Elsa Gidlow did not like Canada when she moved with her family here from Hull, England, at the age of six. It was too cold, and even at an early age, she saw it was too Victorian.
We’re lucky she came here, though. Gidlow gives us our first look at Canada’s queer community from an insider’s perspective.
The Goddess of Tétreaultville
Elfie Gidlow was born in 1898, to a poor-but-educated father and a mother whom she adored. While she was still small, her father moved the family to Tétreaultville, a village on the Island of Montreal that’s since been swallowed by the city.
She became very attached to the trees and river there – and claimed to have had a vision of a goddess by the riverside. But she was less sure of the people, or at least their way of life. Roles for women in that very strict Catholic community were limited to wife and mother. Gidlow resolved never to marry a man. She also decided at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, and began sending her work to The Montreal Star.
She didn’t get along with her father. But he had liberal ideas when it came to women’s education and working women, and she was his favourite of his seven children, so he took her under his wing. She came with him on his job teaching first-aid to people working on the railroad, and learnt secretarial and clerical skills – still thought of as men’s work in the 1910s.
She spent six months at business college. Then when she was sixteen, her father helped her get her first job. She did clerical work in the office of Angus Works, which manufactured and serviced parts for the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was 1915, and with so many men fighting the war in Europe, Angus Works was forced to hire more women in spite of its chief clerk’s reluctance.
Around this time, Gidlow developed a crush on a woman named Frances. She had met her at business college. Gidlow didn’t realize it was love until later, though, by which point Frances had a boyfriend.
Things began to fall into place for her a little later, when a co-worker of Gidlow’s named Rebecca Stuart met a “friend” of hers at work. Gidlow picked up that there was something about their gestures and expressions that suggested they were lovers and not friends. She wasn’t the only one who noticed. One of her co-workers called Stuart something that sounded to Gidlow like “mofredite” through his thick Scottish brogue.
A year later, looking through a book of Greek sculpture, Gidlow came across the word “hermaphrodite” – a word that had been used to mean “homosexual” since the Renaissance, and which was then better known than “lesbian.” She realized then that that’s what she was. In her diary soon after, she wrote, “I am going to get a room of my own. I am going to find my kind of people.”
Gidlow didn’t know how to go about the second task, and her job wouldn’t pay a woman enough for the first. Instead, she went about trying to become a poet instead. She created a poetry group, and sent a fake letter to The Montreal Star to drum up interest. It worked, and she attracted a small crowd of would-be poets and people who were simply curious.
In the crowd was an effeminate, beautiful young man whose mere appearance seemed to upset a couple of older men in the crowd. One of them was so repulsed that he left early. The young man was Roswell George Mills, a 19-year-old editorial assistant at The Montreal Star’s financial page. The Star also let him write an advice column for businesswomen under the female pseudonym of “Jessie Roberts.”
Mills introduced Gidlow to another world. He brought her attention to a series of writers whose bookds were a kind of iniation into his circle – Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire. They read Plato’s Symposium and Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex and Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex. In short, they all the books available to them that were sympathetic to homosexuals. Mills in turn had been introduced to them by some of the older men in his life – hints of a community or network that some believe had been in Canada since at least the days of Alexander Wood.
Roswell Mills had a “personal crusade.” Gidlow writes:
He wanted people to understand that it was beautiful, not evil, to love others of one’s own sex and to make love with them. Roswell had divined my lesbian temperament, and was happy to proselytize; the veil of self-ignorance began to lift.
It was 1918, and Gidlow was only nineteen. She came from a household where sex was never discussed. All this was revolutionary to her, and she was deeply grateful to Mills. She hated her name Elfie, and he nicknamed her “Sappho,” a name used among her friends all her life. She later began using “Elsie” and then “Elsa” as her professional name, but “Sappho” stuck and friends were still using it at the end of her life.
Mills introduced her to a circle of gay and bisexual people, and to a culture and literature she hadn’t known existed. As happy as she was to find this world, there was one serious problem – there were no lesbians. Mills’ friends had known exactly two lesbians – Violet “Tommy” Henry-Anderson and Mona Shelley – but both had left Montreal years before and settled in Vancouver.
Mills’ circle included a Marguerite Desmarais, who was mostly interested in men but happy to experiment with Gidlow, and an older woman named Estelle Cox. Gidlow fell in love with Cox immediately, but Cox seemed unsure of her feelings for Gidlow. In the end, nothing happened between them.
Les Mouches Fantastiques
Lacking any real romantic possibilities, Gidlow threw her energies into her poetry and journalism. She was active in an association called the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA). This was a major American association that allowed young journalists and poets to publish their works. In spite of its name, a great deal of their work published was as good or better than what was in the newspapers. Amateur journalism functioned as the paper equivalent of the blogosphere in the 1910s, and the UAPAA was one the two biggest players in this business.
The group was divided, though. A schism in 1912 over a disputed election meant that the UAPAA had two presidents, each recognized by half the organization. For the 1917-1918 year, Gidlow was the president for her faction, and may have hosted a UAPAA convention at Montreal. The president of the rival faction was none other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who would go on to be one of the world’s most influential horror writers.
Not surprisingly, Lovecraft loathed Gidlow. Details of the power struggle between them are vague. But after Gidlow, Mills, and a few of their friends collaborated on a literary journal, Lovecraft launched a nasty, homophobic attack on Gidlow likely as an extension of their rivalry.
This journal was originally called Coal from Hades, but later renamed Les Mouches Fantastiques (Fantastic Flies). Les Mouches Fantastiques was part literary collection, part bohemian manifesto attacking the middle class.
And a large component of both the poetry and the politics was an argument for the acceptance of homosexuals. In fact, there was so much queer content in it, that could be counted as the country’s first gay journal, five decades before the magazines that usually get that title. In Gidlow’s words:
Besides our poetry, [Mills] contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on ‘the intermediate sex,’ and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women.
Les Mouches was never widely available. Its creators mimeographed a hundred copies, and sent it out to friends and organizations like the UAPAA.
Lovecraft shot back. He described Les Mouches in his own publication The Conservative as “artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory.” Gidlow wrote a review of Lovecraft in return in American Amateur, describing him as “Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand.” Lovecraft answered that “Perhaps Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follow her own example, and perpetuate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.”
(“Morbid” at the time still could mean “degenerate,” and Lovecraft was probably referring to the homosexuality in Les Mouches.)
The whole affair left a bad taste in Elsa’s mouth. She confessed in 1920 to be haunted by “the indignant ghosts” of her time in the UAPAA, and by the “the wraiths of the abused Les Mouches Fantastiques.” She does not even mention her presidency or the UAPAA her autobiography. Still, she continued to contribute to UAPPA journals, and in 1927 published “Phoebus to Narcissus” – a poem deeply infused with male homoeroticism – in a UAPAA magazine called The Vagrant.
Gidlow began to think about leaving Montreal. She considered leaving for New York, where she would have more possibilities to publish as a poet. She also hoped she would be able to meet lesbians there. As strange as it may seem to someone on our side of the same-sex marriage debate, Canada was then seen as hopelessly Victorian, while the United States was imagined as a place of freedom for the marginalized.
Thus in 1920, she packed and left Montreal, returning to Canada only for occasional visits to her family, and to a retreat on Hay Island in Quebec.
Later Life and Legacy
Most short biographies of Gidlow focus on her life after Canada. Some do not even mention her childhood or her accomplishments here. Since the rest of her life is easier to track, I’ll only touch on it in slight detail.
Gidlow spent six years in New York. Mills came to join her there. She found some lesbians there, though not quite the community she was looking for. She met a woman named Muriel, but their relationship didn’t last.
Then Tommy Henry-Anderson came to New York. After she’d broken up with Mona Shelley, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became a couple, and lived as wives until Henry-Anderson’s death of lung cancer in 1935, at the age of fifty-one. They moved to San Francisco together, and were always together except during Gidlow’s visits to Montreal, and a year she spent in France, Germany, and Britain.
Even in a relationship, Gidlow never stopped looking for “her kind.” She was invited to Germany by Roswell Mills, who was living there with a boyfriend. There, she encountered Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1897 founded the first organization to advocate for rights for the “third sex” – a category that included homosexuals, trans individuals, and intersexed people. She found Hirschfeld’s views on sexuality to be too coldly rational.
She was equally dissatisfied with meeting Radcliffe Hall, author of the first lesbian novel in English, The Well of Loneliness. Gidlow found Hall to be snobbish and condescending, and too in love with fine jewellery.
After Henry-Anderson’s death, Gidlow bought a parcel of land outside of San Francisco that she called Madrona. She lived there with her partner of the time, Isabel Quallo. The two of them traded up to a larger and more remote piece of land she named Druid Heights.
In 1960s, Druid Heights became a place of pilgrimage for artists, people interested in Taoism and Neo-Paganism, and for young lesbians who now regarded Gidlow as a kind of elder – a role she wasn’t always comfortable with. She lived at Druid Heights until her death in 1986.
She never stopped writing poetry. Editors urged her to write a novel, which would be more profitable. She did, but never enjoyed prose. She made her living mostly through freelance journalism, and some editorial work.
She continued to publish her poetry as well. Her first collection of poetry was On a Grey Thread, which came out in while she was in New York in 1923. She was still publishing at the end of her life – her last volume of poetry came out in 1982, and included recent work.
Gidlow was at the forefront of much what came to be thought of as lesbian culture in the 1970s. She was interested in goddess worship since her vision at the age of six in Tétreaultville, and later developed an interest in Guan Yin or Kannon, the Merciful Goddess of Buddhism and Taoism. This was later supplanted or supplemented by Wicca and Neo-Druidic concepts of the earth as Mother Goddess. She was anti-war as far back as World War I, and interested and supportive of trade unions in the days when “union” was still a dirty word. She was an anarchist, anti-capitalist, and egalitarian.
And Druid Heights was an early experiment in communal living, as well as a point of ferment for artistic and intellectual creativity. It drew feminists as diverse as Catharine MacKinnon and Margo St. James, spiritual leaders from American Taoist Alan Watts to Irish Neo-Druid Ella Young, and musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Neil Young.
And naturally, it also drew lesbians and gay men. Young women came to find out what it was like to be a lesbian before the age of Gay Liberation. Major figures in the movement for lesbian equality – people like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – were in her circle of friends as well. Gidlow no longer needed to wander the world to find “her kind.” She’d created a place where they could come to her.
Gidlow thought of herself before anything else as a poet. So in closing, we’ll leave Gidlow with part of a poem she wrote when she was nineteen, and still was still in Montreal, “To The Unknown Goddess”:
There is pain here, and tears,
Bitter, terrible tears;
But the joys have warm mouths, and madness
Dances downward with the years.
Come to me at the top of the world,
O Mine. The valley is deep.
The valley is overfull of the dying
And those who sleep.
But here Heaven’s winds blow
And the pines sing one song:
Come to me at the top of the world,
Come soon. I have waited too long.
In my next entry, we’ll be turning to Roswell George Mills, and the community he was at the centre of.
Sources: By far my best source is Elsa Gidlow’s own very detailed autobiography, Elsa Gidlow: I Come With My Songs. I also used her final volume of poetry, Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty. A few details were drawn from the website of Les Archives gaies du Quebec, which holds what might be the last surviving copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques. I drew a couple of minor details from Wikipedia and Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History (eds. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon). I perhaps consecrated a little too much space to the battle with Lovecraft. However, I’d never seen it mentioned anywhere else – even Gidlow doesn’t include it in her autobiography – and it amused me because in spite of his views, I have a soft spot for Lovecraft’s stories. It’s also intriguing because even during his own lifetime, Lovecraft was often seen as gay – to the point where his friends have had to defend his heterosexuality by trotting out a quote from his ex-wife that during their brief, unhappy marriage, he was “adequately excellent” in bed. Anyone “defending” Lovecraft from “charges” of homosexuality have also used another quote, in which Lovecraft says he knew about homosexuality among the “ancient nations,” but hadn’t realized homosexuality still existed until he was more than thirty. Since he writes with revulsion about homosexuality and Oscar Wilde here at the age of 27, this is clearly not true. The details of her battle with Lovecraft come from the April 2007 issue of The Fossil, a publication devoted to the history of amateur journalism, and from H. P. Lovecraft’s own Collected Essays, Volume 1: Amateur Journalism