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Kindred Spirits

by Terry Castle

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1996
ISBN: 0-231-10596-7
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

 A well-crafted, playful, and probing look at the previously unexamined friendship of Noâl Coward and Radclyffe Hall--and at their influence on each other's work. Novelist Hall is known for melancholy; her most famous work is the much-parodied--though still widely read--The Well of Loneliness, the 1928 coming-out tale of a brooding butch, intended as a plea for tolerance of lesbians. Hall achieved a sort of political martyrdom when The Well became the subject of a celebrated obscenity trial. Coward is quite a contrasting figure; a lifelong comic actor and playwright, he approached nothing without irony. His relationship to gay identity was seemingly opposite, too, never going public about his homosexuality. Despite these differences, Castle (English/Stanford; The Apparitional Lesbian, 1993) makes a convincing case for a close literary relationship between the two, as well as a fabulously entertaining argument for an influence on each other's wardrobe. She finds that they make up characters based on each other and echo each other's phrases. Perhaps most amusingly, in Coward's play Blithe Spirit, he seems to draw directly on Hall's real-life psychic dabblings. The author also finds in both of their writings a surprisingly similar frustration with, and critique of, the narrowness of heterosexual convention. Castle argues that studying such friendships yields a deeper understanding of the rich history of relations between gay men and lesbians. These groups are too often studied separately, even assumed to have been mostly antagonistic to each other; in fact, there has long been friendship, collaboration, and fellow- feeling between them. At times, Castle makes too much of similarities that could be coincidental; mostly, though, she gets away with this because her readings are as close as they are imaginative. Though Castle is theoretically sophisticated, her prose is accessible and witty. A fine contribution to both literary and queer history. (photos, not seen)