Would it surprise readers to know that her first job was working on the Canadian railway, or that she was born British, moved to Canada, and then finally settled in America? What about the fact that she wrote both the first lesbian love poetry collection in North America and the first autobiography in which the author outs herself as a lesbian? How many people know that she existed at all?
Her name was Elsa Gidlow, and she was born in 1898 into a working-class family that followed the railroads to find jobs. Gidlow would ultimately break away from this track and pursue an extraordinary life of her own, as a free-living but still dedicated writer.
In her early writing career, when she was just beginning to establish herself, Gidlow made many valuable connections, but she also made a bizarre, unlikely enemy: H.P Lovecraft. It must be said that, for all his talents, H.P. Lovecraft was something of a troll. When he wasn’t wielding his pen like a wand to summon unholy monstrosities out of the sea, he was scribbling off hate mail to fellow writers whose work he didn’t approve of. It was a lot of wasted energy, much of which Gidlow was subjected to.
There also may have been an added element of jealousy on Lovecraft’s part. In 1917, the young, intrepid, and high-spirited Gidlow was enjoying a fast social life in Montreal among a circle of freelance journalists like herself. Known as “amateur journalists”—writers who never studied journalism formally but entered the field by contributing to independent, self-publishing projects— this set of ambitious wordsmiths didn’t wait around to be discovered by an editor. They got their own work out into the world, with their own pooled funds and resources.
In 1918, Gidlow and her friend and then-business partner Roswell Georges Mills launched the underground journal Les Mouches fantastiques, remarkable for being the first North American magazine that had the then-taboo but necessary conversations about gay and lesbian politics.
Lovecraft was, at the time, a shut-in with few close friends, who harboured many prejudices that nowadays even his diehard fans are willing to admit were a problematic aspect to his character. Lovecraft became one of the pioneer LGBT magazine’s greatest adversaries, and Gidlow, who wouldn’t take the abuse lying down, took up her own weapon (her pen) to defend herself against him.
In the twenty-first century, a media war like this one would be conducted entirely online. In this case, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, it was done through scathing letters and articles. The scandal that erupted from the animosity between these two very different writers made a dent in Gidlow’s public literary reputation, while Lovecraft’s, unsurprisingly, drifted on relatively unharmed.
However, no one’s negative opinion was going to stop Gidlow from writing and producing the work she harbored inside herself. In a time where, outside of the sophistication of Western Europe—particularly in France, England, and Germany, where the major cities were guardedly experiencing subterranean LGBT movements—lesbianism was virtually invisible, Gidlow dared to publish On a Grey Thread in 1923.
This was the first collection of poetry in North America which openly flaunted the theme of romance and sexuality between women. Few other American queer women writers in this time period were so bold.
Djuna Barnes, the fearless bisexual reporter, sneakily published her heavily sexualized chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women in 1915, and Imagist poet Amy Lowell slipped a sapphic work or two into print on occasion. But lesbianism remained an obscure, dangerous niche for writers to play around with, especially women writers, who already faced enough obstacles in getting their work printed.
There were tricks to getting lesbian-themed work past censorship and past the legal system’s pointed eagle eyes. In Barnes’s case, she disguises her woman-on-woman eroticism with slang language only the queer community would recognize.
With Gidlow, it is a simple matter of skirting around pronouns as much as possible. Her first-person narrator in On a Grey Thread avoids identifying the name or gender of the object of their desire. Those uninitiated, or those who do know but have their homophobic blinkers on, can easily interpret it as heterosexual poetry.
But Gidlow’s style itself is distinctively feminine, with rich, sensual imagery and lack of masculine possessiveness that usually accompanies the more classic, heteronormative love poems of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, among others. There is very little inclusion of “You’re mine.” There is a lot more of “I’m yours.” The homoeroticism is in the subtext.
One poem from On a Grey Thread in particular stands out. In her “Love’s Acolyte” Gidlow casts herself in the typically male role of an admirer of a seemingly unattainable godlike beauty. In this poem there is fierce sexual longing, but also a high degree of respect for the beautiful, mysterious idol in question. Distance between the lover and muse is restlessly maintained, perhaps a tribute to the common experience of unrequited or misunderstood love between closeted, questioning queer women.
But I who am youth among your lovers
Come like an acolyte to worship,
My thirsting blood restrained by reverence,
My heart a wordless prayer.
Gidlow went on to publish twelve more books after On a Grey Thread, never abdicating lesbianism and women’s sexual liberation as her main themes in her creative process. Her love life was equally consistent, and she enjoyed the companionship of three stable partnerships at different periods of her life: the bohemian Muriel Symington, Isabel Grenfell Quallo, who made a name for herself as an activist, and pro-golfer Violet Winifred Leslie Henry Anderson.
But Gidlow sought out more than just private accomplishments as an artistic LGBT person. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she had organized a safe community for her own people, and that is precisely what she did.
In 1954, she purchased a ranch, along with a smaller adorning cottage, above Muir Woods in Marin County, California. Dubbing her land “Druid Heights,” she embraced the responsibility of a progressively minded property owner by inviting all of her cash-strapped intellectual friends to come and stay.
For all visitors and inhabitants, whether they were abiding short-term or long-term, Druid Heights was more just than a retreat. It was a home, a village, a common studio, and a laboratory for experimentation in all forms. The English writer Alan Watts was a frequent guest, as was the Asian culture scholar John Blofeld, the poet Gary Snyder, and a colourful array of women’s rights activists, mystics, philosophers, hard-partyers, and freelancers of all sorts down on their luck. Anyone of any trade or lifestyle or mentality was welcome.
There is currently a Facebook organization called “Save Druid Heights” that is dedicated to preserving Elsa Gidlow’s legacy, with mixed successes. The group is actively working to rescue photos, videos, and artifacts from the artists’ commune but has had less luck in the face of extreme weather causing damage to the property, along with city demolition plans.
Elsa Gidlow herself, who passed on in 1986 at the age of 87, remains a sturdy, immovable figure in LGBT history. Artists who seek a refuge, but don’t have the means to visit what is left of Druid Heights, can still find it in her works.
Featured image via Tee A. Corinne