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

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.


[The descriptive material for this publication was organized in a different order when it originally appeared.]

Emma Donoghue writes incredibly fact-dense books drawn from impressively deep research into English historic lesbian culture. Her Passions Between Women is high on my list to cover in this project, and the only reason Inseparable is being included first is that I wanted to process several recent acquisitions before shelving them. This book is a must for those writers of lesbian fiction who want to understand their own stories in the context of literary tradition (or who simply want to know what the default tropes are to try to write something different). Donoghue covers material well into the present day, making connections with the sex general plot-types she identifies. I haven't read the entire book yet as of writing this, so it will be interesting to see if it touches on a different plot-type that has only recently become possible: one where desire between women is present, unmarked, and entirely a neutral background for the story.

If I may be a little self-serving for a moment (hey, it's my blog), it's interesting to position my own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, with respect to these six plot-types. Travesties: there is a very slight touch on this motif, where Barbara's work-related cross-dressing introduces speculation on her desires. Inseparables: definitely a strong thread, quickly resolved in the beginning of the book, but they raised in an entirely different context toward the end. No element of Rivals, Monsters, or Detection at all. I'm not so certain that it touches on Out. The characters' lives are definitely changed, but the realization that they love each other is an extremely minor element. For Margerit, realizing that she loves Barbara strengthens the changes she's already made in her life, giving her an additional reason to resist marriage in pursuit of her intellectual interests. And Barbara's realization came before the start of the book, so the motif doesn't apply to her. Looking at my second (forthcoming) book, The Mystic Marriage, none of them truly apply. Jeanne worries a little that she may be participating in Monsters, but that's not how the romance is framed. Antuniet's life is changed by opening her heart to love in general, but her openness to friendship is as important as romantic love is -- perhaps even more so.

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