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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48a - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 1

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 2010. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 978-0-307-27094-8

Publication summary: 

Donoghue looks at the theme of desire between women in English literature (including in translation). As a study, as opposed to an anthology, rather than organizing the book chronologically she has group the discussion thematically according to six general plot motifs. She summarizes them as:

* Travesties: Cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the “accident” of same-sex desire.

* Inseparables: Two passionate friends defy the forces trying to part them.

* Rivals: A man and a woman compete for a woman’s heart.

* Monsters: A wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one.

* Detection: The discovery of a crime turns out to be the discovery of same-sex desire.

* Out: A woman’s life is changed by the realization that she loves her own sex.

[Note that none of these plot-types allow for a story where the women’s desire for each other is simply a given and is background to an entirely unrelated plot. But part of this is Donoghue’s own selection criteria: that the attraction between the women must be undeniable, must represent more than a fleeting incident, and must have consequences for the story.]

The texts cover a wide timespan (including biblical and classical translations, medieval stories, and on through modern times, though I’ll only be specifically noting the pre-20th century material). There is no clear progression of how the desire is treated, with some of the earlier material being openly erotic. One is struck by how regularly and pervasively the motif of desire between women has appeared in literature – its presence being overlooked not only due to the ways it is downplayed in the texts themselves but by the way critics and scholars have approached it (or declined to approach it). All too often there is plausible deniability, whereby the motif can be explained away or framed as non-erotic friendship. [Indeed, the techniques Donoghue discusses as being used to avoid identifying lesbian themes sound awfully similar to Johanna Russ’s “how to suppress women’s writing” – it’s there but it’s not important; it’s there but it’s really about something else.] The existence of a coherent genre of women’s same-sex desire is erased by artificial distinctions: the presence or absence of gender-transgression, the presence or absence of genital sex, comedy versus tragedy. Donoghue avoids this fracturing by focusing specifically on plot-type regardless of other factors.

I will largely be summarizing the catalog of items in each category, rather than discussing the analysis in detail, which does a disservice to the complexity of the stories and to the connections Donoghue makes between them. Anyone who wants a grounding in this history and development of lesbian motifs in English-language literature needs to get her hands on this book and read it in detail.


Chapter 1: Travesties

* * *

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction. This potential for desire between women was given greater cultural leniency than the parallel case resulting in male-male attraction would have been.

As a brief survey of the types of literature where this motif occurs, we have:

* 10th c. saints life of Saint Eugenia who disguised herself as a man and attracts the romantic attention of a woman she heals.

* Sienese comedy (1537 Gl’Ingannati with a motif similar to Shakespeare’s 12th Night.

* Ovid’s Metamorphoses (original ca. 8 C.E., appearing in translation in the Renaissance) in the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis, raised as a boy, falls in mutual love with Ianthe, which is resolved by a magical sex-change. (Also noted a 1634 French dramatic version by Isaac de Benserade.)

* Medieval romances echoing the Iphis & Ianthe story, such as Ide and Olive (and its later dramatic version Miracle de la fille d’un roy), Roman de Silence, Roman de Cassidorus, and Tristan de Nanteuil.

* In John Lyly’s 1583 play Gallathea both protagonists cross-dress and not only fall in love with each other but attract the desire of Diana’s nymphs, though Cupid’s mischief is blamed for all.

Accidental same-sex desire due to cross-dressing in Shakespeare appears both in the aforementioned 12th Night as well as As You Like It. In the French romance Amadis de Gaule and later treatments such as the Spanish Amadis de Gaula a cross-dressing female knight longs to be able to fulfill her mutual desire with the lady whose interest she attracts. But she assuages the lady’s embarrassment at learning the truth by assuring her that she is worthy of love and is loved, at which the lady declares her love in return -- though the implication is that it is platonic on both sides.

One variant of these “female bridegroom” stories resolves the apparent gender problem by substituting a “convenient brother” to whom the beloved is married. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a type case, when Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the Amazon warrior Bradamante and, despite being uncertain how to proceed, continues to declare her love after learning Bradamante’s sex. Bradamante’s brother initiates the deception, disguising himself as Bradamante to get Fiordispina in bed. In the play Gl’Ingannati (1537) it is the sister who arranges the substitution, with rather less deception involved.

In a number of Jacobean dramas with a female bridegroom, the woman’s true sex is hidden even from the audience until the courtship is well advanced, giving them an investment in the sincerity of the love portrayed. In a different thematic group, a love triangle is involved where the inter-female wooing is done either at the behest of, or as revenge on, a man the both women desire. (Examples include Matrimonial Trouble, The Wife, Judge, and Accuser, The Doubtful Heir.) And the denouement may include the women prefering each other to him, as in the tragic Brennoralt. Donoghue also notes The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, for which see other entries on this text.

The female bridegroom narratives must also be set in context with a parallel motif prevalent during the same eras of a man disguised as a woman to woo and obtain favors from the object of his desire. As the unmasking of the man frequently occurs well after the advances are reciprocated, these stories, though heterosexual in their embodiment, support the believability and acceptability (at least in fiction) of desire between women. Ovid’s myth of Jove disguising himself as Diana to seduce her nymph Callisto only works because Callisto is willing (indeed, eager) to be seduced by Diana. In an interesting turnabout on women’s use of “devices” to provide sexual plausibility when passing as men, the 1170 story Alda has a disguised man pass off his own equipment as being “purchased in the marketplace” to maintain his female disguise in bed. A later adaptation of the same story as Floris et Lyriope removes the bawdy elements but shows the process of a woman’s acceptance of her love for another woman.

Similar motifs occur in the early 17th c. Ornatus and Artesia and L’Astrée, in the latter case with the disguised man living as a woman for an extended period of time to be close to the oblivious object of his affection. Oblivious of his true sex, that is -- quite aware of the affection and returning it so eagerly that when he finally reveals the truth, she rejects him as a man. Another example of the “male amazon” motif comes from Sidney’s Arcadia in the figures of Philoclea and her suitor disguised as the Amazon Zelmane. After going through a great deal of angst about loving a woman, Philoclea accepts her fate, but even after her suitor reveals himself she won’t recant the truth of her loving a woman. Other instances of the general type include The Loyal Subject (1618), The Convent of Pleasure (1668). Somewhat curiously to the modern mind, these men-disguised-as-women were not being played for laughs or ridicule.

By the 19th century, the “female bridegroom” motif began to be considered less acceptable. Le Bal d’Auteuil (1702) was banned for containing it, and in other works it was either softened into romantic friendship or undermined it by requiring the death of one of the women, as in several late 19th century stories (Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman”, Blake’s Fettered for Live, Blomfield’s “The Reputation of Mademoiselle Claude”). An exception -- though one that set itself clearly outside the morality of the times -- was Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin in which the bisexual heroine cheerfully makes love to both members of the viewpoint couple then heads off boldly for more adventures.

[It's interesting to note that the arguments against viewing "female bridegroom" stories as inherently lesbian -- i.e., that the woman is only falling in love with the appearance of a man -- cannot simultaneously explain away the "male amazon" stories where it is precisely the appearance of a woman that provokes desire. It's tendentious to claim that the woman is always actually desiring a man in these scenarios, by the sleight of hand of focusing on superficial presentation or underlying bodies as necessary for the presupposed conclusion. Even more refreshing are the stories where the same-sex nature of the desire survives unmasking: whether by a continuation/transfer of desire for the "female bridegroom" to the revealed woman, or by persistence of the desire for the female illusion after the exposure of a "male amazon".]

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