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Full citation: 

Medd, Jodie (ed). 2015. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Contents summary: 

The collection opens with a select chronology of works that fall within the concept of “lesbian literature” as addressed in this book. About 6 pages cover everything up to the 20th century, then 10 pages cover the 20th and 21st centuries. [Note: The pre-20th century material does not include any works that haven’t been previously noted in some fashion in the Project.]

“Lesbian Literature?: An Introduction” by Jodie Medd

Medd discusses the problems of how to define and categorize the topic of this collection. There is a consideration of the place of reading and literature in the evolution of self-conscious “lesbian identity” and the distinct contributions of the activities of reading, writing, and critiquing.

Part I: In Theory/In Debate: Connections, Comparisons, and Contestations

1. “The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality” by Carla Freccero

Discusses issues of terminology and the shifting meanings of words associated with lesbianism. Freccero has addressed issues of “temporality” (i.e., the relationship of historic time to queer identities) in the collection The Lesbian Premodern [], but I think I can repeat my comment on that article: “This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.”

2. “Debating Definitions: The Lesbian in Feminist Studies and Queer Studies” by Annamarie Jagose

Talks about the sense of awkward unease that many scholars have around treating the concept of the lesbian either within a feminist or a queer framework. Primarily a discussion of theoretical frameworks and the slipperiness of defining “lesbian” as a category. This article is reminiscent of a number of discussions in The Lesbian Premodern although Jagose did not contribute to that volume. There’s a wide-ranging review of significant theoretical works addressing this topic.

3. “Experience, Difference, and Power” by Sandra K. Soto

Raises questions of marginalization and intersectionality, largely generally within society rather than focused specifically on the study of lesbian literature.

4. “Global Desires, Postcolonial Critique: Queer Women in Nation, Migration, and Diaspora” by Shamira A. Meghani

Discusses issues relating to love between women in non-dominant world cultures, how these themes have been treated both internally and externally (i.e., by dominant cultures), the ways in which western concepts and definitions of lesbianism shape the discourse in other cultures.

Part II: In the Past: Reading the Literary Archive

Note: The four articles in this section are blogged individually.

Part III: On the Page: Modern Genres

9. “Modern Times, Modernist Writing, Modern Sexualities” by Madelyn Detloff

Maps out an understanding of English-language “modernism” in the 20th century up through WWII. Considers the themes of personal independence, outsider/expatriate perspectives, the rise of sexological and psychological frameworks.

10. “Popular Genres and Lesbian (Sub)Cultures: From Pulp to Crime, and Beyond” by Kaye Mitchell

A consideration of several iconic literary genres relevant to lesbian literature in the 20th century, including detective fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, the “pulp novels” of the 1930s to 1950s, and mainstream literary novels moving into the 21st century. [Note: I don’t see any reference to the rise of the lesbian small presses, despite the fact that the discussion of detective fiction largely mentions books published by them.]

11. “Lesbian Autobiography and Memoir” by Monica B. Pearl

Discusses works that—in some cases tangentially—can be understood or at least suspected of expressing the author’s own same-sex desires. The discussion includes poetry (Sappho, Dickenson), private correspondence, and literary memoir (Alice B. Toklans), as well as works in which known same-sex relationships were used as a basis for “autobiography in disguise” where the gender or relationships of the participants may be altered.

12. “Lesbianism-Poetry//Poetry-Lesbianism” by Amy Sara Carroll

A discussion of lesbian themes in poetry, focusing solely on 20th century work.

13. “Contemporary Lesbian Fiction: Into the Twenty-First Century” by Emma Parker

A consideration of lesbian literature in an era when it can be written and published as “mainstream literature.” The discomfort some writers have with categorization and labeling, in some cases particularly with “lesbian” as a label. A perception that self-identified “lesbian literature” has diversity issues and presents a false image of a unified community consciousness. The shift from “coming out” novels to works that take the characters’ identities for granted. Issues of motivation and representation in lesbian historical fiction. [Note: As in other articles in this collection, the author seems to be either unaware of, or disinterested in, historical fiction outside of “literary” works.]

14. “Comics, Graphic Narratives, and Lesbian Lives” by Heike Bauer

A survey of graphic stories (in the “stories told in pictures” sense, not the sexual sense) and the place of graphic stories within literary theory. Includes both classic works by artists like Bechdel and DiMassa as well as queer representation in “superhero” comics.

Appendix: A Guide to Further Reading

Several select reading lists for further exploration, including one page focusing on literature and cultural history before 1850. [Note: There are even 3 titles there that aren’t in my database yet!]

Contents summary: 

Identifying female same-sex love in the middle ages poses challenges in part because it goes against the prevailing stereotype of the era as reactionary and misogynistic. But in some ways, the forms female same-sex love takes in the middle ages poses a challenge to contemporary models in categories of desire.

The sexual fault lines in the middle ages were not defined by heterosexuality but by permitted and prohibited acts that considered procreation the only license for sex (prohibiting many types of male-female acts) and by a valorization of virginity over any sexual activity. Thus the sliding scale of acceptable sexual acts was distinctly different from a heterosexual-homosexual binary.

All this meant that female same-sex desire, as such, was not evaluated simplistically in terms of sex. Female friendship or female communities and passionate love between women could all – in certain contexts – be considered not only licensed, but idealized.

Against this, the question of whether, and to what extent, such relationships might also sexual is difficult to evaluate, given the relative scarcity of texts authored by women, and the general scarcity of candid autobiographical texts.

One must triangulate among women’s expressions of same-sex love, contextual opportunities of the type Judith Bennett labels “lesbian-like,” and authoritative condemnations of sexual activity between women. Relevant genres include penitential manuals inclusive of sex between women, often framed as gender transgression (“acting like a man”). Expressions of passionate friendship may strike the modern reader as erotic in tone, even when there is no explicit mention of erotic activity, the sun may include references to kissing and caresses that cross the line.

A small number of literary tales address female same-sex love either directly, as in various adaptations of Iphis and Ianthe, or more obliquely as in the same-sex bonding at the conclusion of Eliduc.

The genre of cross-dressing saints provides a number of framings of female-female encounters, though primarily of the inadvertent variety. Also, in a religious context, some interpret female devotion to the “wound of Christ” as having homoerotic implications (wound = vulva).

Martial women – either in real life, or represented by the mythical Amazons – also provided a context for gender transgression, potentially creating a site of female-female desire.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

Contents summary: 

Lanser connects female rule over England in the wake of Henry VIII’s death with the rising debate regarding women’s nature and women’s place in society in the later 16th and 17th centuries. That is, that the undeniable fact of Elizabeth’s lengthy reign forced society to grapple with the concept of the equality of the sexes, while Elizabeth’s relationships with her female courtiers helped sanction the validity of female friendship bonds.

As documented by Valerie Traub, this era saw a significant increase in textual representations of lesbianism or its equivalent. This shift was not confined to England, either in terms of literary motifs or in terms of the growing prominence of female rulers and intellectuals. If Women could have power, independence, and value, they were capable of desiring and being desired by other women.

Male voices begin protesting that women can’t sexually satisfy each other. None of this implies a “golden age” of lesbian expression – only that lesbian possibilities were more openly recognized and expressed for good or ill. That potential becomes a site of conflict and anxiety in a variety of literature.

Lanser explores some selected text in more detail, especially drama and poetry. This chapter provides an excellent shopping list of texts for interested readers to explore in more depth.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

Contents summary: 

Female same-sex desire appears in a wide variety of genres in the “long 18th century” from private letters and journals, to professional literature, to novels, to satire, to porn, to poetry. And reference to lesbianism served a number of purposes that are not always obvious to the modern reader. The most visibly sexual representation tends to be hostile, while positive depictions tend to idealize “chaste female friendship”.

That polarization can obscure the relationship of literary representation to real women’s everyday lives. In a gender segregated society with very different concepts of privacy, opportunities for erotic encounters were many, and could easily go unremarked. Hostility tended to arise when women’s activity is challenged male privilege and expectations.

In contrast, official models of female-female desire tended to be associated with an unnatural state: whether physical, such as the “enlarged clitoris” theory, still prevalent early in the century, or behavioral, such as the increasing image of lesbians as “masculine”, later in the century.

Toward the end of the century, shifts in the acceptability of gender play in masquerades and theatricals parallel an increasing “gender panic” about appropriate roles and behavior. (Some see this crisis gradually developing from as early as the late 17th century.)

Across the 18th century the discourse around female homoeroticism moved from viewing it as having no significance to being significant enough to be threatening. The figure of the “female husband” appears regularly at the intersection of those views. Writing about these symbolic representations of female-female desire and gender transgression sometimes tells us more about the concept of lesbianism in the 18th-century than trying to find real-life lesbians. Real women had a reason to obscure their desires, while public discourse focused overtly on the meaning and consequences of those desires.

The figure of Sappho as a lesbian icon comes to the fore. Language evoking Sappho establishes itself in the general vocabulary of female-female desire, most commonly as “sapphist”, “sapphic”, “sapphism” but also in ambiguous uses of “lesbian” in reference to the poet and her loves.

Public and private discussion of specific women’s sapphic desires took up a full range of presentations from the celebrated “friendship” of Ponsonby and Butler to the whispered accusations against Anne Damer, to the autobiographical records of Anne Lister.

One common theme seen in these commentaries is an attempt to force female couples into a “butch-femme” mould even when the couple themselves emphasized their similarities. However we also see couples that do embrace a gender polarity, as in the writings of Lister.

Outside of overtly satirical or hostile literature, treatments of female homoeroticism in literature are often oblique or coded. This coding may be hostile, as in the depiction of “masculine” women in novels such as Belinda, or may act to blur or conceal erotic elements in favor of sentimental attachment, as in Millenium Hall.

The chapter catalogs a number of iconic and lesser known works with homoerotic themes, and again makes a good shopping list for interested readers.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

Contents summary: 

This chapter begins with a tour through the complex inter-connectedness of lesbian writers in the late 19th century. As a community they were not only aware of each others’ works and themes, but promoted each other, wrote about and to each other, and often loved each other, whether requited or not.

The chapter's discussion focuses (perhaps oddly) on the gothic fascination with death that is so often associated with Victorian sensibility in general. There is a discussion of how lesbian identity in literature of the era is most often elusive "apparitional” to use the term Terry Castle applies – tying this analysis back to the fascination with death.

Overall, this chapter focuses on a narrow range of writers, and on a narrow range of subject matter, and on a thematic exploration of that filtered selection, rather than being a study guide to the full range of “lesbian literature” at the turn of the 20th century.

Since the previous chapter focused on the “long 18th century” and this one picks up only at the very end of the 19th, there is a gap in coverage that, for example, excludes the majority of the French decadent movement, the Parisian Sapphic revival, and any of the Victorian writers who were not fascinated by themes of death.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)