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In praise of our universal femininity: the forgotten writings of Rose Allatini

Imagine a world where every person embraces their femininity. It is a world where gender non-conformity is celebrated as civilised and enlightened; where queer people are free to love whomever they choose; and, through a rejection of the masculine ‘war-instinct’, perhaps even a world without conflict. This is the world that Austrian-British author Rose Allatini called for in her 1918 novel Despised and Rejected: a radical work of fiction that was banned by the British government.

Allatini was born in Vienna, in 1890, to a Polish mother and an Italian father. She was brought up in England and began her writing career in 1914. Over the course of the next six decades, she is known to have written over thirty novels under a variety of pseudonyms.  In 1921, she married the composer Cyril Scott, with whom she shared an interest in the occult. In 1941, the pair separated and Allatini moved in with a woman named Melanie Mills. It is in these years, until her death in 1980, that Allatini produced the majority of her work, under the name of Eunice Buckley. 

Despised and Rejected begins as a light social comedy, centred on the image-conscious Blackwood family. However, following the outbreak of the First World War, the novel’s focus shifts to the artistic, sensitive Dennis Blackwood and the ardent socialist Alan. The novel depicts their romance, their decision to object to military conscription, and the devastating consequences that follow. Almost immediately after its publication, Despised and Rejected was banned under the Defence of the Realm Act, and its publisher, C.W. Daniel, was prosecuted. It was not the novel’s queer content that was the primary reason for the ban, although this was certainly controversial. Rather, the book was banned for its emotive pacifist arguments, or, as the charge was officially worded: ‘making statements […] likely to prejudice the recruiting, training and discipline of persons in his Majesty’s forces’.

In the early-twentieth century, it was thought that to be a soldier was a man’s human nature. Conscientious objectors, like Dennis and Alan, posed a challenge to these established ideas of masculinity and were thus deemed effeminate and perverse. Rather than defend the manliness of conscientious objectors, Allatini instead celebrated their perceived gender non-conformity. Throughout the novel, Dennis is depicted as having ‘a woman’s soul in a man’s body’ and it is this femininity that allows him to triumph over his masculine, animal ‘instinct’ for violence.  Dennis’s sensitive and artistic nature, and his abhorrence of war, which contemporaries would consider inferior, are shown to be what makes him enlightened, modern, and moral. 

The 1918 ban of Despised and Rejected had a long afterlife: the remaining copies of the novel, which had not already been sold, were seized and destroyed. It was only in 2018 that the book was re-published. This is thanks to Persephone Books, a small publisher dedicated to rescuing ‘lost’ or out-of-print books by women authors. Reading the novel today, over one hundred years since its first publication, it is clear why the novel caused such controversy: Allatini’s writing remains an impassioned defence of femininity and a radical demand for a more peaceful and accepting world.

Image: themostinept via Flickr

Image is a photograph of a copy of Despised and Rejected, bearing the author’s pseudonym A.T. Fitzroy