Monday, 4 February 2019

Clemence Dane’s ‘Regiment of Women’

Clemence Dane, pen name of Winifred Ashton (1887-1965), was a successful screen writer, playwright and novelist. She was famous (infamous?) for her novel ‘Regiment of Women’ which claimed to be a study of lesbian relationships in a school setting. But did you know that she was born in Blackheath and went to Sydenham High School? She also lived in Sydenham from 1913-1919.
After the WWI she took up teaching in a girls school. She took the pseudonym ‘Clemence Dane’ from the church, St Clement Danes on the Strand, London.

‘Regiment of Women’ was published in 1917 and was widely influential in terms of social attitudes. The novel may have inspired Radclyffe Hall to write The Well of Loneliness, but it has since has been criticised for its negative portrayal of lesbian sexuality even though Clemence Dane was almost certainly a lesbian herself.

Clemence Dane

According to Britannia’s Glory: A History of Twentieth Century LesbiansClemence Dane was probably a lesbian who went to great lengths to keep her private life private. Using documentary evidence including Dane’s will, author Diane Hamer suggests that Dane had been in a long-term relationship with Elsie Arnold who lived with her. She also writes that the relationship came to an end and that Dane then became romantically involved with another woman-Olwen Bowen-Davies.

Dane’s other writing credits include the screen play for Anna Karenina for Greta Garbo and A Bill of Divorcement staring Katherine Hepburn.

Her play Enter Sir John was adapted into a film called Murder by Alfred Hitchcock with Sir John Gielgud.

By the time she died in 1965 she had written over 30 plays and 16 novels.

Regiment of Women (Clemence Dane) and The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall) are both available from Lewisham libraries. You might also be interested in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando which presents a different, more positive, presentation of sexuality and gender identities although written about the same time.

Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian.

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