate in his mother’s rejection while his need of love finds expression in his eagerness for beauty and later in his delicate handling of any object. His early interest in the “humbler shops where antiques were often displayed on the pavement” (39) comes to stand for the very opposite of the “squalid” (35) material and emotional conditions he lives in; besides, his hatred of ugliness allows him to escape these conditions, especially when he becomes a successful worker in a removal company specialised in art, even if his adulthood remains marked by uneasy relationships with other people. The shift in perspective reveals the arbitrariness of norm setting and thus of the definition of the humble. The genre and the protagonists are less humble than they are made humble by internal and external factors.

From the Humble to the Humbled: Processes of Marginalisation

  • 3 See Baker, Cline, Dellamora, Rule, and Souhami.

7From an attribute, the humble in Hall’s volume turns into an experience of debasement or marginalisation imposed upon the characters, but also upon the short story genre. The author’s note exemplifies Hall’s telling use of terminology: while she distances herself from “this story,” she takes pride in the seriousness of “[her] novel,” probably suggesting that a “serious study” requires the length of a novel. In addition, she writes about Adam’s Breed (1926) that “[she] thought at first [she] would use the idea for a short story . . . then [she] realised no short story would relieve [her] of [her] obsessive idea. [She] was actually trying to write another book” (“Why I Wrote” 205; my emphasis). Considering what is revealed by her archive material—“[m]y methods of constructing a book are as follows. I never begin a novel until the complete skeleton of the plot is clear in my mind: I never begin the first word of a book until I am certain how that book will end” (“Autobiography” 205)—it becomes clear that book means novel. Moreover, the anteriority of the writing of the story seems to humble it, leading Judith Halberstam to consider it as “a trial run for The Well” (147) while Jodie Medd sees “an illuminating frame” (238) in it. Among her five biographers,3 three do not mention her stories at all while Sally Cline simply explains their context of production. They also agree that Hall’s novels mark the start of what Cline calls “her serious career as a writer of fiction” (3). Hall’s biographers thus humble both her stories and the poetry she was first acclaimed for.

8From a critical point of view, Hall’s collection does not meet modernist standards as it uses a traditional, realist style at a time when most writers had turned to a more experimental form of writing. Might Hall have accepted the status given to the short story “as a minor genre or, more accurately, [accepted] the place ascribed to it by the literary canon” (2), as Christine Reynier believes of Virginia Woolf? In fact, canonical prejudices apply even more to the stories dealing with the war according to Einhaus, who confirms “the non-conformity of the majority of these stories to what a ‘good,’ modern(ist), short story ought to be” (37). Indeed, the master genres consisted in poetry and memoirs, offering a predominantly male, military-related view with an emphasis on stricken soldiers and veterans. Hall’s stories focus instead on the minor perspectives of a women’s ambulance Unit on the French front and its dismissal after the war (“Miss Ogilvy”); on the interactions between English civilians and a German resident living together at the start of the war (“Fraülein Schwartz”), or on a leading industrialist threatened by bankruptcy after the war, leading him to a state of depression revived by the 1929 economic crisis (“The Rest Cure”).

  • 4 Etymology: Old French umble, humble (12th cent. in Littré) Latin humil-em low, lowly, small, slig (...)

9The motif of the war humbles the genre of the short story as well as Hall’s characters. Besides, Michael Baker points out that, in Hall’s volume, the war is used “implicitly as a point of comparison to show that far more terrible things can be perpetrated in the ostensibly peaceful and mundane world” (288-89). If the war is liberating for Ogilvy or synonymous with prosperity for Duffell, its aftermath marginalises them even further. The war emphasises a process of invisibilisation in “Miss Ogilvy” which relies on the gender divide. Indeed, the protagonist suffers from social ostracism since “in this world it is better to be one with the herd, . . . the world has no wish to understand those who cannot conform to its stereotyped pattern” (10). Ogilvy and the women like her are made invisible by the “undignified, pitiful ending” (9) of their courageous Unit. The rot she mentions when she vents out her resentment—“‘It’s rotten! . . . It’s rotten, this breaking up of our Unit!” (8)—can remind the reader of the earth evoked by the etymology of the word humble, referring to humus,4 except that it will not fertilise for them: they are deprived of any hope and finally wiped out of a chronology by the creation of a suspended time which they have no power to change: from “the marring of her from the days of her earliest childhood” (9) through to the dismantling of her Unit when everything around is “all small like [her] future” (9), Ogilvy develops a “sense of complete frustration” (9) which can be heard in her bitter comment on the fact that “[w]ars come and wars go but the world does not change: it will always forget an indebtedness which it thinks it expedient not to remember” (14).

10The War humbles Duffell in “The Rest Cure” differently. Like Ogilvy in her field, he was successful during the war as a leading industrialist, but when bankruptcy loomed in 1929 due to recession, he sank into a state of depression which materialised in sleeplessness. His “anguish to know himself alive” (139) after the war was reactivated then. Dellamora claims that “Duffell’s consciousness is very much an effect of that conflict. As with Ogilvy, Hall is interested in knowing whether he can survive the war” (228) at the time of a new crisis. If Ogilvy is excluded from a chronology, Duffell’s lineage of “male power and authority” (Dellamora 228) excludes ties with women and “with male equals or subordinates, despite his position as the moving force within his company” (228). No one can therefore help him out of his depression. His sense of hierarchy also isolates him from his own inherited sense of self: as his “selfhood has been bound over to a highly regimented subscription to doing what is expected of him” (Dellamora 229), he thinks “[a] name is a frightful thing to possess; from the first it imposes an intolerable bondage, the bondage of traditions attached to that name” (Miss Ogilvy 144). As the burden he has no choice but to bear proves too heavy, he wishes to turn into elements that could lay still long enough for him to find sleep back. As Dellamora explains, “despite his efforts to will himself” (232) into a horse, a tree and a stone, Duffell “never ceases to be an ‘I’ and is therefore unable to achieve the stasis he seeks” (232). He ends up being arrested by the police and sent to a madhouse.

11As for “Fraülein Schwartz,” the story explores the consequences of the war on individuals but also widens their scope to group interactions. It evokes those who do not make it into the pages of history books and yet whose humble lives are part of, and depend on, the official history of the war with its tragic socio-economic consequences. Mrs Raymond’s boarding-house in Pimlico hosts three young men and “four other ‘regulars,’ . . . Colonel Armstrong, of doubtful antecedents . . . two spinster sisters . . . and an elderly person, by name Fräulein Schwartz, who gave German lessons” (108). The tenants gather around meals but do not share any particular intimacy. As the First World War looms, is declared and then fought, it emphasises the vulnerability of each and every one of the characters who are always exposed to the risk of falling into some form of precariousness, suggesting, in Guillaume Le Blanc’s terminology, that “vulnerability is at the heart of all lives” (Vies 168). The war works successively as a unifying or separating agent between them. With rumours spreading fast among characters made gullible by fear, news from the Front tends to aggravate distrust towards the other, especially when they are foreigners or pacifists. The story ends with Fräulein Schwartz running away to commit suicide after her beloved cat has been poisoned. The motif of the war enhances how the protagonists’ personal flaws are doubled up by humbling historical as well as social and emotional factors that alienate them from others and themselves. These external factors mix with and influence internal factors to humble the protagonists and leave them deprived of agency. Their marginalisation then echoes their silencing which comes both from an inner and a learned inability to (feel entitled to) express themselves. The circle is complete: their low condition aggravated by the war pushes them towards the margins and reinforces their lack of self-assertion, itself another aspect of the notion of the humble. Besides, Fraülein Schwartz’s shyness and faulty English echoes Ogilvy’s awkward handling of feelings “held in abeyance so long that they seldom dared become vocal, so she merely said ‘Oh?’ on a rising inflection—her method of checking emotion” (8; my emphasis).

Towards an Ethics of the Flawed

12The humbled comes to refer to the dispossessed, with the same use of the passive voice, described by Butler and Athanasiou. Like Agamben’s homo sacer, their defining characteristic lies in their passivity, in having been acted upon and thus dispossessed of the capacity to act. They are seen as objects rather than subjects, and even as abject since they are excluded from society. Still, as Stephen Ross hopes for in “The Secret Agency of Dispossession,” “[w]hat if the dispossessed repossess what was taken from them? . . . What if the [bare life] to which [they] appear to have been reduced is not a state of abject passivity, but the locus of a residual agency” (3)? In Hall’s stories, dispossession precisely becomes a lever to draw an ethics of the flawed. The humbled builds into an ethical force that ultimately empowers Hall enough to “definitely [decide] to write” The Well after “Miss Ogilvy,” hopefully allowing to change the readers’ way of regarding and of relating to the humble and the humbled.

13Unlike Hall who favoured her novel over her story, her biographers’ terminology seems less divisive: along with her, Dellamora calls “Miss Ogilvy” a story while Cline distinguishes short stories from “full-length fiction” (147), or adopts a chronological classification, the short stories being referred to as “early stories” (99) or “early fictions” (105). Even though they establish differences, these two critics do not humble the writer’s stories and Dellamora would agree with Cline that it is “more productive to see each perspective as informing the other” (7). Besides, The Well did not sprout only from “Miss Ogilvy” but from the unpublished “Malise Gordon” contained in the same notebook as a foreword to the novel—its eponymous character is reminiscent of The Well’s main protagonist. Jean Walton considers Hall’s 1915 unpublished story “The Career of Mark Anthony Brakes” as another “early substitute for the novel of the invert” (291). She sees similarities in the tragic trajectory of an ambitious and successful Black lawyer defending a White woman whom he falls in love with but eventually rapes when she discovers his feelings and despises him for them. Walton argues that “the story, though not published in its original form, is transformed into something else by the time Hall writes The Well” (291) since African Americans were then speaking for themselves, especially through the Black Renaissance Movement. As for the protagonist, Brakes was “redistributed into the characters of Stephen, on the one hand, and the Negro spiritual singers on the other” (291). Furthermore, Cline reveals that “the central themes that feature in all the Miss Ogilvy stories” even appear “in [an] unfinished novel” (200) entitled The World and written in 1924-25 and 1927-28. This novel constitutes what Hall called a “trolley book,” that is, “books she herself well knew would never see publication [but] served merely as trolleys to carry her from a fallow period to one of renewed production” (186). Like them, her characters travel through these blurred generic boundaries: apart from Stephen Gordon, Ogilvy borrows from Gian-Luca the theme of the spiritual quest developed in Adam’s Breed published while the story was written. Stylistically, “The Lover of Things” is written like most of Hall’s novels as “bildungs-stories.” Generic boundaries also get blurred on a chronological level since the collection was published after The Well but the eponymous story written before it, while the volume upsets the writing chronology of the stories. Indeed, they appear in this order: “Miss Ogilvy,” “The Lover of Things,” “Fraülein Schwartz,” “The Rest Cure-1932” and “Upon the Mountains” while they were written as follows: “The Lover of Things” in 1924; “Upon the Mountains” in 1925; “Miss Ogilvy” in 1926; and “Fraülein Schwartz” and “The Rest Cure-1932” in 1932.

14The volume relates to two other genres: on the one hand, autobiography when it reflects the “black and desolate mood of their author” (Cline 307) around 1932, and her transsexuality, or when it pays tribute to her good friend Toupie Lowther’s involvement in the war effort. On the other hand, it blends in history which it can use strategically to bypass sexual inversion. Medd’s analysis that The Well “constructs the narrative and its protagonist in part on a model of shell shock, enlisting a familiar and affectively charged discourse to render homosexual difference both historically comprehensible and emotionally compelling” (238) applies to “Miss Ogilvy.” Hall can thus “communicate [her characters’] difference while still making [them] affectively accessible to her readers” (238). Finally, other artists’ novels and short stories influenced Hall’s works, creating intertextual echoes: in Cline’s eyes for instance, Ogilvy is reminiscent of the heroine of Violet Hunt’s 1906 novel The Workaday Woman while “Fraülein Schwartz” would share the same “detailed malicious quality of the setting” (200) as Katherine Mansfield’s “In a German Pension.” The use of the fantastic and time travel in “Miss Ogilvy” can also foreshadow Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, published two years later. Even though the style and critical reception of these two works differ widely, they share a common concern for contemporary debates concerning sex, gender and women’s position in a patriarchal society, thus contributing to the modernist reassessment of Victorian and Edwardian conventions.

  • 5 “This (tossing her in the air) he did many times for his own amusement and because he knew that his (...)
  • 6 “‘You… woman,’ he murmured contentedly, and the sound seemed to come from the depths of his being. (...)

15The empowering blurring of generic boundaries turns into a thematic one. In “Miss Ogilvy,” the divide between the main character and the others is represented by numerous material thresholds such as the quay where she is first seen in Calais just before going back to Britain after the war, or “the mouth of the cave” (29) and “the ledge” (31) where she dies on the “small island that is still very little known to the world” (18), another liminal space surrounded and set apart by water. The war works as another threshold, contained as it is in time and space; symbolically, it opens up new horizons for Ogilvy as it throws her together with “many another of her kind” (13) and “[sets] her free” (7) even if her achievements are later belittled by her sisters who see the change they have brought in Ogilvy as the result of shell shock. As Ogilvy flees the burden of domesticity and “[sets] forth alone to explore the island” (7) where she travels back to the Stone Age, these thresholds are soon trespassed on both spatially or temporally while the transition from the character’s reality to her dream allows the generic change “into the realms of the fantastic” (6) mentioned earlier. Articulated together, these boundaries finally merge: the story closes between the Stone and the Bronze Age on the “profound contentment” (20) Ogilvy had foreseen in her Unit at the front when the he and she within herself could be reconciled while preserving their singularity.5 Stylistically, oppositions are turned into hybrid forms expressed by “neither…nor…both” or “and…yet” while language in the dream conveys an ideal transparency6 echoing a unified emotional and spiritual self:

Miss Ogilvy knew that she was herself, that is to say she was conscious of her being, and yet she was not Miss Ogilvy at all, nor had she a memory of her. All that she now saw was very familiar, all that she now did was what she should do, and all that she now was seemed perfectly natural. Indeed, she did not think of these things; there seemed no reason for thinking about them. (23)

  • 7 “it seemed, for a moment, as though some deep feeling were about to find expression in words. But…” (...)

16Admittedly, Ogilvy reaches but a limited form of empowerment; it nevertheless contrasts with her everyday world where she must remain perpetually on the verge of rebelling against the norms or expressing her full self.7 The same applies to the narrator who advocates Ogilvy’s gender dysphoria during the war, hence proving more daring than her protagonist when she claims that “[i]t was really surprising . . . as it were out of space; how many Miss Ogilvies, losing their shyness, had come forward asserting their right to serve, asserting their claim to attention” (13). Still, the narrator’s boldness fails her when she recognises the power of silence: “the evening returned to its silence, and the spell of its silence descended on the lovers, so that each felt very much alone, yet withal more closely united to the other” (26; my emphasis).

17Such transparency between the character and the other stemming from a unified self cannot be reached in “The Rest Cure.” On the one hand, Duffell cannot overcome the anguish of having survived the war, which materialises in sleeplessness; he fails to reach the “escape in stasis” (231) that should help “a man . . . lie absolutely still in a universe of invulnerable stillness” (143). On the other, he cannot get rid of “[t]he purest illusion” (143) that the self exists, despite the emphasis on the arbitrariness of language:

Charles Duffell . . . never really existed! IT was born and tradition labelled IT: “Man.” IT might have been labelled anything else. IT might have been labelled: “Tree,” for instance . . . or IT might have been given no label at all, in which case IT could have controlled ITS own fate. Labels should never be tacked on to Life, they are in the nature of a challenge to God—God assures me that he objects to labels. (88)

18Indeed, Duffell acts on the basis of human attachment to material objects and the misplaced confidence in naming which blurs appearances and actualities; that is why he cannot will his body/self to die. Even if the appeal of mystical absorption is blocked by the continuing assertion of the ego, the protagonist’s attempt nevertheless retains its ethical force.

19Even though a humbled genre becomes plural and empowering, Hall’s characters ultimately fail to take back control over their lives. Still, their very inadequacy makes them daring at times, reversing the original definition of the humble as “a disposition marked by the absence of self-assertion” (online OED). Social boundaries are mostly challenged by Henry in “The Lover of Things,” who seems yet to consider poverty to be his fate when he claims: “‘Can’t help the way things is arranged in this world, just got to put up with it’” (60). Nevertheless, his taste for beautiful objects makes him “rejoice at that dumb but valiant revolt against fate, against time, against change and the modern craftsman” (61). The narrator best sums up the contrast when she exclaims that Henry Dobbs is “[a]bsorbingly interesting . . . born and reared in poverty amounting to squalor; surrounded by ugliness all his days, yet worshipping beauty—an astonishing chap!” (17). “I’d be needing [beauty] most of me life” (92), he claims in his class-marked English. His is a physical and spiritual “need” (92) of beauty, “a craving of the body but also of the mind, since the need stimulated imagination” (94). It empowers him to work for a removal company hired by great art collectors and reveals both a symptom of his poverty and the drug to cure it: his need turns into a lever to escape poverty which he associates to dirt and ugliness. In fact, “the primitive, combative lust of possession” (80) gives him “the sense of security” (100) he was deprived of as a child. The “antiques . . . displayed on the pavement” (38) open him up to a new world where he can “sail uncharted seas” (36) with a new “sense of adventure” (36) in the same way as the ambulance Unit and then the island did for Ogilvy.

20First displayed behind “[w]indows, shop-windows, windows of things!” (36) giving Henry access to the language and knowledge of art, antiques displace his humbled relationships to others into a sensual connection to objects: “Form and colour and glaze were there in equal perfection, it seemed to Henry. And seeing perfection his fingers must itch to contact themselves with it, to stroke, to handle” (57). “[V]ery reverently he would pat and stroke” (38) because, in Henry, “these delicate treasures of art called forth every gentle and chivalrous instinct” (61) he failed to summon for his mother, or later for his wife and children. Paradoxically, they make him “[realise] poverty—it was terrible not to be able to help a thing that one loved, a thing that was helpless” (48), except that these feelings are not aroused by fellow human beings. If Henry’s love of art finally turns into hubris when he steals a unique ivory figure which he discovers afterwards was made by Da Vinci, the reader is invited to suspend judgment as her authoritative position is destabilised when she is made aware that mankind’s flaws stem from a complex confluence of events and emotions that are beyond her grasp. The end of “Fraülein Schwartz” best illustrates this ethics of the flawed in negative.

21The start of the war upsets all the tenants of the boarding-house, leading them to make up abominable stories. Isolated by her nationality and her inner sense of inadequacy, Fraülein Schwartz keeps to her room. One evening, however, she feels so lonely that she decides to come down to join the party—an untimely decision, as bad news have arrived from the front which she has not heard of. Life is unpredictable, the narrator states in a detached manner: “Incredible of course that Fraülein Schwartz should have suddenly longed for her fellow-boarders, yet so it was” (125). This is reminiscent of the narrator’s fatalistic conception of life expressed by her recurring matter-of-fact intrusions and use of time markers meant to enhance what little grasp can be had on events; destabilised by “Providence or Chance” (114), the present evades a full understanding:

  • 8 My emphasis on this recurring stylistic device often expressive of an attempt at unification or hyb (...)

Poor, ageing, inadequate Fräulein Schwartz, so anxious to be the friend of all the world yet8 so tactless in her methods of setting about it; for what must she suddenly try to do but perform little acts of unwelcome kindness, and this at a time when war-racked nerves would naturally lead to the worst interpretations. (122)

22The effect is reinforced by the shift in perspectives in that scene: while Fraülein Schwartz blurted out her long-repressed monologue calling for peace, “Alan Winter . . . was filled with a sense of impending disaster. What a moment to select the poor old tactless fool!” (126). Deeply hurt by the ensuing silence, she unleashes her frustration and anger in her heavily accented English that antagonises them all: “Quite suddenly they could not endure it and must start to castigate Fraülein Schwartz” (127; my emphasis). Stylistically, the modal must does not express obligation but a seemingly natural or legitimate consequence as if the other tenants’ feelings could explain or even justify the fact that they could blame Fräulein Schwartz. In fact, the repetition of this device throughout the story has drawn attention on and undermined its fake causal link. Still, Fräulein Schwartz’s speech seems to result in the maid poisoning her cat. Actually, the maid acts along another agenda as she feels “demented by . . . the bitter fruit of a brutal deflowering” (130) with a conscripted soldier. Acted upon, toyed with by external and internal factors the protagonists have little grasp on, acting rationally becomes nearly impossible for them. Showing the complexity of their experiences forecloses any form of dominating, encompassing authority; their vulnerability calls instead for sympathy towards the other, including the self: that is where Hall’s ethics lies.

23In Hall’s stories, the humble can be defined as a condition of the humbled turned into an operator of responsibility for the characters’ vulnerability as they are deprived of agency. As Ross points out about Butler and Athanasiou’s dispossessed, “they have been deprived of space and time, subjectivity, identity, recognition, representation, and so forth. . . . They have been rendered voiceless and abject, presenting only as a form of suffering appeal to which we can respond if we are ethical or not if we are not” (20). Yet, the very deprivation of Hall’s characters is used as leverage to resist, if not to overcome, their precariousness. They become what Le Blanc has defined as “precarious witnesses” (Insurrection 137) after Charlie Chaplin, figures of bare life (“des vies minuscules”) who shed light on society from below and manage both to renew and to deconstruct the norms that govern it. In Hall’s stories, the impossibility to reach a full understanding of one’s motives calls for leniency towards the other, including oneself. In turn, the reader is invited to be Le Blanc’s “precarious witness” as she is shown the multifaceted origins of the living’s interactions, reminding her of Hall’s belief that “[s]ympathy is absolutely essential” (“The Writing of Novels” 24) in writing given that “[m]en and women are a bewildering mixture of goodness and badness, and . . . that cruelty is often the result of ignorance” (24). It leads her to engage in a praxis of the ethics suggested. Genre and content work towards a sympathetic attention to their own, and the others’, limitations. Rather than being spaces of confrontation, Hall’s stories and novels cross-fertilise each other while attempting a hybrid synthesis of singularities best exemplified by Ogilvy’s dream: “[t]he twilight was engulfed and possessed by darkness, which in turn was transfigured by the moonrise, which in turn was fulfilled and consumed by dawn” (30).

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Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985. Print.

Butler, Judith, and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. New York and London: Polity, 2013. Print.

Cline, Sally. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John. London: J. Murray, 1997. Print.

Dellamora, Richard. Radclyffe Hall: A Life in the Writing. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2011. Print.

Einhaus, Ann-Marie. The Short Story and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. “‘A Writer of Misfits’: ‘John’ Radclyffe Hall and the Discourse of Inversion.” Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. Eds. Joan Doan and Jay Prosser. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. 145-61. Print.

Hall, Radclyffe. “Autobiography.” Archives, Harry Ransom Centre, USA. Print.

---. Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself. 1934. London: Hammond, 1959. Print.

---. “The Writing of Novels.” Notes of the speech Hall gave to the English Club Oxford & the Literary Society University College, U of London, in February 1933. Archives, Harry Ransom Centre, USA. Print.

---. “Why I Wrote Adam’s Breed.” Archives, Harry Ransom Centre, USA. Print.

Le Blanc, Guillaume. Vies ordinaires, vies précaires. Paris: Seuil, 2007. Print.

---. L’Insurrection des vies minuscules. Montrouge: Bayard, 2014. Print.

Medd, Jodie. “War Wounds: The Nation, Shell Shock, and Psychoanalysis in The Well of Loneliness.” Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. Eds. Joan Doan and Jay Prosser. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. 232-55. Print.

Reynier, Christine. Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Ross, Stephen. “The Secret Agency of Dispossession.” Études britanniques contemporaines 53 (2017). Web. 16 Feb. 2021.

Rule, Jane. “Radclyffe Hall.” Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. Eds. Joan Doan and Jay Prosser. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. 77-88. Print.

Souhami, Diana. The Trials of Radclyffe Hall. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1998. Print.

Walton, Jean. “I want to Cross Over into Camp Ground, Race and Inversion in The Well.” Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. Eds. Joan Doan and Jay Prosser. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. 277-99. Print.

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1 Dellamora examines “The Rest Cure—1932” in chapter 10 of his monograph.

2 Agnès Cardinal’s anthology (“Women’s Writing of the First World War,” Reference Reviews 15.4 (2001): 41-42) includes “Fraülein Schwartz.” This anthology is mentioned by Ann-Marie Einhaus in The Short Story and the First World War.

3 See Baker, Cline, Dellamora, Rule, and Souhami.

4 Etymology: < Old French umble, humble (12th cent. in Littré) < Latin humil-em low, lowly, small, slight, mean, insignificant, base, < humus ground, earth, Online Oxford English Dictionary.

5 “This (tossing her in the air) he did many times for his own amusement and because he knew that his strength gave her joy. In this manner they played together for a while, he with his strength and she with her weakness” (26).

6 “‘You… woman,’ he murmured contentedly, and the sound seemed to come from the depths of his being. His speech was slow and lacking in words when it came to expressing a vital emotion, so one word must suffice and this he now spoke, and the word that he spoke had a number of meanings” (25).

7 “it seemed, for a moment, as though some deep feeling were about to find expression in words. But…” (18).

8 My emphasis on this recurring stylistic device often expressive of an attempt at unification or hybridisation.

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Tina Terradillos, « Radclyffe Hall’s Short Fiction: A Humble Ethics of the Flawed »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 167-182.

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Tina Terradillos, « Radclyffe Hall’s Short Fiction: A Humble Ethics of the Flawed »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL :

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Tina Terradillos

Tina Terradillos is a member of EMMA at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3. Her research centres around British literature of the early twentieth century, anthropology, psychoanalysis, social sciences and philosophy. In December 2018, she defended her PhD (“Le Sale comme ressort d’une éthique de l’altérité dans les romans de Radclyffe Hall,” supervised by Professor Christine Reynier), which examines how filth serves as leverage in Radclyffe Hall’s novels to delineate an ethics of alterity. She published two articles on Radclyffe in Études britanniques contemporaines and teaches in a secondary school in Montpellier.

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