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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48d - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 4

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 4: Monsters

Over the weekend, I finally set up a bibliography-style listing of all the LHMP posts to date on my website, along with the brief "what this is all about" introduction I've been using. Later this week, expect the addition of a much longer discussion of what I am (and am not) trying to do with this project, sparked by some questions on an e-mail list.

Excessive desire always has the potential to turn monstrous: the possessive controlling lover, the stalker, the abuser. What turns the stories covered in this chapter from random examples to trope is the underlying assumption that all lesbian desire is by definition excessive and inappropriate, and that therefore such a desire will be inherently monstrous. This trope flourished even through the pulp novels of the mid 20th century and still pops its ugly head up in popular media on occasion.

* * *

Literary women who love women often lament being "the only one" or consider themselves outside of nature, but in the 18th century this begins being transformed into a sense of monstrousness. Versions of Ovid's myth of Sappho's late-life conversion to heterosexuality begin to presage this shift in the early modern era. Though a straightforward reading of Ovid's tragic ending would be that heterosexuality was the death of her, it began to be framed as a retroactive punishment for her previous love for women. Thus begins a long reign of novels where "the lesbian" is an evil predator on otherwise innocent girls and is punished for her decadent desires with madness, death, or both. This framing denies the egalitarian bond of the inseparables and sees same-sex desire as a one-way assault on a susceptible victim who will be redeemed by the love (or at least sex) of a Real Man.

An emphasis on genital sex was essential to this framing, as in de Sade's Juliette. Whereas de Sade's lesbian is free of conscience, the self-destroying end of the continuum is seen in Diderot's La Religieuse as a somewhat inexplicable turn of mind drives the lesbian aggressor to guilt, madness, and death. Even purely pornographic works such as Gamiani feel the need for a moralizing resolution involving death. In non-pornographic works, the removal of explicit sexual activity could reduce the lesbian monster to an odd and often mannish figure such as Dicken's Miss Wade in Little Dorrit. Somewhat between the extremes are figures like Miss Aldclyffe in Hardy's Desperate Remedies, where the physical interactions are overt but less sensational and the inherent monstrousness of same-sex desire is layered with overtones of power differentials and pseudo-incest. (Her object of desire is the daughter of a man she once loved.) Here the tension between the mores of respectable fiction and love of the sensational topic can be seen in successive revisions of the text.

All-female school environments were ripe settings for lesbian stories such as A Sunless Heart and Regiment of Women. A host of novels (too many to list) provide mental breakdown as the inevitable conclusion of lesbian desire, In others, the destruction is aided by other decadent habits such as drugs or prostitution. In a bridge to the "detection" group, the predatory lesbian may be kept hidden from the reader, and typically from the male" rescuer", with only hints and symptoms acknowledging her presence, as in de Balzac's The Girl with the Golden Eyes. This motif is often aided by the obliviousness of the male point of view character, as in Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife. Stories such as La Prisonniere seem to represent men's paranoia of what women get up to alone together. The ultimate in the monstrous lesbian motif is the introduction of a literal monster, perhaps best symbolized by le Fanu's vampire Carmilla, but more crudely seen in Haggard's Allan's Wife. Ghosts are a popular representation of the power of lesbian obsession, as in Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. The chapter ends with an extensive nod to the modern genre of lesbian vampires, ranging from the monstrous (The Hunger) to the use of vampirism as metaphoric for exchanges of emotion and support.

Time period: 

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