Thursday, June 13, 2019

Hannah Roche's "The Outside Thing"

Hannah Roche is lecturer in twentieth-century literature and culture at the University of York. She has published articles on lesbian modernism in Textual Practice and Modernist Cultures.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Outside Thing: Modernist Lesbian Romance, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Outside Thing offers part of an analysis of the “tension between romance and reality” in Radclyffe Hall’s fourth novel, Adam’s Breed (1926). This material appears in the book’s third chapter, “Strange Soil and Novel Ground: Radclyffe Hall’s Romance Plots.” Page 99, which opens on a new paragraph, begins with a comparative reading of two of Hall’s protagonists: “While the young Stephen is guided and protected by her father, the romantic ‘dreamer’ Sir Philip, Gian-Luca can only find ‘a companionship of mind’ in his books.” By this point in the chapter, I have identified the hero of Adam’s Breed, the “queer child” Gian-Luca, as a blueprint for Stephen, the queer heroine of Hall’s subsequent novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Page 99 then homes in on Gian-Luca’s engagement with both canonical poets and a fictional poem (to which Hall does not grant her reader access), examining ways in which “the literal and the symbolic … become entangled” in Adam’s Breed.

Page 99 provides a valuable insight into the key themes of The Outside Thing. The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen the development of spatial modes of reading, from “distant reading” to “surface reading.” While The Outside Thing favors deep or close reading, it also proposes a new critical approach of “lesbian reading.” Lesbian reading, as I define it, interrogates boundaries not only between queer and “normative” texts but also between a writer’s lesbian fiction and her “nonlesbian” work. On the face of it, Adam’s Breed is a “straight” novel: its plot is linear, and its male hero’s romantic attachments are with women. But as page 99 demonstrates, there are gains to be made in reading Adam’s Breed as a closeted or coded lesbian novel. Significantly, the crisis of identity faced by the hero of Adam’s Breed foreshadows Stephen’s struggle with sexual otherness in The Well of Loneliness. In her tender portrayal of Gian-Luca, an “outsider” who ultimately fails to live within an often cruel society, Hall prepares her readers’ sympathies for her next protagonist: the startlingly different Stephen Gordon.

Page 99 provides a close reading of a critically neglected novel. Outside the world of Hall scholarship, few readers are aware that Hall was an acclaimed and admired writer before the publication of The Well of Loneliness, a novel that was famously banned under the Obscene Publications Act in 1928. In the year before the publication of The Well, Adam’s Breed achieved the extraordinary honor of winning both the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. As Hall’s long-term partner, Lady Una Troubridge, reveals in her biography of Hall, the decision to write The Well of Loneliness was not taken lightly: “her instinct had told her that … she must postpone such a book until her name was made; until her unusual theme [of love between women] would get a hearing as being the work of an established writer.” In the wake of Adam’s Breed’s success, Hall was prepared to risk her reputation by publishing a groundbreaking book on sexual inversion, a novel that would “be accessible to the general public who did not have access to technical treatises.” A reader turning to page 99 of The Outside Thing would gain a sense of Hall as a much more astute, stylish, and sophisticated writer than they may previously have believed.
Learn more about The Outside Thing at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue