This article is getting a bit “meta” for the blog, since it’s an analysis of themes in modern lesbian historical fiction. But I thought it might be fun to summarize. And besides which, hey, evidence that lesbian historical fiction is considered a topic of serious study! I've run across a couple other articles studying queer historical fiction (and even sent a query email to one of the authors about potentially appearing on the podcast -- alas, unanswered). There are a lot of topics I'd love to see studied around this subject, if only there were interest enough (or time to do it myself).
Herrmann, Anne. 1992. "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction" in Feminist Studies vol. 18 no. 3 609-624.
Herrmann tackles the question of self-knowledge and performance of homosexual identity within the context of cross-dressing tropes in lesbian historical fiction. The performative theory of gender suggests that all gender presentation is artificial, that the state of being “man” or “woman” is an effect, not a cause of gender presentation. But a gender-neutral approach to performative gender overlooks the observation that masquerade itself is perceived as “feminine”. Thus the performance of masculinity has contextual differences depending on whether the body performing it is understood as male or female.
This analysis also touches on the question of “closetedness”, in which knowledge is not the same thing as acknowledgement. Sexual orientation may be an “open secret” without ever being voiced either by the subject or the perceiver.
Gender as performance is most obvious in the context of cross-dressing, when clothing calls into question the ability of the body to signal “true” gender But much of the theorizing on the concept of the closet has focused almost exclusively on male homosexuality, and theories of gender performance destabilize the entire concept of gender identity. So neither approach is well equipped for explaining the popularity of crossdressing plots in lesbian historical fiction. How can an “essentially” lesbian sexuality be presented when one of the women presents a masculine performance? IThe “open secret” of the relationship is a marriage that creates the understanding of erotic possibilities. In this fictional context, lesbian identity is constructed by the existence of the couple: a “butch” (to introduce sexual possibilities) and a “femme” (to reframe the butch’s masculine presentation from “male” to “lesbian”).
At the same time, crossdressing performance introduces the risk, not that the same-sex nature of the relationship will be discovered, but that the role-playing will turn into the realities of heterosexual hierarchies within the context of a ideally egalitarian same-sex couple.
The three books Herrmann chose for this study are Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah (1969), Jeannine Allard’s Légende: The Story of Philippa and Aurélie (1984), and Shelley Smith’s The Pearls (1987). [Note: I’ve read the first two but not the third.] All three deal with the performative aspect of gender roles and the ability of cross-dressing performance to enable two women to live openly as a couple while concealing the lesbian nature of their relationship. All three invoke the theme of a “pastoral retreat” but unlike the mythic image of the Ladies of Llangollen, break the potential illusion of passionlessness by the introduction of a “masculine” participant.
The “reason” for crossdressing in the books varies: as physical protection (Patience and Sarah), as legal protection (Légende), and for the purpose of professional advancement (The Pearls). This is paralleled by a chronological function from the ability to create a lesbian domestic arrangement “under the radar” to the ability to engage in same-sex desire separate from a politicized lesbian feminism. [Note: it isn’t clear whether Herrmann’s “chronology” refers to the settings of the stories or to the dates of composition, as the two attributes are parallel in these three works.]
Although all three books use crossdressing in order to appropriate the appearance of a heterosexual husband-wife pair, they produce different understandings of lesbian identity. All of them center in some way around the question of what “natural” means in terms of gender and sexuality. For the “natural” love between two women to be enabled in these stories, one woman must perform masculinity. But in all three stories, the “butch” is introduced to masculine performance as a “natural” consequence of life circumstances: raised as a substitute “son” in the context of gendered agricultural labor, adopting gendered performance for a preferred career, or accepting role-playing for the purposes of espionage where gender is only one facet of the roles required. All three stories culminate in the discarding of the “masculine” role and a rejection of pseudo-heterosexual coupling in favor of same-sex egalitarianism.
At the same time, the “butch” role is centered not only because she introduces an awareness of sexual potential, but because she symbolizes the deception necessary for the success of the union. The crossdressing character is not a “butch” in the sense of an eroticized public butch-femme subculture, but rather a symbol of that deception. Curiously, in two of the three stories, a gay male figure appears as a “mentor” to initiate the crossdressing character into successful masculine performance.
The article goes into a detailed analysis of each of the three books and how the crossdressing motif is used. In Patience and Sarah, Sarah initially crossdresses only when separated from Patience. An excess of honesty has led to the need to learn to dissemble, which occurs during a “wander year” when she meets the aforementioned gay male character. (Sexuality confidences are exchanged after he interprets Sarah as a sexually desirable adolescent boy.) But the resolution to Patience and Sarah’s relationship negotiations is more about class difference than sexuality, reconstructing the socially questionable butch-femme presentation into an acceptable ideal of desexualized middle-class femininity with complementary but non-hierarchical roles.
Philippa/Philip in Légende crossdresses from an early age for protection against male violence but later for access to a profession as sailor. She is initiated into the life by her late mother’s lover who covers for her change of presentation and helps her enter the male professional world. After a shipwreck, she is rescued by Aurélie. They fall in love and construct a marriage to enable their public relationship. There is a twist in which Philip(pa) muses on how, living as a man, she is now locked out of the social world of women that she longs to inhabit. There is also a subplot about an adopted daughter of the two and her own same-sex romance which provides a counterpoint of an openly same-sex couple with no need for disguise.
The Pearls takes up the genre of detective story, in which two female agents agree to a “cover” as a heterosexual married couple in order to be assigned a prestigious case -- roles that lead to recognizing their mutual attraction. Unlike the couples in the earlier settings, they are quite aware of the possibility of same-sex attraction, but only recognized their own lesbian potential within the framework of the fictitious male-female roles--roles that originally had been intended solely as a road to career advancement. Their experience raises the possibility that any woman can discover same-sex attraction given the right context.