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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48c - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 3

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 3: Rivals

Even more than in most of my blog entries, my summaries of Donoghue's chapters give only the barest taste of her examples and analysis. But as she notes in her introduction, her own coverage is itself selective and filtered from the much larger body of relevant literature, although in much of that larger body the lesbian elements may be only fleeting glimpses. She recommends for further reading the anthology The Literature of Lesbianism (2003) anthologized by Terry Castle.

* * *

While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.

Four 18th century novels show this competition in a context where passionate female friends compete with bad-boy rakes. In Clarissa, the male suitor works to separate his target from all her support structures [in a classic abuser scenario] but especially from her friend Anna. And while Anna is willing to risk all to save her friend, Clarissa dithers and escapes only via death. In the Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont, the rake competes with the ugly and lesbian-rumored Mistress Hobart for--if not the heart--at least the confidence of their common interest. Though neither is presented sympathetically, the story pits male privilege against female access. A trio, rather than a pair, of close female friends are the target of a purely malicious breaking-up in an incident recounted in Dangerous Liaisons. Ormond: or the Secret Witness returns to the more sentimental approach of Clarissa in having the married Sophia leave her husband behind to be reunited with her childhood friend Constantia with the goal of some unspecified triad arrangement. But Constantia's male suitor throws a spoke in the works, resolved by Constantia's deadly self-defense against him.

Not all narratives considered even a complaisant husband to be compatible with passionate friendship. Of the various motivations for women joining the utopian community in A Description of Millenium Hall, one is escape from a husband who jealously prohibits the wife's continued close association with her intimate friend, although this escape is not available until his death. In other novels, The conflict occurs before marriage, as in The Rebel of the Family and The Bostonians, both of which pit a "liberated" politically-active woman against the attractions of conventional marriage though, in both, convention wins. Not so in Diana Victrix, as the title implies, where the two women, after a couple of uncertain moments, settle into permanent couplehood.

In several early 20th century works, it is the economic and residential uncertainty that allows a man the point of attack in the friendship he hopes to disrupt. In others, the acquisition of a home together symbolizes the women's relationship. But now we have entered the era when women's close friendships were sexually suspect, and literary standards required tragic or clearly heterosexual resolution. And with that turn, the distinction between this motif and the next (the Monster) becomes difficult to discern.

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