JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 19 January 2020

In a classic winter week of rain and cold I read Patricia Highsmith's Carol and then The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, the first from 1952, the second from 1928, 300 pages and 500 pages. It was hard to read Radclyffe Hall after the crispness of Patricia Highsmith. Carol starts straight in from the crucial encounter. The Well of Loneliness begins before birth, as it would. The description of the splendid birthplace and, for a while, perfect parents, is wearisome, verbose, tripping over itself in its desire to emphasise—the charms of nature, the intelligence of a beloved horse, etc.

I read too fast, not really reading, only skimming, impatient, then after a few chapters I have taken on her style and settled in. It is pleasing to read too fast sometimes, disrespectfully, in winter, when maybe you're not feeling great, one lesbian novel leading to another, an exercise in comparison as well as an indulgence in a taste I used to have for long novels mostly written by women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Patricia Highsmith is so good at human chill in her thrillers, how does a romance turn out of her typewriter. There are thriller touches like a hidden, unsent letter, a detective who follows the couple on their road trip, but how startling when the writer so understanding of the psychopathic mind writes the sudden unfurling of passion.
And now it was pale blue distance and space, an expanding space in which she took flight suddenly like a long arrow. The arrow seemed to cross an impossibly wide abyss with ease, seemed to arc on and on in space, and not quite stop. .... 'My angel,' Carol said. 'Flung out of space.'
It is one of the charms of invention that a couple who recognize their reciprocity can occupy the same metaphorical and physical space.

Radclyffe Hall, on the other hand, is less adept. Her protagonist, Stephen Gordon (her parents wanted a boy), is always in charge of the language. She is also richer than her adoptees, especially the last and most protectable, Mary Llewellen. Stephen is always described as tall and lithe and physically powerful. We have more sense of the horse called Raftery and the swan called Peter as independent creatures with whom conversations can be had, than we have of Mary, or any of the other friends and love-interests in the book.

Both books have surprising minor moments. The young woman in Carol learns to drive with her lover over a week or so and after that, without further ado, participates in the driving on the trip. Stephen and Mary in The Well of Loneliness take a boat after the first world war from Southampton to Tenerife for a holiday. No flygskam (flight shaming) in 1919. The ménage they set up in Paris, in an old house with a garden in the rue Jacob, not far from (inspired by?) Gertrude Stein in the rue de Fleurus in the same era. Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall. What a pair. Did they ever meet?

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