Analysis of Radclyffe Hall’s Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself

A story exploring sexual inversion first published in 1934 in a collection with the same title. Radclyffe Hall (the pen name of Maguerite Radclyffe Hall [1883–1943]) wrote “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” in 1926 before beginning work on The Well of Loneliness (1928), a novel notorious in its day for its open treatment of lesbianism. The short story fits within the tradition of psychological fiction represented by such authors as May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, and Rebecca West.

The story opens with the disbanding of Miss Ogilvy’s ambulance unit at the end of World War I. This opening sequence is marked by a sense of regret rather than victory. The reason for this initial dark atmosphere becomes clear in the next sequence, in which Miss Ogilvy, now on a train back to England, remembers “all that had gone to the marring of her from the days of her earliest childhood.” Through these memories, the reader glimpses Miss Ogilvy’s unhappy childhood. Shy and awkward, Miss Ogilvy grows up plagued by the fact that she does not fit the usual stereotypes about young women. She prefers sports and physical activities instead of dolls and dresses; she prefers the company of men to women and fears and loathes her few male suitors. When her father dies, Miss Ogilvy is looked on as the natural heir to his position as head of the family. She is happy with this new role until the outbreak of the war. Desperately desiring to be active in the war effort, she fights to be placed in an ambulance unit in France. Her years on the front are Miss Ogilvy’s happiest, for she is accepted and rewarded for her courage and capability. However, at the end of the war, the illusion that the world has been transformed and now accepts people like Miss Ogilvy is destroyed. Back at home with her sisters, Miss Ogilvy finds that she is again expected to try to fit herself to the old gender stereotypes. Disheartened, Miss Ogilvy decides to take a trip to a small island off the south coast of Devon. She seems strangely linked to the island, even remembering details about it despite having never visited it before. Here the story slips into the fantastic, for suddenly Miss Ogilvy closes her eyes and in a sort of trance sees the island as it would have appeared in the Bronze Age. She also sees herself as a young warrior walking with a young woman. The narration slowly elides the presence of Miss Ogilvy and focuses on this couple as they make their way to a cave on the island to make love. The story ends the next morning, when Miss Ogilvy is found dead sitting at the mouth of the same cave.

by Unknown photographer, bromide print, circa 1930

“Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” was not well received on its publication in 1934, perhaps partly because the acclaim that Hall had won for her previous novels had been compromised by the publication of The Well of Loneliness and the obscenity trials that followed. Even today, “Miss Ogilvy” continues to be overshadowed by The Well of Loneliness. Hall, however, viewed this short story as a necessary experiment that would help her write The Well of Loneliness. She connects Miss Ogilvy to this other study of congenital inversion in an author’s note, in which she writes:

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 the hundreds of sexual inverted women during the Great War: 1914– 1918. (Cline, 171)

Perhaps because it is not a full-length study of sexual inversion, “Miss Ogilvy” seems to lend itself to a more general reading than The Well of Loneliness, which is often discussed purely in terms of its position in a genealogy of lesbian literature. Sally Cline notes in her biography of Radclyffe Hall, “Looking at the body of her work, it is clear that what interested her were the emotions and position of the stranger in society” (4). Miss Ogilvy is portrayed as a sexual invert. However, what drives the story is not her sexual inversion but rather her outsider status and her frustrated attempts to feel at peace in a society that rejects those who do not conform to its expectations. Though “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” belongs within the genealogy of lesbian literature alongside Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, it is also noteworthy as an illuminating and sympathetic portrayal of a person living outside the norms set by society.

Cline, Sally. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John. London: John Murray, 1998.
Franks, Claudia Stillman. Beyond the Well of Loneliness: The Fiction of Radclyffe Hall. Avebury: Avebury Publishing, 1982.
Newton, Esther. “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman,” Signs 9 (Summer 1984): 555–575.
Tate, Trudi, ed. Women, Men, and the Great War: An Anthology of Stories. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Gay and Lesbian Novels, Literature, Short Story

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