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Confronting Time in Liminal Space: Placing Queer Identity in Hall’s “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”

By Ronny Litvack-Katzman

Time weighs heavily on the narrative in Radclyffe Hall’s “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” (1926). The effect of time imposes on Miss Ogilvy insomuch that it becomes a defining feature in her perpetual struggle to live authentically. Her future, or lack thereof, and her identity are inseparably linked; she is unable to imagine the latter while mourning the absence of the former. Queer scholar Lee Edelman comments in No Future that feelings of desolation over one’s perceived lack of futurity are a uniquely queer experience. While one’s ability to self-identify depends “on the promise of coming,” queer people have their futures “continuously deferred,” and are thus forced to locate their identities outside heteronormative timelines (114). Queer time, posits gender theorist Jack Halberstam, is a sociocultural fomulation by and for queer people that emerged in the early twentieth century “in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction” (1, In a Queer Time and Place). In Halberstam’s understanding, time, as it exists for queer people, is undeliminated by the multititude of events that typically define the life of heterosexuals. Queer timelines are thus equally “about the potentiality of a life unscripted” (2) by convention as they are about queer people making use of time to conciously remove themsleves from the heteropatriarchy. In effect, queerness emerges as both the “outcome of strange temporalities” (1) as well as a means by which queer people can disrupt heteronormative time.

The forging of queer temporality is, however, a formitable task and one not readily realized by queer people who, like Miss Ogilvy, experience time as an oppressive and thus a reasonably unmutable force. In such cases, emancipation from heteronormative time and the heteronormativity to which it is explicitly conjoined must be sought elsewhere. In timelines unbecoming of queerness, place can too be queered and with the similar effect of enabling “the production of queer counterpublics” (6). Queer space, in a similar although not wholly analogous manner to queer time, is both the active removal of one’s self from heteronormative geographies in additon to a “place-making practice” (6) in and of itself.  Throughout “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” Hall depicts Ogilvy as estranged from time, but uniquely comforted in and by liminal spaces, be they found in the trenches of France or on the sparsely inhabited islands of the English Channel. I begin by contextualizing Ogilvy’s identity as a queer person and proceed chronologically to examine her time spent in France, England, and on the island to contrast her experiences in each and emphasize her affinity for liminal spaces—an accordance born out of the realization of one’s true self. I argue that although Ogilvy finds solace in such spaces during the Great War, it is only by placing herself in a new temporal landscape, one which imagines a past and future for queer people, that she successfully establishes an alternative timeline in which to situate her identity. 

There is little doubt that Miss Ogilvy is queer, as evidenced by her experiences early in life and their enduring effects on her as a grown woman. Against her “nature,” (344, 346) Ogilvy finds that conforming to the “stereotyped pattern” (344) of womanhood followed by her mother and sisters, although unpreferable, is more easily realized than having to confront her feelings of gendered inauthenticity. To “be one with the herd” (344) becomes Ogilvy’s hesitant ambition, conceding that “she must blaze a lone trail through the difficulties of her nature” (344). Upon the declaration of war, however, Ogilvy seizes the opportunity to “be actually under fire” (346), a welcomed respite from her mundane life of performative gender norms. In France, Ogilvy feels as though she has finally found “her kind” (346), expressing a previously unrequited comradery with the masculinized, short-haired women of her unit. They, like Ogilvy, also join the war effort to assert “their claim to attention” (346). She defines this collection of masculinized women as a group of which “they had all been members” (343), contrasting her feelings of ostracization at home with the queer self revealed in war. This collective of women has always existed beyond the wartime context of its creation, an assemblage of ostensibly, albeit transiently, queer persons collectively defined by the liminality of their experience. 

In France, Miss Ogilvy discovers a space where she can freely, however momentarily, express her innermost desires, and live within her “blissful illusion” (346) of agendered life. For Ogilvy, the “turbulence” of the battlefield creates a space wherein she feels a perverse kind of comfort. Drawn to the “courage and hardship and high endeavour” (346) required of her in war, Ogilvy loses herself in time and momentarily forgets “the bad joke that nature seem[s] to have played on her” (346). In the trenches, which are spaces that exist in the no-man’s land between two warring enemy fronts, Ogilvy rejoices in the “illusion” (346) of stability and permanency. “Appalling reality,” Ogilvy recollects, “lay on all sides” (346), a use of figurative language that represents how, upon the war’s end, she must return to the heteronormative timeline from which she came. Yet, in the liminal landscape of trench warfare, time loses its very meaning, and bears no weight on Ogilvy’s perception of self: “She was nearly fifty-eight, yet she walked with a stride” (346). To forget herself in time likens Miss Ogilvy’s experiences in the war to those vignettes from her early life where “she saw herself as a queer little girl” who wished “her real name was William, not Wilhelmina” (344). However, wartime, like those moments of adolescent clarity, does not constitute a durable temporal landscape in which Ogilvy can situate her queer identity. As she comments upon leaving France, “wars come and wars go but the world does not change” (346), reprimanding herself for ever believing such “childlike illusions” (346). Ogilvy’s feelings of frustration, isolation, and having been “deeply defrauded” (345) by her sex return in full following the abrupt and “paralysing change” (342) of the war’s end—feelings which closely mirror the looming sense of gendered inauthenticity felt throughout her life. 

Following the war, Miss Ogilvy searches aimlessly for liminal spaces within England, and, once again weighed down by her lack of futurity, finds little comfort in the English landscape. Upon returning to England, she observes the countryside from the train window and comments on its inadequacy to reproduce in her the same feelings of self-acceptance found in the trenches. The “small homesteads, small churches, small pastures” (343) each fail to efface Ogilvy’s feelings of loss. Instead, they frustrate her, mockingly pointing to their incomparable size against the liminal spaces of France, “all small like Miss Ogilvy’s future” (343). In losing hold of her once strong sense of self and the location that physically grounds her identity, Ogilvy “herself … begin[s] to doubt” (348) that the war has ever taken place. Despite having made strides toward realizing her authentically queer self during the war, Ogilvy not only loses sight of her future, but also of her past growth upon her return to England. Removed from the liminal spaces that once consoled her, time again begins to work against Ogilvy. Now, “she hate[s] being old” (348), for it no “longer appear[s] such an easy solution of those difficulties that had always beset her” (348). Recognizing the paralyzing feeling of “self-pity” (348) approaching, Ogilvy takes it upon herself to search out new spaces in which to forge her queer identity. 

In search of a space in which to situate and reclaim her identity, Miss Ogilvy’s journey to the island further reinforces her precarious relationship with time and the ability of liminal space to reconstitute lost timelines. Upon reaching the island, the narrator comments that Ogilvy “had not felt like this since the end of the war” (349), a reference to the last time she had felt authentically herself. The island, in contrast to England but akin to the trenches of France, emerges from the mist of the sea as a “vague blur of green” (349), and becomes a liminal, natural space removed from modern temporality. Yet, rather than being a space completely isolated from time, the island contains deeply rooted remnants of the past. The bones of unnamed ancestors “buried…in deep, well-dug pits” (351) allude to the island’s extensive history and present a stark contrast to the shallow trenches of France, emphasizing the durability of time on the island and the ability of space to retain elements of personhood over multiple centuries. The imagery of the island, though belonging to the past, is refreshingly new to Ogilvy. The landscape, although endowed with historical importance, is  of a mutable history that Ogilvy can reclaim for queer people.

Miss Ogilvy’s dream vision, in which she is transported back in time as Neolithic Ogilvy, establishes a queer history by confronting her precarious relationship with time within a liminal landscape, and allows her to realize the ultimate goal of creating new, decidedly queer timelines: the recognition of futurity. She begins to enjoy “the sensation” (352) of reality slipping away; the light “in front, far away,” and leaving a “gleam of the sea towards which the big sun was sinking” (352). The natural scene both welcomes Ogilvy to establish her authentic self as well as foreshadows the foreclosure of her previous life. The sun, which sits on the horizon and casts both shadows and light across the water, signifies the end of her previous life and the beginning of a new, undoubtably queer one. Relishing the moment, Ogilvy empties herself, remaining “conscious of her being, and yet she was not Miss Ogilvy at all” (352). To begin her transformation, Ogilvy “pictured herself as immensely tall” (352). Aside from the physical transformations that Ogilvy begins to imagine, the narrator’s ambiguous use of the past tense confuses natural history with the present. Whereas prior to her entry to the cave the narrator dictates Ogilvy’s time spent on the island in the present tense, the dream vision leads to the first of many temporal slips, fractures in heteronormative time that parallel the bodily transformation which Ogilvy envisions. Although it is unclear whether Ogilvy pictures her body as changing or imagines a queer ancestry to which the island has reconnected her, such ambiguity only further confirms the liminality of her experience. In either case, Ogilvy makes use of the liminal spaces of the cave and cove to place a queer vision of themself in whatever temporality it may freely exist. 

Also notable is the switch to masculine pronouns when both the narrator and others speak of Ogilvy, and when Ogilvy describes themself. Although such changes in pronoun use begin with the dream vision, moving forward I will be referring to Ogilvy using the gender neutral pronouns “they/them” so as to not oversimplify the complex and, in many ways, incongruous gender dichotomies which this text both operates within and simultaneously disrupts. Likening themself to their “fellow-tribesmen,” Ogilvy notes their “extremely hairy” (352) arms and legs as well as other new and definitely masculinized features like “his prominent cheekbones” and “somewhat bestial” jaw (353). The abrupt change in the pronouns used to describe Ogilvy complicates the once definitive gender binary, as well as the placing of that binary in time. Ogilvy’s body no longer presents as stereotypically ‘female,’ a fact made explicitly evident when their imagined female companion refers to them as “the strongest man in our tribe” (352). They confirm this change by placing themself in opposition to this newly imagined other: “you… woman” (353), as Ogilvy states of their mate. Unperturbed and rather embracing their change in appearance, Ogilvy smiles with a content murmur “that seemed to come from the depths of their being” (353). The newfound permanence of self, coupled with the joy of authenticating their queer gender in physical space, sees Ogilvy discover within traditional gender roles an imagined community to which they feel closely tied. The sense of communal belonging and authentic self-expression that Ogilvy connects with when inhabiting the island, unlike the transience of their similar experiences during the war, is endowed with a durable history and, even more importantly, one that Ogilvy can claim as their own. 

Ogilvy finalizes a new queer timeline when they speak the “one word” that “ha[s] a number of meanings… It mean[s]: ‘Little spring of exceedingly pure water’… ‘Hut of peace for man after battle’… ‘Happy small home of future generations’” (353, emphasis added). What Ogilvy describes is a scene of domestic purity, one not unlike the images of the English countryside dictated from the train window. Yet, the domestic scene once foreign to Ogilvy, an ideal of heteronormativity from which they were previously estranged, is suddenly coherent because on the island, unlike in England, queer identity is self-begot and the constraint of time is of no consequence. As queer ancestors, Neolithic Ogilvy and their partner display a mode of expression, a declaration of self in space, that in other timelines was impossible for Miss Ogilvy to articulate. 

For Ogilvy to lay eyes on the island and proclaim, “I remember” (349), in recollection of a history they were once denied, is no small feat of queer resilience. And yet, through the queering of time in liminal space, Ogilvy’s remembrance is also an imagination of futurity. Linear time, which once weighed heavily upon them, is circularized, alleviating the burden of futurity felt by queer people by imagining a past that may lead to any number of novel timelines. Although fantastical, the foraging of queer timelines within liminal space is vastly important to establishing queer histories and, through them, a distinctly queer identity. In the absence of time, Ogilvy turns to spaces where they can imagine a past for queer people, and where queerness is no longer an expression reserved for war but a durable place where “future generations” may seek respite. As Edelman reflects, queer people are throughout their lives tasked with reconciling their lack of futurity through a “fantasy of completion” (114), an imaginary timeline where to live authentically may mean not having yet lived at all.

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004. Web.

Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005. Web. 

Hall, Radclyffe. “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself.” Women’s Writing on the First World War, edited by Agnès Cardinal. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 342-357.