Emily Dickinson had to have curls. Radclyffe Hall could not.

Women authors often had lifelong struggles with notions of femininity which denied them voice. After death their letters, diaries, manuscripts, and images were censored to downplay their intellectual eminence or literary success in the interests of correct gender portrayal. Hall couldn’t be seen as feminine and Dickinson as unfeminine or too eccentric.

A nineteenth-century portrait of five-year old Marguerite Radclyffe Hall by Katinka Amyat, shows a pretty child with long curls, holding her namesake flowers. After an inheritance allowed Hall to embrace Savile Row suits and a severe haircut, she dropped the name Marguerite and restyled herself Radclyffe Hall. She took up with woman lovers and, in 1926, wrote The Well of Loneliness. This highly moral book drew attention to an invisible minority, lesbians. Hall wrote of a doomed love affair between two women, one a homosexual (–in the language of the times, an “invert”). She pleaded: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” After a high profile court case, the book was banned and Hall emerged as the icon of female homosexuality.

When the author died in 1943, she left her considerable wealth to life partner Una Troubridge, who set out to advance Hall’s cause, the normalization of lesbianism. Una blackmailed Hall’s impoverished mother into parting with the Amyat portrait and had Marguerite’s girlish curls painted over. Her lover had to look like a little boy, an invert whose masculinity was congenital and present even in childhood. There couldn’t be curls.

 

On the other hand, there had to be curls for Emily Dickinson. The poet was possessed of genius, passion, and creativity in a mid-nineteenth century world in which these qualities were unacceptable in women. Her poems were “edited” posthumously to appear conventional; tough and original Emily was rendered stereotypically feminine to conform with the nineteenth-century Romantic vision of women poets as tortured and delicate.

The family was leery about publishing the only extant photograph of Emily, a daguerreotype done in 1846 or 1847. The Dickinson family disliked this image of sixteen-year old Emily, pale and thin, with alert eyes and a facial structure of a kangaroo.[i]  In 1894, as Emily became a public figure, Lavinia Dickinson had the head and shoulders of the daguerreotype re-photographed and hired an artist to feminize her dead sister’s image, using the model of a pretty magazine portrait. A ruffled collar filled in the neck and curls drawn on Emily’s forehead made her face less exposed and severe. As a biographer points out: “The girl’s level gaze and sensuous, almost swollen lips are toned down to a faintly smiling sweetness.”[ii] While a childlike feminine affect was acceptable, strangeness laced with sexuality was not.

It’s now possible to compare original and doctored images and see how two passionate women who made the radical choice to write were posthumously retrofitted. You will be able to learn why their images were doctored and read about them and other censored women writers when my manuscript, Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing and Suppression, finds an agent and publisher.

[i] Gordon, Lyndall. Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. New York: Penguin Books. 2010, 274.

[ii] Gordon, Lyndall. Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. New York: Penguin Books. 2010, 274.

 

One thought on “Emily Dickinson had to have curls. Radclyffe Hall could not.”

  1. Rebecca,
    I really like your style of writing and the knowledge it imparts. These are things I never knew until reading your blog. I can’t wait until your Nevertheless They Wrote… book comes out in (hopefully) e-book format!
    I’m really glad we met, to know you and to work with you.
    I have already told a couple of people about you and your website. 😉
    Happy writing!
    Nancy

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