In Radclyffe Hall’s story Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself, we are shown a woman whose only opportunity for recognizing her true, “instinctual”, inborn identity was the Great War. She was the head of an ambulance unit in France for three years, the disbanding of which at the end of the war left her with a shattered identity she only first put together as a result of the war. Her experiences in France “altered the complexion of her life,” as the charge given her “set Miss Ogilvy free” (125). As the war ended, and her unit was broken up and she was expected to return to an England unwilling to recognize her sacrifice, and make a place for her in postwar society, she felt a “sudden and paralysing [sic] change” (125). She stood with her hands in her pockets, an expression of futility, of having no control, as she was simply a module in the hierarchy of wartime Britain. Her identity was truly imperiled by the taking away of her role as the head of an ambulance unit, feeling under “the fire of a desperate regret” (125). No longer would she wear the uniform of national service, “the queer little forage-caps and the short, clumsy tunics of the French Militaire” (125). She would have to don the apparel of a respectable old spinster back in Britain. The freedom of self she was granted by the war would be taken away by the armistice. And so, Miss Ogilvy toils under disillusion, realizing that she was used by her country to fill a role, like a piece of machinery, like her car, which is likened to “a well-beloved horse” (126). She speaks to it with a tone of understanding, that she “knows how it feels” to be used like a piece of equipment, and that they will “go down together” (126). She is disabused of the notion that she was anything other than an automaton of war, used and dehumanized.
The war was an opportunity for Miss Ogilvy to fulfill what she felt was an inborn masculine identity, clothed in a socially-constructed feminine identity. She insisted, as a child, “that her real name was William and not Wilhelmina” (127). This conflicting identity, the one she felt and the one she was expected to fulfill, left her with a sense of powerlessness and feckless struggle against the mainstream, as she discovered it “better to be one with the herd, that the world has no wish to understand those who cannot conform to its stereotyped pattern” (127). And so we see that from an early age Miss Ogilvy knew, in fact, who she was, but because of the confusing tides of socialization and conformity she lost that, and her experience of national service in the Great War was the only inroad available to her of reestablishing the identity she felt she was born with, and was denied. And her world was aware of her mixture of masculinity with femininity, as expressed by their reaction to the three marriage proposals she received from men in her life. Everyone knew the identity she struggled to express, but struggled against her, as a cohesive social force, to socialize her against this inborn truth. This led to the conclusion, for her, that “in the end she must blaze a lone trail through the difficulties of her nature” (127).
When her father died she became the de facto ‘man of the house’, assuming his responsibilities for the management of the family finances, her sisters even looking to her “as a brother” (127). She filled the role of the traditional elder son filling the role in the domestic lives of his siblings and mother of the provider and caretaker. In fact, as Hall writes, Miss Ogilvy’s mother “discovered in this daughter a staff upon which she could lean with safety” (128). The sexualized, phallic imagery here is poignant, however understated, and her sisters “began to lean too” (128).
When the Great War broke out, her “pulses throbbed wildly”, and she exclaimed “My God! If only I were a man!” (128). This, however, did not prevent her from “worr[ying] officials” with requests to serve in France, and she “promptly cut off her hair” to “jar them” (129). She begins to feel a camaraderie heretofore unknown as she sees “many cropped heads…suddenly appear[ing] as it were out of space” in London, these women “losing their shyness” and “asserting their right to serve” (129). As a result she “forgot the bad joke that Nature seemed to have played on her” as she was made a French lieutenant, beginning to “live in illusion” as “reality lay on all sides” (129). And after the war, when she returns home to Surrey, this illusion collapses as her sisters immediately beseech her to grow her hair back out, like a woman, because people in small towns “notice such things” (129). She longs to be back in France, preferring to be under fire, in imminent danger, than to be stifled in a society that refuses her an identity they exploited to invoke a nationalistic frenzy to serve. That she had become more herself in France was evident in her manner of expressing her emotions more frequently instead of checking them with her trademark “Oh?” (126, 130). And her sacrifice went unheeded by those in her community who were quicker to empathize with her sisters because of Miss Ogilvy’s difficult nature, attributing her behavior to shellshock (131). After a member of her old Unit came to visit her, telling her she was to be married, Miss Ogilvy was stricken with a kind of illness, of night terrors, reliving disembodied emotions, and her hair became white. She realized she was growing old, and decided to take a vacation. In this she is experiencing a fugue, a flight from painful emotions, a putting of physical distance between herself and the source of her pain. However, she is fleeing from Surrey, not France, her home being the real source of her consternation and identity crisis, the real source of her ill-feelings and nightmares. It wasn’t shellshock: it was social tyranny.
This trip she took, to an island off the southern coast of Devon, gave Miss Ogilvy the opportunity to experience adventure once again, something “she had not felt…since the ending of the war” (132). And once there she has a past-life experience, aware, on her trip to the island by boat, of a cave on the southwestern side of the island, corroborated by the boatman. The scene is picturesque; the island symbolic of the isolation Miss Ogilvy feels, insulated from the continent, separated from Britain and all of the socializing forces which ran counter to her inborn identity. And here, on this island, she felt “a very profound contentment” (133), as a result of the physical isolation from British society or the terror of continental war, or, in fact, from the intrinsic connection she feels with the geography. This intrinsic connection, perhaps, being a manifestation of the symbolic experience of going to an island, of going, physically, to a place that represents oneself, as Miss Ogilvy is a unique, isolated individual with little to no corollary, or acceptable corollary, in her British society. By going to the island she is going to her true self: isolate, lonely, surrounded by tumultuous waves, ancient, naturally-occurring and cinematic.
She has an encounter with the hotel-keeper, Mrs. Nanceskivel, who presents to her a collection of bones, and a skull, of a prehistoric man, discovered on the island. Miss Ogilvy is outraged by the woman’s clinical detachment, of her objectification of the bones as little more than curios, kept in a cabinet in a cupboard in the scullery. Miss Ogilvy feels the outrage in the connection between dead, prehistoric men, their skulls bashed in with axes and whose wounds are visible in the remains, and the men and women who died, sacrificed, to the Great War. Perhaps Miss Ogilvy sees Mrs. Nanceskivel in a long line of individuals who objectify and dehumanize the victims of war, as the hotel-keeper is doing with prehistoric man, and as some yet-imagined person of the future will do as they turn over skulls plowing a field in Flanders. The grief she experiences at the sight of these remains is one “she had not conceived could exist”, and she weeps for the first time “since her childhood” (134). She begins to wonder if she does, in fact, have shell-shock, and she walks about her hotel room, pacing, with her hands in her pockets, once again symbolic of her futility, now at the mercy of the opinions of British society, that her feelings and behaviors are, in fact, the result of being shell-shocked.
Miss Ogilvy descends into her past-life experience, a dream-state of reverie, a deep psychological regression into another life. She remains aware of herself, “conscious of her being”, while retaining no memories of any Miss Ogilvy. She imagines herself as a prehistoric man, tattooed with woad. She is tall, muscular, and hairy; she feels a tremendous “sense of physical well-being” (135). The prehistoric man, Miss Ogilvy, is with her lover, and she praises Miss Ogilvy for being the strongest man in the tribe, who had “sad brown eyes like those of a monkey” (136). He physically controls her, lifts her up, tosses her, carries her; and the woman relents, calling Miss Ogilvy’s prehistoric male persona “My master; blood of my body” (136). They experience a very intimate, private moment; the prehistoric man begins to think on their enemies, of “The Roundheaded-ones…devils,” the primary threat to their way of life with their copper weapons, who “lust after our women…our lands,” who can only be assuaged by the bartering of human life (138). He says he will defend the tribe, and the woman expresses her desire to defend them all as well, that she “will bite out the throats of these people if they so much as scratch your skin!” (138), echoing the desire of all, regardless of sex or gender, to defend those they love, that in fact it is an intrinsic right. The man laughs and calls her foolish, symbolic of the attitude of men toward women during the Great War, that their place was at home, sewing and knitting like Miss Ogilvy’s sisters, not on the front lines as Miss Ogilvy desired to be, and was, and was extremely personally rewarded for her service. The prehistoric woman “long[ed] to be possessed” as the man takes her to the cave, Miss Ogilvy’s cave, to take her virginity (139). The man “put by his weapon and instinct for slaying” in order to engage in the sexual act, making himself vulnerable “with tenderness” (140).
The story closes with a fisherman discovering the dead body of Miss Ogilvy resting in the cave-mouth, her hands, once again, in her pockets in an expression of futility and powerlessness. As the ending of this story implies, finding oneself is an apotheosis which must culminate in physical death, as such an apotheosis requires the shedding of sociocultural constructions of identity, which cannot be done without obliterating ones own consciousness. The denouement is an insidious commentary on the all-controlling, dehumanizing and depersonalizing effects of aggressive, hegemonic social categories and constructions.
The Apotheosis of Self in Radclyffe Hall’s “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”
Joshua Bartee, 2009