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Douglas Fetherling - A Different Kind of Life
by Douglas Fetherling

COPIES of Sapphic Songs, the selected poems of Elsa Gidlow, probably Canada's first important lesbian poet, are difficult to find, and when found, contain a surprise. Among the acknowledgements is one to Saturday Night, where she published in the 1920s. The legend is that Saturday Night's editor (male) wasn't adept at reading between the lines.

Until the very end of her life, most information about Gidlow came secondhand: the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth was a great friend, for example, and gave her a chapter in Excerpts from the Life. But then, shortly before her death in 1986, she published an autobiography, Elsa: I Come with My Songs, which tells an interesting tale.

Gidlow was born in Hull in Yorkshire and came to Canada with her parents in 1905, when she was six. Her father, a railway worker, was an abusive drunk whose fortunes were forever in decline. At one point, the Gidlows were the only anglophones and the only Protestants in the working-class town of Tetreauville on the South Shore.

Gidlow writes with simple clarity of her adolescent thirst for books, of her inner turmoil at realizing how much her sexuality set her apart, of groping for maturity in a society that didn't seem to hold out much promise for young women whose ambitions extended beyond matrimony. For years her main connection with the larger world was the Montreal Star, where she could "read with admiration about the Pankhursts and the other intrepid women who I learned were fighting for 'equality."'

The First World War opened up the possibility of a different kind of life, and she got a typist's job in Montreal and found the woman who became her first companion (they met in the public library over a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman). Gidlow began publishing verse in the Star. Through the paper's classifieds she later organized a bohemian circle of writers and artists. It was a sort of mutual-protection league that flirted with 1890s-style decadence, theosophy, Emma Goldman-type anarchism, and the primitive sexology of KrafftEbing and Havelock Ellis: all the usual suspects.

SHE HAD a toehold in the respectable world, and was taken up by B. K. Sandwell, editor of The Canadian Bookman (and later, most famously, of Saturday Night). But she was rooted in an underground, mainly gay and lesbian in orientation, that included a little magazine of her own, which for no very good reason she called Les mouches Jantastiques.

"In some ways," she recalls, "the overwhelming maleness of Canadian society was most oppressive," though how she hoped for better in the United States isn't clear, except that it's easier to get lost in a bigger place. She wound up in Greenwich Village. Like Enid Bagnold (author of National Velvet), she worked on Pearson's Magazine under Frank Harris, the editor, celebrated litterateur, notorious confidence man, and author of My Life and Loves, at a time when Pearson's pro-German views and "general intransigence" had got it banned from Canada.

Gidlow claims she was rejecting Canada outright, but it's no doubt significant that her "Boston marriages," as it seems long-term lesbian relationships were then often called, appear to have been mostly with other expatriate Canadians, with whom she kept returning here for significant periods. Eventually she settled in San Francisco, where she became a senior figure in alternative-culture circles, a friend and disciple of Alan Watts, and a serious student of Eastern philosophy. In the 1950s, she was hounded by McCarthy; in the '60s, she founded a commune whose members included Margo St. James, the advocate of prostitutes' rights who was then much in the news.

Her life is more interesting than her verse: long after any need for subterfuge had passed, she continued to write in what were practically Georgian conventions. But her example in other areas was always valuable, as when she gained a wide audience with a pamphlet called Ask No Man's Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian.

The memoir is doubtless her most important work. It's simply written, because by that time the author was having memory lapses and other health problems. The book's publisher, Celeste West, later told a writer in Fireweed that "the greatest deadline of my life was to get the book out so Elsa saw it" before she died.


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