Radclyffe Hall’s historical fiction Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself
pushed the limits at the time of its publication in 1926. Despite being published nearly a century ago, the novel still remains a symbol for LGBTQ+ issues. Hall identified as both a lesbian and an “invert,” an identity struggle that protagonist Miss Ogilvy also grapples with in the midst and aftermath of World War I.
Miss Wilhelmina Ogilvy grew up in conservative Surrey, England as the odd one out. She felt like she wasn’t like other girls and didn’t share the dreams and interests of her sisters, Sarah and Fanny. As a child, she even insisted her name was William. In the early eighteenth century, this isn’t typical. It is no secret that Miss Ogilvy is different, especially given the strict conformity that defines Surrey. Women are caretakers and spinsters. Miss Ogilvy, however, longs to be as strong, powerful, and accepted as the men around her.
Miss Ogilvy’s conflicting identity was never just a tomboy phase. In her teenage years, it was clear that she was unlike other girls. She was bulky and more muscular than any other girl in town. She became embarrassed by her physical appearance as she grew older and her differences became even more apparent, isolating her from society. Ironically
, as her two sisters (both stereotypically feminine) seek husbands and fail, Miss Ogilvy is proposed to by three different men. Her mother and her sisters are shocked. Being unable to bring herself to be interested in anything beyond friendship with them, she remains alone.
When Miss Ogilvy’s father passes, she inherits the role of “man of the house” immediately. She becomes responsible for taking care of finances and fixing whatever breaks. Her masculine role goes undisputed by everyone in the household, as her sisters consider her a “brother.”
When the Great War breaks out, now fifty-six-year-old Miss Ogilvy feels a jolt of excitement. She wonders what this would mean for her if she were a man and imagines fighting on the frontlines, finally feeling comfortable in her own body. Cursing nature for playing a “bad joke” on her by making her female, she cuts her hair short and begs the authorities to at least let her run an ambulance brigade.
Miss Ogilvy feels more at home running the ambulance unit in France than she ever has before. Finally away from the strict gender guidelines in England, she feels free to express herself, exploring her own interests, such as the war. But all good things must come to an end, and after three years, the war is over and Miss Ogilvy must return home.
Upon returning home, Miss Ogilvy is immediately expected to conform to feminine gender roles. Her sisters beg her to grow her hair out because that is what’s “normal.” She has no uniform and is expected to dress a certain way, likely even to become a spinster. Miss Ogilvy paces around her room with her hands in her pockets, a symbol of relinquishing control. She grows resentful of England, feeling used, as if she was just another weapon in its war and she is now useless. She is no longer in control of her own life. Ironically, the war humanized her by giving her an outlet to express her masculinity. Now that it is over, she feels she has no control of herself, her identity, or her life.
Miss Ogilvy decides to flee her stress by taking a vacation on an island off the southern coast of Devon. She seeks the same adventure that defined her life during the war. As the boat approaches the island, Miss Ogilvy cannot shake the feeling that she’s been there before. She even recognizes a cave on the coast, which is strange as she has never stepped foot on the island.
One day, Miss Ogilvy overhears Mrs. Nanceskivel, the hotelkeeper, boasting about finding a man’s skull on the island. She talks about the man with very little respect or regard for his life, and Miss Ogilvy grows angry listening to her. Her mind flashes back to the bodies she saw during the war and all of the lives lost in front of her eyes, making her increasingly upset.
Miss Ogilvy then enters into a dream-like trance about her past life as a man. Repressing her masculine identity to conform to societal standards has led her into a psychological tailspin. Although she is conscious and aware of herself, she suddenly has no memories of Miss Ogilvy.
Hall now refers to Miss Ogilvy using male pronouns. She is now a tall, muscular, tattooed man from prehistoric times. He is with an unnamed lover, a girl that he throws around carelessly and carries while she praises his strength. He even laughs at her when she says she wants to help him defend the tribe, as she is nothing but a weak and fragile woman in comparison to him. He takes his lover’s virginity, signifying possession of her.
The novel ends with a haunting image, as a fisherman finds Miss Ogilvy dead in the cave. Her hands are buried in her pockets, signifying her final defeat and loss of control.