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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48e - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 5

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 5: Detection

One of the most popular genres in modern lesbian fiction (after plain old romance) is the mystery or thriller, where crimes and other legal shenanigans form a backbone of the plot. But the intersection between mysteries and lesbians has its roots not in the intrepid lesbian detective, rather in parallel themes of concealment and discovery. The sub-genres within this chapter depend very strongly on a sense of time and place in which the specific nuances of possibility, awareness, ignorance, and guilt make the plot possible.

* * *

Lesbian sex, per se, has rarely been against the law, but in literature the forbidden nature of lesbian relationships encourages entanglement with murder (in both roles), blackmail, and other staples of crime fiction. This chapter, though, focuses more on the act of detection and the ways in which the identification of lesbians and lesbian behavior parallels the solving of mysteries or crimes. As the specific literary examples in this chapter fall after my project cut-off of 1900, I'll just summarize motifs.

Sometimes the question of "who dunnit?" can only be solved by identifying who it was done to: "who" in the sense of the victim's true gender or true personal relationships. In other stores, the investigator's default assumptions about gender and relationships prove a stumbling block to crime solving when a lesbian relationship is involved. Motifs of cross dressing and passing can create illusory "victims" or criminals who disappear entirely after the crime when the disguise is abandoned. While some stories seem to conflate lesbian erotic fascination with evil, the direct motive for the crime is rarely the existential state of being a lesbian, but rather the misdirected passions or psychological stresses that closeted relationships could generate. Murder is presented as a direct "solution" to conflicts that could barely be defined, much less resolved, by other social means in the story's context. The male detective is often literally clueless about the key relationship aspects until filled in by female assistants who are more aware of the possibilities.

A newer type of detective is driven (whether consciously or not) to solve a crime to protect a woman she loves or at least sympathizes with. And in post-gay-liberation novels, she may step into the traditional hard-boiled role of the detective who falls for a client (whether innocent or guilty). The historic nature of literature circles around on itself in mysteries and thrillers like those of Sarah Waters that place these motifs and adventures in historic settings.

Time period: 

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