When I started my reading-in-1918 project, one of the first things that struck me was that just about every woman I came across was, or appeared to be, a lesbian. Of course, this being 1918, they weren’t waving rainbow flags or announcing their nuptials in the New York Times. Still, they were everywhere. Here are the stories of some of the women I’ve run into along the way.
Corelli, who was Britain’s best-selling novelist in her heyday (which was waning by 1918), didn’t self-identify as gay. A number of writers, though, have claimed her for Team Lesbian, pointing to the eroticized depictions of women in her writing, which strikes me as pretty flimsy evidence, and, more convincingly, to her decades-long cohabitation with her companion, Bertha Vyver. Their initials were carved, intertwined, on their mantlepiece alongside the words “amor vincit,” and they exchanged rings.*
If Corelli was in fact a lesbian, she’s an awfully sorry example—as I’ve noted, she advocated forced sterilization and was the source for the homophobic “Cult of the Clitoris” article I wrote about in my last post. Also, she was a pretty bad writer. But, as I’ve also noted, it can’t have been easy to be Corelli, who was the illegitimate daughter of Charles McKay, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and a household servant. Growing up with both your parentage and your sexuality treated as sources of shame would be enough to warp any mind.
Maria Thompson Daviess
Daviess, the author of the Bridget Jones-like 1912 bestseller The Melting of Molly, is a more inspiring, though also ambiguous, example. She’s not famous enough today to have sparked much speculation about her sexuality, but just take a look at her writing. The Melting of Molly, which is narrated by 25-year-old widow Molly, is full of passages like this:
With [Molly’s aunt] came a long, tall, lovely vision of a woman in the most wonderful close clingy dress and hat that you wanted to eat on sight. I hated her instantly with the most intense adoration that made me want to lie down at her feet.
Miss Chester [the aforementioned tall, lovely vision] and I exchanged little laughs and scraps of conversation in between time and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her.
And especially this:
First I went to see Madam Courtier for corsets. I had heard about her and I knew it meant a fortune. But that didn’t matter! She came in and looked at me for about five minutes without saying a word and then she ran her hands down and down over me until I could feel the flesh just crawling off of me. It was delicious!
I’d really, really like to know what 1918 readers made of this. More on Daviess later.
All this digging into people’s private lives was making me feel kind of creepy, so it was a relief to turn to Margaret Anderson, the editor of the ground-breaking modernist journal The Little Review, which published the first chapter of Ulysses in March 1918. She and Jean Heap, her partner in work as well as life, lived openly as a couple. Heap wore men’s clothing and sported a short haircut. “I am no man’s wife, no man’s delightful mistress, and I will never, never, never, be a mother,” Anderson wrote proudly.
Cather, the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, was fiercely private about her personal life, but she and editor Edith Lewis lived together for decades. The only letter from Cather to Lewis that is known to have survived—Cather burned most of them—begins, “My Darling.”
Poet Amy Lowell (the much younger sister of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the academically progressive but homophobic Harvard president I wrote about here) didn’t self-identify as a lesbian, but that seems like a mere technicality if you read her work. Here’s “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” which was published in the North American Review in February 1918 and appeared in the 1919 collection Pictures of the Floating World.
The subject of this and Lowell’s other love poems is Ada Dwyer Russell. The two lived together from 1914 until Lowell’s death in 1925. (Cohabiting relationships like this, sexual or not, were known—appropriately, in this case—as “Boston marriages.”) Russell’s father, by the way, deserves a place in the PFLAG hall of fame—he was kicked out of the Mormon church in 1913 for arguing that sex between people of the same sex was not a sin.
And, of course, there’s dancer Maud Allan, the performer in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, who, as I wrote in my last post, sued British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing for supposedly accusing her, in an article headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris,” of engaging in unspeakable vice. Allan lived for three decades with Verna Aldrich, her secretary and partner.
…And the rest
These are only a few of the many women I came across who were not married and are not known to have had serious relationships with men. Others include writer Edna Ferber, first woman member of congress Jeannette Rankin, short story writer Elizabeth Jordan, portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, and actress Emily Stevens, who played the single-mother-by-choice in Alan Dale’s controversial play The Madonna of the Future.**
As I read about these women’s lives, certain patterns started to emerge. One is the “fell so deeply in love as an adolescent that no man could ever measure up” trope. Stevens’ Wikipedia entry says that she developed a girlhood crush on theatrical producer Harrison Fiske, her cousin’s husband, and “seems to have stayed true to her feelings for [him] as she did not pursue relationships with other men.” Maria Thompson Daviess fell at age 13 for her pervy male camp counselor, with whom, according to her autobiography, Seven Times Seven, she exchanged the
profoundest kiss kiss ever bartered between two of the human race…That exchange, my first, also set standards for me and I am dimly afraid that is one of the reasons I write myself spinster today.***
Or something like that! Seven Times Seven is still under copyright, and the snippet Google Books displays begins, infuriatingly, with “profoundest kiss.” In any case, Daviess told a friend that this infatuation was not as “glamorous”—which seems to be 1918-speak for “passionate”—as her crush on a woman teacher.
Do you have friends who have gone on to live a life of celibacy because they never got over their high school crush? If so, fine, feel free to buy this.****
Then there are the marriages of convenience. Groundbreaking California lawyer Annette Abbott Adams got married, according to friends, only because she wanted a “Mrs.” in front of her name, having found that professional doors were more open to married women. She and her husband lived apart for most or all of their marriage but never divorced.
There’s a reason, obviously, why lesbians and women without a (visible) man in their lives are found so often on the 1918 political and cultural scene. For most women, it was a choice of one or the other—marry, or have a career. Lesbians were, of course, more likely to opt against marriage than heterosexual women (although many lesbians, including Ada Dwyer Russell, did marry). But there must have been lots of heterosexual women, as well, who opted for a career over marriage and a family.
Judging from the lives of the relatively few married women I’ve come across, career over marriage seems like the sensible choice. Edith Wharton’s husband suffered from crippling depression, and she divorced him after 28 years of marriage. E. Nesbit’s husband kept having children with other women. Artist Elizabeth Gardner endured a 17-year engagement because her lover and mentor William-Adolphe Bouguereau didn’t want to upset his mother by marrying her. Julia Clark Hallam wrote about how deadening the work of a wife and mother was. Suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley married food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley when she was 34 and he was 67. Married Love author Marie Carmichael Stopes’ first marriage was unconsummated. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster’s marriage was apparently happy, but she had to wait for years for her husband’s divorce from his first wife to come through. Also, her husband was an alcoholic. Webster died in childbirth the year after their marriage.*****
So here’s to the lesbian women of 1918—and to all the women, gay and straight, who were forced by an intolerant society to hide or suppress important parts of who they were.
[UPDATE 9/25/2019: I wrote about Swedish lesbian writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, here.]
*There are two schools of thought on how to interpret this type of thing. They can be summarized as, on the one hand, “Duh,” and, on the other hand, “But romanticized, non-sexual relationships between women were a thing.”
**Dale—who was married—made LGBT history himself by writing the first-ever gay-themed novel in English, A Marriage Below Zero, in 1889.
***This reminds me of an anecdote I read decades ago in a memoir by screenwriter Anita Loos, best known today as the author of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. George Gershwin’s buddies have noticed that he never has a girl, and one day she asks him why. He spins a tragic tale of the one who got away. Loos asks him what happened. “She moved to Detroit,” he says. Loos marvels at the spinelessness of a guy who couldn’t overcome such a minor obstacle. A modern reader might interpret this differently.
****Of course, there could be other reasons for claiming to be off the dating market, like a long affair with a married man.
*****A more fun fact about Jean Webster and her husband: Theodore Roosevelt invited himself along on their honeymoon at their camp in Canada, saying, “We can put up a partition in the cabin.” No word on whether he actually showed.