Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 3 – The Apparitional Lesbian
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This chapter opens with the example of Daniel Defoe’s ghost story “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” viewed as a lesbian love story but one in which one party is dead – a literal ghost – thus making the relationship impossible and unreal. The second example – Dennis Diderot’s La Religieuse – involves eroticized persecution of a young woman in a convent. The erotic element is introduced in the midst of physical hazing by the authorities accusing the young woman of “unnatural desires” – something she does not understand until transferred to a different convent where her superior engages in erotic activity with her, becoming obsessed with her. The superior is described in increasingly ghost-like terms as the story progresses, moving in shadows and becoming increasingly mentally deranged, until she dies.
Castle sees a parallel of this process across the scope of lesbian literature. The lesbian figure is “de-realized”, made into a shadowy figure either symbolically or literally. Lesbian passions are introduced only to be obscured and disembodied. The specter of genuine, real-life lesbian love between two real women is neutralized and removed from the stage, either by madness, death, or a heterosexual reclamation. In Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, the “ghost” is the masculine identity of the cross-dressing title character – an identity that is made unstable by her female lover’s desire to consummate their love.
Various poems of the French decadent movement are used to demonstrate motives of insubstantiality and the lesbian as doomed and wandering spirit. This motif of ghostly symbolism intruding into lesbian relationships is traced through a number of early 20th century novels.
[Note: it occurs to me to speculate on how much of Castle’s identification of “ghost” themes in lesbian literature is driven by her earlier specialty in ghost motifs in literature in general.]
Turning the “ghost” motif around, Castle notes that an important feature of ghosts is that they do exist, perhaps insubstantially, but they are visible, they have presence. And they can be difficult to banish.
Sometimes the motif of the ghost reflects the lesbian character’s perception that she has no substantial reality in her lover’s life - no ability to influence the outcome of their lives. This appears in Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
In lesbian “pulp” fiction, the repeating motif of “shadows”, “twilight”, “darkness” marks not only the secretive closeted society the characters moved in, but also carries the negative connotations of secrecy and darkness. A life that exists only in shadows can be nullified by the application of light.
But after the brief excursion into the pulps, Castle considers it necessary to return to “more ambitious and self-conscious literary works” and moves on to the later 20th century.
Having completed a literary tour, Castle returns to the “why” of lesbian ghosting. Patriarchal authority relies on the denial and suppression of love between women. Beginning in the 18th century, cultural upheavals placed traditional social structures under assault, which encouraged anxiety about female independence and the potential for women to be free of men for social, legal, economic, and emotional needs. But the denial of lesbian reality that this generated only served to reinforce the concept of lesbianism in social awareness. (Castle cites Freud on the power of repression to reinforce a concept.)