Note: I first heard of Toupie Lowther from the Wimbledon Museum Twitter Feed, which included the photograph postcard above of Toupie Lowther, on Feb. 5, 2021: “We have been researching previously overlooked players in tennis and wanted to share this postcard of May ‘Toupie’ Lowther with you. Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1903 and 1906, Lowther was believed to be the first openly lesbian player in the sport.” 1/2 “Not just a successful tennis player, Lowther was also a keen fencer, motorist and jujitsu player, and held a science degree from the Sorbonne.” 2/2
In the piece below, I reimagine Toupie Lowther as Toupie’s ghost, still alive today, haunted by the possibility that the primary character in the controversial “first lesbian novel,” Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a girl named Stephen, was partially modeled after her. (This is most likely true, though we will never know for sure.) Toupie’s Ghost has plenty to say about Wimbledon as well.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was an overly sentimental novel–half-Victorian/half-Freudian–by a half-talented writer of ambition. Its protagonist is a girl named Stephen based, in part, on my life as a “queer” person. Too bad Virginia Woolf did not write it. I might not be a ghost right now. “Toupie was bitter about the book because she wanted to be known as the only invert” (Una Toubridge) Right. Just what every “queer” person wants.
We cannot touch, be touched. Not lips, but lipless. Arms without flesh. As Achilles said to Odysseus in the afterlife: “I would rather be the lowest slave in life that lord it over all the dead.” And I, Toupie Lowther, would rather be a “queer” person at the dawn of the 20th century than Toupie’s ghost. I drove fast cars and motorbikes, fenced military men before gawking crowds. Made the semifinals at Wimbledon, too. I composed music, setting poems of Tennyson and Oscar Wilde. I helped organize and lead an all-women troupe of ambulance drivers near the front in WWI: but if “you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch the white eyes writhing in his face” (Wilfred Owen). Not even we ghosts could contemplate all that suffering, death.
Hillyard wrote of my tennis: “her potentialities were greater than any other English lady who ever walked on court, but she was unfortunately saddled with a temperament which was so hopelessly unsuitable to lawn tennis.” If I could have focused more, ended the points more quickly, made it all parry and thrust, serve and volley. (Everyone said I would have won an Olympic gold medal in fencing if it had been an Olympic event.) If I had played in the 1970s or 80s before Venus and Serena came along, I might have transformed a legendary trio of Wimbledon champions into a quartet of serve and volley Amazons with multiple Wimbledon titles: Martina Navratilova (9 titles), Billie Jean King (6 titles), Toupie Lowther (4 titles), Margaret Court (3 Titles). What a dinner party that might be. I could ask Amelie “half man” (can you believe Hingis called her that?) Mauresmo to come and bring bottles of wine from her cellar. Maybe Mauresmo would be my model. Way too nervy on court, always seemed to play below her potential. Then one year she won Wimbledon.
One Wimbledon might be enough.
About The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum: This must-see stop for all tennis fans houses a collection of more than 20,000 objects, chronicling the history of lawn tennis and The Championships, Wimbledon. It boasts the largest collection of any tennis museum in the world. My thanks to Sarah Frandsen, Photo Library & Picture Coordinator, for allowing me to use this great photo of Toupie Lowther from their collection.
I am also grateful for Val Brown’s helpful biography of Toupie Lowther, which is the source for some of the information above about Toupie’s fascinating life.
Happy to announce that this blog has been named one of Feedspot’s top tennis blogs, websites & influencers of 2021.