- Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall
The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, is probably "the lesbian novel" of its era. According to Michael Baker, the "radical departure that [Radclyffe Hall] took in The Well was to create a heroine who, from birth, is irrevocably homosexual, a fact that colours her whole life and outlook." Like her heroine Stephen Gordon, John (Marguerite) Radclyffe Hall was convinced that her sexual preference was "inherited and in-born." Baker cogently argues that John was supported in this conviction by "the extensive reading she had undertaken among the works of contemporary sexologists," notably Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who argued that "the 'true invert' was almost always distinguishable by some congenital trait." John's knowledge of contemporary theories of sexuality may, however, have weakened rather than strengthened this pivotal novel. Baker certainly thinks that it did, and I must agree with his complaint that "the early promise of the story, with its powerful description of a sensitive child's growing years, too quickly deteriorates into an assortment of stereotypes representing the [End Page 729] Tragic Invert." A similar objection might be made to Our Three Selves.
The narrative of Our Three Selves moves easily, at times compellingly, but always purposefully. The sometimes elusive facts of John's daily life and the more easily available ones of her publications are carefully detailed. Through this wealth of detail Baker successfully recreates a world long gone and largely forgotten. Baker is also successful in treating a potentially sensitive topic—lesbianism—with decency, if not sympathy. His treatment of his subject is in fact so objective, so dispassionate, that some hours after completing the book I realized that I felt absolutely no emotional connection whatsoever with these people whose lives I had just shared. Baker's coolness is both unexpected and striking. Not that I advocate subjective, skewed, or deliberately distortive biography, but since all biography is, to some degree, "ultimately fiction," it is pleasanter to read about real (or at least realistic) people than about puppets. John and Una Troubridge (her companion of twenty-eight years) only narrowly escape becoming caricatures of themselves. Baker is a skillful professional writer with experience in both film and television. Is this failure a function of British reserve? Or of a male perspective? Or of a heterosexual's view of lesbianism? Whatever the cause, the result is that Baker's Radclyffe Hall is less convincing than one of her own characters. And infinitely less sympathetic. Our Three Selves is a rare achievement, a well-written book that holds the reader's interest without ever once engaging the reader's feelings.