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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48b - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 2

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 2: Inseparables

As I read through Donoghue's six "plot types", it's interesting to see how items 2-5 shade into each other. When the Inseperable pair are disrupted by the intrusion of a man, he becomes a Rival of the woman who is not the focus of his interest. If the context of the story shifts from the beauty and naturalness of female friendship to obligatory heterosexuality, then the odd woman out is framed as a Monster who is trying to interfere with the inevitability of the heterosexual resolution. If this conflict is covert rather than overt and shades to the even more monstrous, then it is revealed by Detection.

While all of the plot-types are found across a wide time period, there is a tendency for the dominant type to follow this progression over time as popular attitudes toward lesbian behavior became pathologized and medicalized. Regardless of women's actual behaviors and feelings during the various eras, literature reflected the interpretations made possible, or even necessary, by popular understanding. Until the popular understanding of female romantic friendship came to include the possibility of sexual activity, there was no context for viewing them as the pathological relationships required by Monsters and Detection. Conversely, with the erosion of social stigma, those two plot-types begin to lose their logic, except as a pathology of human interactions in general, possible within any type of relationship (romantic or not). That is, the become less viable as specifically lesbian tropes and fade into the general palette of possible human plot devices.

* * *

Chapter 2: Inseparables

Even in female bridegroom plots it is the feminine-coded attributes of the disguised woman that are found attractive. Much of the Renaissance debate about the nature of desire focused on an attraction of similar beings, not of opposites. [Note: this concept has a rather different flavor when applied to things like class and race.] The Inseparables motif focuses on the strength of the bond of similarity and especially of same-sex couples. The earliest example of this motif may be the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. The Inseparable motif is strongly tied up with sentimental notions of the primacy of emotional connections and the purity of female friendship. It tended to downplay or deny sexual love, though not necessarily physical affection. The motif is expressed through a desire to maintain a close emotional and physical bond and the conflict comes through the forces that try to separate the women or to come between them emotionally.

In Shakespeare's As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia run away together rather than be parted and male intrusion into their bond is resolved only by a "convenient brother" enabling them to remain in parallel marriages together. A similar bond is found in Monsieur d'Olive and Two Noble Kinsmen, though in both one girl is dead and it is in mourning her that the force of the love is felt. In Love and Honor one girl offers herself as sacrifice to save the other driven by the force of their bond. Another variant, appearing as early as the medieval romance Yvain, has a mistress and maidservant as devoted couple, as in the 18th century, plays The Deserving Favorite, Antiochus the Great, The History of Rasselas, The Pilgrim. This version can sometimes blur the boundary between the loyalty and support expected of a servant and a more two-way sentimental bond. Elements of desire are often clearest when running counter to the class differential.

Rousseau's novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise revolves around the bond between Julie and Claire, though that bond is often used in service to the women's marriages, and one underlying theme is that the men in their lives did not feel threatened by women’s emotional bonds.

Some 19th century stories such as Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? Use marriage to a brother as a means of enabling the women to share a household. But the core material of this chapter involves the threat of separation. Despite the focus on similarity, the women's roles are often asymmetrical with one playing a more protective, self-sacrificing part. A popular motif involved one of the women being "fallen" and the other her protector and redeemer, as in the novels Joanna Traill, Spinster , Aurora Leigh, The Tragedy of Chris, and Alcott’s Work.

Given the tendency for heterosexual resolutions of same-sex desire, one subset of the Inseparables group involves a change of heart by one the women who transfers her primary affection to a man (Longfellow's Kavanagh, The Love of Parson Lord) The female bond may then be destroyed by death or jealousy. In other cases the male intrusion may be dismissed or diminished (Agnes de Castro, Brontë's Shirley) though multiple resolutions may be worked through before the end. Stories that take this turn naturally shade into the next plot-type: Rivals.

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