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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #48f - Donoghue 2010 Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature - Chapter 6

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 6: Out

This segment finishes up Emma Donoghue's Inseparable. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how lesbian motifs and tropes have been handled in literature across the ages. Even those who aren't dealing specifically with historic literature or historic settings can come to a better understanding of why certain themes carry the resonances they do in modern fiction and media. For example, the "evil predatory lesbian stalker" trope has a long history that is still evoked, and the continuous thread of plot-resolutions that require lesbians to end up mad, dead, lonely, or straight goes a long way to explaining popular reactions against similar treatments of lesbians in modern media (e.g., Willow/Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) especially when no other lesbian characters are present.

Looking forward: for those who might be concerned that this series is uncritical of its source material, I have several items lined up that get a long, hard look and are deemed Less Than Useful. (In part, this is because I'm clearing out the last remaining items in one of my file folders.)

* * *

The expression of a self-realized romantic and erotic preference for women significantly predates modern language about “being out". Anne Lister in her ca. 1800 diaries expressed a clear and absolute preference for loving and being loved by women. As a literary motif, this recognition of same-sex preference and the effects it has on a character begins appearing in the later 19th century. But the context of this realization can take the story in many directions. As a general pattern, though, coming out (to oneself or the world) sparks a struggle against expectations both internal and external that must be resolved. The majority of literature falling in this group falls after-my 1900 cut-off so this summary will focus on the early examples.

The fictionalized medical case history was a context for presenting this "shocking" realization in an approved format. A Drama in Muslin (1886) blends the Monster and Out motifs, portraying Cecelia both as emotionally twisted and as a victim of outside forces that led her to a misplaced affection. But in contrast to Monster plots, she comes to a reconciliation with her desire and voluntarily chooses to sublimate it to a religious life. Another blend with the Monster motif occurs in Mephistopheles (1890) where the protagonist, after a frustrating attempt to realize her desire for her first love, enters a lurid demi-monde where she embraces her nature but indulges it in tandem with every other imaginable vice and is eventually driven to the socially acceptable resolution of madness. Again, what places it in the Out group is her self conscious recognition and embracing of her desires.

A 1903 Austrian novel translated as Are These Women? A Novel of the Third Sex depicts a very modern-feeling blend of unapologetic lesbian desire, feminism, and political debate among a group of female college students. Renee Vivien's classic A Woman Appeared to Me (1904) displays the same blend, rejecting medicalized explanations for a solidly essentialist position. Somewhat less positive is Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul (written ca. 1896 but published later) where the protagonist, after searching through multiple unsatisfactory relationships with women, settles into religious devotion and a close but "pure" friendship with a nun. The 1895 Norma Trist blends in a crime plot where the protagonist successfully defends the "normalcy" of her love for a woman, but admits she may have gone too far in stabbing her out of jealousy when she would have left her for a man. It is the unapologetic confidence in her lesbian nature that places this story under "Out" rather than a different category (Alas, the novel ends with a Deus ex Machina ex-gay conversion scenario)

Due to my own focus, I leave out many of the great classics of this genre: The Well of Loneliness, The Children's Hour, The Price of Salt. The all-female school story is another fertile ground for realizations of lesbian desire, but the examples given all fall well into the 20th century. But coming around full circle to the purpose of this blog, Donoghue's last sub-category "Places for Us" includes the use of historical fiction to create lesbian spaces in the past where a self-aware and unapologetic desire for women could flourish.

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