Letitia Withall, When Half-Gods Go

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Letitia Withall 

When Half-Gods Go.

London: Theosophical Publishing House Ltd [Printed by the Star and Gazette Co. Ltd., Guernsey], 1922.

First and only edition. Paperback, 175 pp. Green paper dust jacket with printed title on cover within a frame featuring the author’s name and a simple, line drawing of a flock of birds scattered over the shoreline, hand-drawn ornament on the back, of leaves; edges slightly frayed, and spine a little chipped at extremities. Light foxing on the title page, and occasionally throughout. Rare, only one copy listed in OCLC at the British Library.

 ABOUT THIS BOOK

“TO MY HEALER TEACHER FRIEND” This extraordinarily unusual novel describes same-sex passion beyond the realm of the physical, charting the process by which an unnamed narrator overcomes her grief at the death of her love “Kathleen” through the act of writing. As she describes in the Proem: the book is “a glimpse into the lives of two women, who (having looked for each other throughout the years) met—only to be parted again after a brief space of time.” But she does not write alone. The narrator claims in the Proem that the work is co-authored with Kathleen through spiritual mediumship: “The book has grown up between the two of us, but just which parts are written by which it is impossible to say…It is a little loom on which we have both plied the shuttle, and it can matter nothing at all which is her thread and which mine.” What follows is an impassioned and unapologetic combination of poetry, letters, stream of consciousness, and channelled observations structured like a diary over the course of a year, beginning on November 12th: 

“So there is to be another letter-writing phase in the story of our love, is there, Kathleen alannah?

It’s the pen and the paper once more and the word-for-wording of thoughts, instead of the broken sentence, the quick look of comprehension, the scarce-spoken thought; the knowledge before speech; the fusion of mind with mind; the lightning-quick exchange…You are saying: “Nothing is over. I am alive. You are alive. Our love, our beautiful, star-crowned, God-made love is alive, warm, beating, and strong.” (8-10)

The work ends no less lyrically at October 23rd, the anniversary of Kathleen’s death:

“Night fell…and we were together.

Dawn broke…and we were together.

The day is here…and we are together.

Together…so close together, so heart-to-heart and cheek-to-cheek that I tremble with the ecstasy of her nearness, the exaltation of her presence.” (170)

The co-authorship through mediumship of When Half Gods Go contributes a fascinating dimension to the history of the spiritualist movement. Emerging from the mid-19th century and adapted by a variety of religious and esoteric groups, spiritualism emphasised the possibility of communication between the dead and the living. Practicing spiritualists sought contact with the dead through a number of practices: talking or “ouija” boards, “spirit rapping,” and especially relied upon the mediumship of women. Very often they held left-leaning beliefs, and used spirit contact to articulate views in keeping with their politics, for instance, the abolition of slavery and the right for women to vote. Here, such beliefs are applied to the practice of describing a relationship that is both physical and spiritual without shame. The text is primarily concerned with the narrator’s struggle to overcome her grief and take comfort in her continued spiritual union with Kathleen—but at no point is her passion for another woman anything less than “godly” or “divine.” 

An April 1924 review of the book in the Occult Review praised the narrator’s approach: “the author may be congratulated on having breathed into it an ardour and a sincerity which give to the experiences described every semblance of reality. If it is not fiction but fact, one appreciates these qualities no less, while feeling, perhaps a faint surprise at the frankness which unveils so personal a story of love and loss in the cold light of print.” The reviewer continued to applaud the portrayal of “country life” in the work. The narrator seems to live in a world populated only by female friends: Clemency, St. George, Tissa, Elma, and Joanna all work alongside her wandering through forests to gather fruit and firewood, keeping “the Hut” in the Cotswolds where they live well-stocked and self sufficient.

Uncharacteristically for the history of same-sex relationships, the narrator describes no shame in her desire, or in the relationship between the two, only in coming to terms with its loss. This work deserves to be republished, if anything to counter the harm done by contemporary works like The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928 to great scandal in both the USA and the UK, with its author Radclyffe Hall brought to trial for obscenity. Hall’s perspective on “inverted” love, self-hatred, and societal decay are particular to their own experience: one of immense wealth and privilege that culminated not only in an anti-suffrage politics while living in England, but also an active fascist sympathy while living in Italy. Where The Well of Loneliness was even noted in its day for a plot driven by misery, When Half Gods Go in spite of its grief finds moments of celebration and liberation. At the same time When Half Gods Go might have gained Hall’s notice, since with Una Troubridge the two consulted a spiritual medium on an almost daily basis, and kept copious notebooks documenting each session. A queer history of spiritual mediumship remains to be written, bringing together works like the pseudo-Wilde’s Tellamy, various attempts to channel Wilde after his death, Hall’s own practices, and When Half Gods Go

What little information survives about Letita Withall provides a stark contrast from much of what has become known as the “sapphic modernism” of the time. She is likely to be the Letitia Withall who was born in 1881, the daughter of the British architect Lathan Augustus Withall (1853-1925) and Louisa Margaret Reed (1855-1951), at the time living in Adelaide, South Australia, but who in 1888 moved the family back to England. The most striking object to survive bearing Withall’s name is a 1913 Hunger Strike medal, awarded by the Women’s Social and Political Union “in recognition of a gallant action whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship, a great principle of political justice was vindicated.” The medal is kept by the National Library of Australia, where two of her brothers later resettled. A portrait of Withall also remains to be rediscovered: in 1924, Sarah Fanny Hockey (1875-1939), Benjamin Britten’s eccentric aunt, and best known for her 1922 miniature of him, exhibited six paintings as a member of the Ipswich Art Club, including “Miss Letitia Withall.” Although her date of death is unknown, the latest dated writing by Withall comes from a 1949 contribution to an issue of The Vegetarian, an article on “Ethical Aspects of Vegetarianism.” These brief glimpses, understood in the context of the unapologetic same-sex desire and mystical spirituality of When Half Gods Go, portray the politics of female empowerment as something both to fight for and to celebrate—even now.

FURTHER READING

Diana Souhami, The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998).

Brooke S. Palmieri, “Haunting History” JHI Blog, 14 December 2015 https://jhiblog.org/2015/12/14/haunting-history/

Gioia Diliberto, “Patience Worth: Author from the Great Beyond,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2010 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/patience-worth-author-from-the-great-beyond-54333749/ 

Brooke Palmieri