In A Sunless Heart, Edith Johnstone establishes a feverish atmosphere for her novel’s story of emotional and physical hardship and the power of bonds between women. Its first third focuses on Gasparine O’Neill, who shares an intense connection with her sickly twin brother, Gaspar. Living in poverty, the two struggle to live decently until Gaspar dies. Here gritty naturalism gives way to fantasy, as Gasparine is rescued from despair by the brilliant Lotus Grace, a much-admired teacher at the local Ladies’ College. Sexually exploited from the age of twelve by her sister’s fiancé, Lotus cannot love anyone, not even her illegitimate child. Gasparine devotes herself to Lotus, but Lotus finds her final brief happiness with a woman student, Mona Lefcadio, a passionate Trinidadian heiress. Exploring issues of race, sexuality, and class in compelling prose, A Sunless Heart is a startling re-discovery from the late-Victorian era.
The appendices to this Broadview edition provide contemporary documents that illuminate the tension between romantic friendship and lesbian consciousness in the novel and address other debates in which the novel participates: the nature of Creole identity, the education of women, and the dangers of childhood sexual exploitation.