When Valancourt Books first announced it would be reprinting David Storey’s novel Radcliffe, I was intrigued by it for two reasons. Firstly, its title seemed to reference the 18th century gothic novels Ann Radcliffe, of whose work I am particularly fond, and, secondly, the romance at the center of the story is between two men.
My personal library includes few works by queer others and none involving same-sex relationships. That’s an odd omission for any gay man to make and so when I came across Radcliffe I knew I would have to read it. After all, it combines two of my favorite things–gothic motifs and gay sex! What could be more sublime?
With any old novel that centers around same-sex relationships and homosexuality, I often worry how respectively it will treat it subjects. Our current understanding of sexuality has changed, as has our comfort with depictions of same-sex intimacy in media. I fully expected Radcliffe to confirm some of these expectations and in some respects it has. Its understanding of homosexuality, expressed at the end of the novel by the protagonist in a courtroom testimony, is outdated, cringe-worthy, and bordering on homophobic and sexist. Through the the protagonist, Storey describes homosexuality as an artistic love superior, rather than equal, to heterosexuality; that it is an uniquely masculine love that is responsible for law, art, politics, and religion. (Depending on your view of these four domains of society, that might not be counted as a virtue.) It’s an unfortunate scene that is both harmful and unnecessary to the story. However, because it comes up at the end of the story and plays only a small role in the conclusion, I am somewhat willing to overlook it for the sake of the excellent story that precedes it.
Early events in the novel also suffer from it use old gender-related stereotypes often attributed to gay men. The two men, Leonard Radcliffe and Victor Tolson, are opposites of each other. Leonard is affluent and effeminate, while Victor is working class and masculine. This theme is established early in the novel, when the two characters are school children, and unfortunately relies on old stereotypical assumptions about queer men but this is thankfully a minor problem and is ameliorated by how it expands on this theme later in the plot. Their differences, both social and personal, create conflict between the two men, who feel very different about their attraction to each other because of their class status and personal motivations. This is where the gender theme become more relatable. Leonard has the freedom to be more motivated to embrace his sexuality because his femininity makes him stand out, whereas Victor’s masculinity allows him to pass for straight and fit more inconspicuously into heternormative social group. Leonard’s affluence also buffers him against the impact of discrimination and stigma, whereas Victor can easily lose his livelihood and any future opportunities if his sexuality becomes known. Storey never goes too deeply into this theme but it works with the tragic structure of the story.
The romance between Leonard and Victor is fraught with conflict and their sexual tension is often borders on sado-masochistic. Their first sexual encounter is quite sweet, as they share a bed during a cold night. Naturally, their encounters become more sexual as the plot progress and Storey handles these scenes in an compelling manner. Sex isn’t exactly an easy thing to describe in fiction without it coming across as “porny” but Storey’s poetic prose effectively avoids this and enhances the eroticism of these scenes.
The plot focuses mostly on human horror but occasionally strays into a suggestive kind supernatural terror, similar to the ambiguous tone of Shirley Jackson’s stories. While there are no ghosts or monsters, Leonard perception of reality is occasionally distorted in a strange manner that seems to be linked to his family’s decaying ancestral home. It works in a brilliantly unnerving way and is perfectly supported by Storey’s elegant, poetic prose. It also never undermines the human horror, which is consistently effective throughout the novel. To contemporary readers, these plots twists may not be quite as capable of surprising or shocking as they once were but they are genuinely disturbing, provided that you care for the characters and their fates like I did. Storey finds a good balance between the uncanny and the horrific reality of human cruelty. I only wish that he had given the uncanny elements more weight towards the conclusion of the novel, where a more enigmatic ending would have felt more appropriate than the anti-climactic scene in the courtroom.
Radcliffe is a beautifully written and intriguingly told gothic tale about unrequited love. As a gay man, it was hard for me not to find the romantic and erotic elements very compelling. For all of it horrific and beatific merits, Radcliffe is marred by outdated attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation but, while these problems cannot be ignored, they never quite rob the narrative of it power. Despite its shortcomings, I found it a rewarding read and particularly enjoyed the novel’s poetic prose, moody atmosphere, and effective eroticism.