6 Classic Early- to Mid-20th Century Lesbian Novels

Spring Fire by Vin Packer

Though the classic lesbian novels surveyed here – published from the early through mid-twentieth century – seemed truly groundbreaking in their time, they certainly weren’t the first of this genre of literature. From the poetry of Sappho to the secret diaries of Anne Lister to queer re-evaluations of many classic women authors, the books listed here had plenty of forerunners.

The difference? Though some were more forthright than others, there was less of the thinly veiled allusions, and more overt same-sex love and romance. Though by no means the only fine examples of the genre, the six novels presented here were hugely impactful.

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Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane (1917)

Regiment of Women (Clemence Dane novel)

The Well of Loneliness, usually said to be the first English-language novel containing veiled lesbianism, was just beaten to the title by Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, 1927. But ten years before even that was Regiment of Women, 1917, the debut novel of Clemence Dane, the pseudonym of Winifred Ashton (1888-1965), London-born novelist, playwright, and early feminist.

Dane’s title is obviously ironic but at least two of the book cover designers completely misunderstood the title, or more likely had not read the book: one has a picture of a woman in uniform, depicting a female member of a military regiment, and the other has a picture of a boys’ school. Read more about Regiment of Women.

 

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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyff Hall (1928)

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Since its first appearance in 1928, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1880 – 1943) has spurred much discussion and controversy. The semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s coming to terms with her lesbian identity caused a furor when first published in England. Widely banned, it also went to trial for obscenity.

Once denounced as immoral, it has also been praised as a courageous work of literature. It shocked some members “proper” society and served as an awakening to others who felt isolated by repressive social mores. At the time it was published, it told the story of same-sex love between women, a topic that was rarely written about outside of scientific textbooks. Read more about The Well of Loneliness.

 

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Diana by Diana Fredericks (Frances V. Rummell, 1939)

Diana - A Strange Autobiography

Frances V. Rummell, an American writer and educator, published Diana: A Strange Autobiography (1939) under the pseudonym Diana Frederics. More of an autobiographical novel than an actual memoir, nonetheless draws upon the author’s life. The story details the title heroine’s discovery of her lesbian sexuality.

Positive portrayal of lesbians was considered shocking when the book was published. It’s now considered groundbreaking as one of the first works of gay fiction to have a happy outcome.

Published squarely between The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928) and the lesbian pulp novels that emerged in the early 1950s, Diana is a worthy, yet often overlooked addition to the genre. More about Diana: A Strange Autobiography.

 

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The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (Patricia Highsmith, 1952)

The price of salt by Patricia Highsmith

When The Price of Salt was published in 1952, it was a rarity in lesbian literature. Lesbian pulp novels were quite a thing, but in order to pass censors, one of the two protagonists had to either come to a bad end or realize that she was straight, after all. The Price of Salt  by Patricia Highsmith was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Highsmith was at the start of a career writing thrillers about sociopaths (such as the one in her first book, Strangers on a Train, the basis for the 1951 Hitchcock film). The Price of Salt was an early departure from what was to be her preferred genre — psychological thrillers; it would remain an outlier among her works. The novel was adapted as the 2015 film, retitled Carol (2015 film version of The Price of Salt). More about The Price of Salt.

 

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Spring Fire by Vin Packer (Marijane Meaker, 1952)

Spring Fire first edition cover

1952 was something of an annus mirabilis for the lesbian coming of age novel, seeing the paperback republication of the aforementioned Diana, and the original publication of The Price of Salt and Spring Fire by Vin Packer, the pen name of Marijane Meaker. Spring Fire has the distinction of being the first lesbian paperback-original novel (The Price of Salt was issued as a Bantam paperback in 1953, but this was after the release of the hardback).

The central character of Spring Fire, Susan (Mitch) Mitchell is rich. “She was not lovely and dainty and pretty, but there was a comeliness about her that suggested some inbred strength and grace.” She has been to several different boarding schools over a period of six years with no apparent romantic or any other kind of interest in or from other girls. This changes, of course, as the novel progresses. More about Spring Fire.

 

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Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon (Ann Weldy, 1957)

Odd girl out by Anne Bannon

Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon (the pseudonym of Ann Weldy), came a bit later in the group of the influential and enduring lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s. Odd Girl Out was the first of what became The Beebo Brinker Chronicles: five linked novels from 1957 to 1962, following the same character, Laura, into maturity. Weldy was a very unlikely pioneer of lesbian fiction. She recalled:

“I must have been the most naïve kid who ever sat down at the age of 22 to write a novel. I was a young housewife living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, college graduation just behind me, and utterly unschooled in the ways of the world… To my continuing astonishment, the books have developed a life of their own. They were born in the hostile era of McCarthyism and rigid male/female sex roles, yet still speak to readers in the twenty-first century.” More about Odd Girl Out.

 

Other notable titles in 20th-Century Lesbian Literature

  • Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann (1927)
  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1937)
  • The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault (1944)
  • Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (1949)

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