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Juxtaposing the work of actor-playwright Noel Coward and novelist Radclyffe Hall is "like comparing a glass of champagne to an aspersion of bitters," Terry Castle suggests in her new study of the literary friendship the two British celebrities shared.
"Where he is fey, she seems driven; when she agonizes, he simply lifts an eyebrow," Castle, professor of English, writes in Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits (New York: Columbia University Press).
But despite their apparently widely diverging tastes and personas, Castle argues that Coward and Hall shared a "glancing friendship" that "confounds the symbolic opposition that seems so powerfully to divide male and female homosexuals in the popular imagination."
Breaking down stereotypes biographical and cultural is at the heart of Castle's project.
"Most biographers [of Coward and Hall] have noted, 'Well, yes, they met each other and knew each other slightly and lived in the same part of the country,'" Castle says.
"But what is missing, especially in the Coward biographies, is any sense of the network that existed between gay men and lesbians living between the wars," she adds. "I started feeling disconcerted by the way in which so much academic writing about these figures has tended to segregate men and women, as though there were no direct connections between them."
Because her parents were British, Castle says she grew up listening to Coward's records playing in the background of her childhood and became a "big fan" of his early on. She came to know the work of Radclyffe Hall through her own research and writing about the history of lesbianism.
"Lesbian cultural history of the early 20th century is still a closed book for a lot of people, even more so than the history of the gay male tradition, which has been much more visible since the time of Oscar Wilde," Castle says.
As the author of such stage hits as London Calling (1923), The Vortex (1924), Hay Fever (1924), Fallen Angels (1925), This Year of Grace (1928) and Private Lives (1930), Coward was "the most sought-after actor-playwright of his generation," Castle writes. Although he was world famous as an actor, singer, composer, novelist, cabaret performer and "general arbiter of fashionable taste for more than 50 years," male homosexuality was a crime in Great Britain at the time, and Castle writes that Coward was "forced, out of harsh necessity, to keep his homosexuality a secret for almost all his working life."
Lesbianism, by contrast, was not liable to prosecution and Radclyffe Hall was openly lesbian from her early years. She came to be identified with her 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, an apologia for female homosexuality that was proscribed in England until 1949 under the Obscene Publications Act of 1855. By the time her signature novel was published, Hall had come to be "the most easily recognized artistic celebrity in London," according to the Manchester Despatch.
Of The Well of Loneliness, Castle says that "turgid hardly encompasses its mood." But for all its bleakness, Castle found in the ebullient character of Jonathan Brockett "an element of chiaroscuro in the novel's overall somber pattern" echoes of Noel Coward.
Convinced that Coward was the model for the character, Castle went in search of the connections, reading his plays for traces of the lesbian culture she had identified.
"I think the most fun I had was going to the Garrick Club in London where the library holds Noel Coward's guest book from his house at Goldenhurst."
In entries dated Sept. 13, 1928, two months before The Well of Loneliness was brought to trial for obscenity, Castle found the signatures of Radclyffe Hall and her lover, Una Troubridge.
"That seemed to me a very crucial, and in some ways enigmatic piece of information," Castle says. "I had to put it all together and throw in some speculation, but I think the ties were there."
In her book Castle concludes, "Despite the fact that Coward took no public stand on the book . . . he evidently provided Hall with much-needed behind-the-scenes moral support."
For Castle, that example of support not only confirms the widespread network that existed between homosexual men and women in the era of Coward and Hall, but also defies the academic approach to the study of that period that has been advanced in recent years.
"I think the urge to segregate the inquiry has come from both sides," she says. "On the male side, it has to do with a generalized inattention to the presence of women in cultural history. And on the female side, especially since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and the rise of lesbian studies, there has been a great urge and impulse to try to define a lesbian tradition in literature.
"A lot of information has been gleaned by scholars on both sides of that divide, but the divide blinds one to the interactions and forecloses a more complicated understanding of the cultural history of the period."
Castle's book is an attempt to readjust the research balance and explode the stereotypes that have grown up around both Coward and Hall.
"In talking about Coward's life, the tendency has been to see him solely in terms of a gay male aesthetic, as the epitome of the glamorous, artistic, somewhat silly homosexual man of the period," she says. "But I think he's been unfairly typecast as someone too frivolous for serious attention and I wanted to undo the stereotype of the 'terminally facetious' Coward and draw attention to some of the more profound elements in his plays."
Castle also wanted to bring a less somber Radclyffe Hall into the biographical spotlight.
"I wanted to get away from the stereotype of Radclyffe Hall as a miserable person because when you look at her glamorous life, you see that wasn't the case at all.
"In general, lesbians have been seen to be humorless, not very sophisticated, not intellectually productive marginal people in the cultural life of modernity and I wanted to take apart the notion that there is something inherently dreary about lesbianism. I had my own emotional investment in undoing that stereotype because I don't find being a lesbian dreary at all!"
Looking at the development of academic literary study over the past 20 years, Castle says she has been struck by how intensely focused it has become on demystification or critique, "often from an oppositional point of view, whether it's Marxist or feminist or something else."
"The privileged point of view many critics at the present day assume is that of the debunker or skeptic. The goal is to 'expose' something the author has supposedly hidden from view to show up the various nefarious ploys the author is using to 'put something over' on the reader," she says. "I find this an arrogant and often ungrateful approach."
As a result, Castle argues, the prevailing mode in criticism for the past several decades has come to reflect this antagonistic relationship to literature.
"I think we have to learn again how to appreciate the artist, the writer and the poet, and enjoy the sense of pleasure that works of art bring us," she adds. "And in writing about Coward and Hall that was something I found myself doing trying to find what was wonderful about both figures."
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