Old Girls' Club
Looking for lesbian love in all the wrong places.
You could be forgiven for drawing certain conclusions about sexual relations from the work of Shirley Jackson. Something about the malevolence of men, the witchy insularity of women, and the powerful bonds between girls that sometimes border on incestuous. There are the sisters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one who sings rhymes about killing everyone, and one who is drawn away by a sudden male presence (with firey consequences). There is Theodora in The Haunting of Hill House, who goes by Theo, has a row with her female "roommate," smashes her copy of Alfred de Musset (Musset being the author of the lesbian erotica Gamiani, or Two Nights of Excess), and sexually teases the submissive Eleanor. The male characters often shimmer with malevolence, destroying peaceful homes or destroying women for sport, like Jamie, the man who suddenly disappears the morning of his wedding day in "The Daemon Lover." It's striking while reading one Jackson tale after another in the new Library of America edition of her work — the women are tightly wound around each other, and the men, if anything, only show up to ruin everything.
- Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue. 288 pages. Knopf. $27.95.
And yet maybe it's not forgivable, for when critic and literary scholar Jeanette Foster pointed out the lesbian themes in yet another one of Jackson's works — the long out of print Hangsaman — Jackson furiously wrote, "Damnit, it is about what I say it is about." That is, malignant forces, not lesbian longing. Jackson herself was married to the (male) literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. For the most part, Jackson's themes are more about confinement and protection from the outside: from the villagers, from mothers, from strange men wearing blue suits, from the supernatural. Women, sisters, and families join together to keep the others out, and sometimes that warps itself a little into the tight bond between sisters Merricat and Connie; or the sad, confused sexuality of a spinster kept locked inside by a sick mother; or the torments of a college girl PTSD'ed out of her head.
Was Foster, as a queer theorist, reading too much into Jackson's women, letting her agenda color her results? Despite my lifelong devotion to her books and stories, I never combed through Jackson's work in search of secret sapphic desire. I aligned with her psychopathic desires instead: People are awful, so can I just kill them? But after reading Emma Donoghue's Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, I went back to Jackson's books and found girl-girl devotion all over the page. "How in the world did I miss that?" I wondered. ''Because what you look for affects what you find,'' I remembered.
Donoghue went looking, too. As she recounts in her introduction, "I remained a greedy reader, and when I found myself falling for a girl, at 14, I began seeking out stories of desire between women." Inseparable is the result of her decades-long search. I was afraid the book would be reminiscent of oh so many women's studies classes, teasing out hidden or nonexistent lesbian themes from classic works, inspecting the orphanage scenes of Jane Eyre to determine whether young Jane and Helen crossed over from friends to something more. Or like Foster's projections onto Jackson. Donoghue's book is instead more joyful and more wide-ranging. It's a romp through centuries of dirty lesbian love, from Ovid to de Musset, from Louisa May Alcott to 20th century pulp novels. Horrible stereotypes of corrupting older women seducing young innocents and the lesbian as primitive do abound, as does that ever so popular way of dealing with a character with a deviant sense of morality: the tragic death. But it's a much more lively and open history than you might imagine.
The book begins with Ovid. In the myth of Iphis and Ianthe, a young girl is raised as the boy Iphis to protect her from infanticide. Iphis is arranged to be married to Ianthe, who Iphis loves deeply. Terrified of the wedding night reveal, she prays to the goddess Io until her wish is granted and she morphs into a boy on the wedding day. The tale has been retold again and again through the centuries, with women dressed as men and men dressed as women. Often times it ends badly. But sometimes, surprisingly (given the times), it ends happily enough. An anonymous French author in the 13th century rewrote the poem as Ide and Olive, and left them married, as women, happily ever after. "With you I will use my time and passe my destiny since it is thus, for I see that it is the pleasure of our Lord God." In a later retelling, the two women are to be burned at the stake, only to be saved by the divine intervention of the Christian god himself.
For a history of lesbian literature, where you expect misery you find a lot of merriment; where you expect secrets and codes from deep within the closet, you get openness. Much of the work Donoghue outlines is out of print or obscure, certainly more obscure than the "tragic" segment of gay and lesbian literature we know so well: Henry James's The Bostonians, various works by Balzac. Like Emma Bovery, Anna Karenina, or The Awakening's Edna Pontellier, the characters of these works want the wrong thing and so their stories must end with a walk into the waves. Compare that to the 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier, whose protagonist dresses as a man, seduces both members of a heterosexual couple, and declares:
My dream, a chimera, would be to have both sexes in turn, to satisfy this dual nature. Man today, woman tomorrow, I should reserve for my lovers my loving tenderness, my submissive and devoted attentions, my softest caresses, my sad little sighs, everything which belongs to my feline, feminine nature. Then with my mistresses I should be enterprising, bold, passionate, dominant, with my hat pulled down over my ear, with the demeanor of a captain and an adventurer.
Mlle. Maupin sounds perfectly modern, even today.
It's not all fun, though. Less courageous writers killed off lovers to please the morality of the times, and others wrote blindly nasty things about weak-minded women who just needed to be conquered by a real man. For much of the late 19th and early 20th century, writers were too afraid of prosecution or ostracism to be bold, so novelists like W. Somerset Maugham and memoirists like Margaret Anderson disguised lovers as friends and gay relationships as straight. Other fragile minds often tried to disguise the lesbian lovers of yore. Marie-Phillippe Coupin de la Couperie rewrote a caption of an engraving that illustrated a work of Sappho's, claiming the image of a naked Sappho lounging in bed in the arms of her equally naked lover, was "Sappho in the arms of the goddess Venus, dreaming of her ideal husband." Sappho is the perfect example of how an artist's work can suffer when her subject matter is uncomfortable. Editors and poets were forever changing her pronouns, editing out lines, and destroying copies of her poems. We are lucky enough that some of her work still survives. That it does is remarkable, and is due to the fact that the subject matter of her poetry is universal: If you've ever loved anyone of either sex, the desire, intoxication, and desperation are so thick you want to cut out your still beating heart just to make the pain stop. Beauty like that transfers.
Donoghue tells a fluid history of literature that spans every genre, every era, every age. It's a corrective to the often dreary Gay/Lesbian section of your local chain bookstore, with its Rita Mae Brown, some tragic lesbian tales, and a handful of poorly written coming of age memoirs. Rather than writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, Patricia Highsmith, and hell, Ovid, who were telling nuanced tales of sexuality and love in its various forms. Today we have great gay and lesbian writers like Sarah Waters, (the early) Jeanette Winterson, Scott Heim, Alan Hollinghurst, and even Donoghue — who also wrote the fabulous The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. We may root around, trying to find secret lesbianism in the works of writers like Shirley Jackson, pissing off their ghosts in the process, but literary history has been neglected due to rigid definitions of what is "gay" and what is "universal." Readers have been directed to the books that reflect their own sexual orientation. But love is love, adventure is adventure, sex is sex. No matter who it is you're having it with. • 8 July 2010
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.