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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.


Contents summary: 

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction. This potential for desire between women was given greater cultural leniency than the parallel case resulting in male-male attraction would have been.

As a brief survey of the types of literature where this motif occurs, we have:

* 10th c. saints life of Saint Eugenia who disguised herself as a man and attracts the romantic attention of a woman she heals.

* Sienese comedy (1537 Gl’Ingannati with a motif similar to Shakespeare’s 12th Night.

* Ovid’s Metamorphoses (original ca. 8 C.E., appearing in translation in the Renaissance) in the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis, raised as a boy, falls in mutual love with Ianthe, which is resolved by a magical sex-change. (Also noted a 1634 French dramatic version by Isaac de Benserade.)

* Medieval romances echoing the Iphis & Ianthe story, such as Ide and Olive (and its later dramatic version Miracle de la fille d’un roy), Roman de Silence, Roman de Cassidorus, and Tristan de Nanteuil.

* In John Lyly’s 1583 play Gallathea both protagonists cross-dress and not only fall in love with each other but attract the desire of Diana’s nymphs, though Cupid’s mischief is blamed for all.

Accidental same-sex desire due to cross-dressing in Shakespeare appears both in the aforementioned 12th Night as well as As You Like It. In the French romance Amadis de Gaule and later treatments such as the Spanish Amadis de Gaula a cross-dressing female knight longs to be able to fulfill her mutual desire with the lady whose interest she attracts. But she assuages the lady’s embarrassment at learning the truth by assuring her that she is worthy of love and is loved, at which the lady declares her love in return -- though the implication is that it is platonic on both sides.

One variant of these “female bridegroom” stories resolves the apparent gender problem by substituting a “convenient brother” to whom the beloved is married. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a type case, when Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the Amazon warrior Bradamante and, despite being uncertain how to proceed, continues to declare her love after learning Bradamante’s sex. Bradamante’s brother initiates the deception, disguising himself as Bradamante to get Fiordispina in bed. In the play Gl’Ingannati (1537) it is the sister who arranges the substitution, with rather less deception involved.

In a number of Jacobean dramas with a female bridegroom, the woman’s true sex is hidden even from the audience until the courtship is well advanced, giving them an investment in the sincerity of the love portrayed. In a different thematic group, a love triangle is involved where the inter-female wooing is done either at the behest of, or as revenge on, a man the both women desire. (Examples include Matrimonial Trouble, The Wife, Judge, and Accuser, The Doubtful Heir.) And the denouement may include the women prefering each other to him, as in the tragic Brennoralt. Donoghue also notes The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, for which see other entries on this text.

The female bridegroom narratives must also be set in context with a parallel motif prevalent during the same eras of a man disguised as a woman to woo and obtain favors from the object of his desire. As the unmasking of the man frequently occurs well after the advances are reciprocated, these stories, though heterosexual in their embodiment, support the believability and acceptability (at least in fiction) of desire between women. Ovid’s myth of Jove disguising himself as Diana to seduce her nymph Callisto only works because Callisto is willing (indeed, eager) to be seduced by Diana. In an interesting turnabout on women’s use of “devices” to provide sexual plausibility when passing as men, the 1170 story Alda has a disguised man pass off his own equipment as being “purchased in the marketplace” to maintain his female disguise in bed. A later adaptation of the same story as Floris et Lyriope removes the bawdy elements but shows the process of a woman’s acceptance of her love for another woman.

Similar motifs occur in the early 17th c. Ornatus and Artesia and L’Astrée, in the latter case with the disguised man living as a woman for an extended period of time to be close to the oblivious object of his affection. Oblivious of his true sex, that is -- quite aware of the affection and returning it so eagerly that when he finally reveals the truth, she rejects him as a man. Another example of the “male amazon” motif comes from Sidney’s Arcadia in the figures of Philoclea and her suitor disguised as the Amazon Zelmane. After going through a great deal of angst about loving a woman, Philoclea accepts her fate, but even after her suitor reveals himself she won’t recant the truth of her loving a woman. Other instances of the general type include The Loyal Subject (1618), The Convent of Pleasure (1668). Somewhat curiously to the modern mind, these men-disguised-as-women were not being played for laughs or ridicule.

By the 19th century, the “female bridegroom” motif began to be considered less acceptable. Le Bal d’Auteuil (1702) was banned for containing it, and in other works it was either softened into romantic friendship or undermined it by requiring the death of one of the women, as in several late 19th century stories (Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman”, Blake’s Fettered for Live, Blomfield’s “The Reputation of Mademoiselle Claude”). An exception -- though one that set itself clearly outside the morality of the times -- was Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin in which the bisexual heroine cheerfully makes love to both members of the viewpoint couple then heads off boldly for more adventures.

[It's interesting to note that the arguments against viewing "female bridegroom" stories as inherently lesbian -- i.e., that the woman is only falling in love with the appearance of a man -- cannot simultaneously explain away the "male amazon" stories where it is precisely the appearance of a woman that provokes desire. It's tendentious to claim that the woman is always actually desiring a man in these scenarios, by the sleight of hand of focusing on superficial presentation or underlying bodies as necessary for the presupposed conclusion. Even more refreshing are the stories where the same-sex nature of the desire survives unmasking: whether by a continuation/transfer of desire for the "female bridegroom" to the revealed woman, or by persistence of the desire for the female illusion after the exposure of a "male amazon".]

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.

Four 18th century novels show this competition in a context where passionate female friends compete with bad-boy rakes. In Clarissa, the male suitor works to separate his target from all her support structures [in a classic abuser scenario] but especially from her friend Anna. And while Anna is willing to risk all to save her friend, Clarissa dithers and escapes only via death. In the Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont, the rake competes with the ugly and lesbian-rumored Mistress Hobart for--if not the heart--at least the confidence of their common interest. Though neither is presented sympathetically, the story pits male privilege against female access. A trio, rather than a pair, of close female friends are the target of a purely malicious breaking-up in an incident recounted in Dangerous Liaisons. Ormond: or the Secret Witness returns to the more sentimental approach of Clarissa in having the married Sophia leave her husband behind to be reunited with her childhood friend Constantia with the goal of some unspecified triad arrangement. But Constantia's male suitor throws a spoke in the works, resolved by Constantia's deadly self-defense against him.

Not all narratives considered even a complaisant husband to be compatible with passionate friendship. Of the various motivations for women joining the utopian community in A Description of Millenium Hall, one is escape from a husband who jealously prohibits the wife's continued close association with her intimate friend, although this escape is not available until his death. In other novels, The conflict occurs before marriage, as in The Rebel of the Family and The Bostonians, both of which pit a "liberated" politically-active woman against the attractions of conventional marriage though, in both, convention wins. Not so in Diana Victrix, as the title implies, where the two women, after a couple of uncertain moments, settle into permanent couplehood.

In several early 20th century works, it is the economic and residential uncertainty that allows a man the point of attack in the friendship he hopes to disrupt. In others, the acquisition of a home together symbolizes the women's relationship. But now we have entered the era when women's close friendships were sexually suspect, and literary standards required tragic or clearly heterosexual resolution. And with that turn, the distinction between this motif and the next (the Monster) becomes difficult to discern.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.