Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3

Contents summary: 

As an iconic example of the phenomenon Castle is studying, she contemplates the Greta Garbo film Queen Christina, and how Hollywood took a notoriously lesbian figure from history, portrayed her using a lesbian actress, and turned the story into a heterosexual love story. Lesbianism becomes an illusory “ghost” in cultural performances, even when the “fact “of lesbianism is undeniable. The lesbian is made difficult to see – absent even when central –a figure that’s easy to refuse to recognize in the moment, and easy to deny after the fact, as in all the obituaries of Garbo that avoided mentioning her love for women at all. The lesbian in popular culture is always somewhere else – never here and now, never central and familiar (in contrast to the figure of the male homosexual). It is this effect that Castle tackles and unmasks.

The book emerged out of Castle’s previous interest in the place of ghosts in post-Enlightenment culture, combined with a realization that lesbianism had been the “ghost” in her own work. The “disappearing” of lesbians reflects the threat that the idea of lesbianism is seen to pose to patriarchal society. This takes the form of denying or simply remaining silent with respect to lesbian aspects of historic figures (often in the name of protecting their reputations), silencing, censoring, or dismissing lesbian themed works, or simply ignoring the existence of lesbians - as happened in many legal systems – not because that existence was unimportant but because it was too dangerous to be given existence by recognition.

Castle reviews examples of lesbian literary figures framed as ghostly and supernatural evil. If ghostly, the lesbian can then be exorcised and disappeared from the “reality” of the literary work entirely. Real life lesbians similarly “ghost” themselves, disappearing into isolation and secrecy, or into marriages of convenience.

Castle lays out the outline of the book’s contents: two autobiographical essays about her own “emergence”, three historical and biographical, and three literary criticism. The organization is chronological in terms of writing, but this reflects the development of her thinking, from recognition to theorizing to exploration. The remainder of the introduction lays out who “the lesbian” at the center of her focus is not and is.

  1. She is not a recent invention – pushing back at Foucault and the sexologists, who argue for the recency of lesbianism and its isolation from history.
  2. She is not asexual – pushing back against the view not only that all love between women reflected a Victorian platonic friendship model, but also against the idea that Victorian romantic friends had no erotic desires. The belief in women’s inherent non-eroticism is what prompted some to allege that Anne Lister’s diary must have been a hoax (when first published in the 1980s) because it flew in the face of the comfortable myth of the asexual lesbian. In this, Castle scrutinizes the idea that lesbian relations are simply part of a continuum of female homosocial bonding, arguing for a clear distinction recognizing an embodied eroticism as definitional. [As usual, I push back on any framing that denies the possible existence of the “asexual lesbian” as a real and valid category.]
  3. The lesbian is not a gay man. Castle points out that in treating male and female homosexuality as a unified concept, the lesbian experience is “ghosted” under the more iconic figure of the gay man. Similarly, the shift to the umbrella term “queer” can silently make specifically lesbian experiences invisible. (Note: along with other marginalized queer identities.) As example, she notes how one of the prominent (in the 1980s) proponents of queer theory in academia focuses almost exclusively on male experiences even when presenting her work as general.
  4. She is not a nonsense. Here, Castle grapples with the tendency of deconstructionists to challenge the meaningfulness of concepts like “lesbians” in ways that erase the concept entirely on the basis that it cannot be clearly defined.

Castle attempts to define “the lesbian” in terms of presence, but the result is inherently a jumble of the particular, a listing of prominent cultural figures (mostly of the 20th century).

Contents summary: 

This chapter is a reminiscent of when Castle, as a child, encountered and crushed on a butch woman, and how she later recognized the experience as part of her recognition of her sexuality.

Contents summary: 

This chapter opens with the example of Daniel Defoe’s ghost story “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” viewed as a lesbian love story but one in which one party is dead – a literal ghost – thus making the relationship impossible and unreal. The second example – Dennis Diderot’s La Religieuse – involves eroticized persecution of a young woman in a convent. The erotic element is introduced in the midst of physical hazing by the authorities accusing the young woman of “unnatural desires” – something she does not understand until transferred to a different convent where her superior engages in erotic activity with her, becoming obsessed with her. The superior is described in increasingly ghost-like terms as the story progresses, moving in shadows and becoming increasingly mentally deranged, until she dies.

Castle sees a parallel of this process across the scope of lesbian literature. The lesbian figure is “de-realized”, made into a shadowy figure either symbolically or literally. Lesbian passions are introduced only to be obscured and disembodied. The specter of genuine, real-life lesbian love between two real women is neutralized and removed from the stage, either by madness, death, or a heterosexual reclamation. In Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, the “ghost” is the masculine identity of the cross-dressing title character – an identity that is made unstable by her female lover’s desire to consummate their love.

Various poems of the French decadent movement are used to demonstrate motives of insubstantiality and the lesbian as doomed and wandering spirit. This motif of ghostly symbolism intruding into lesbian relationships is traced through a number of early 20th century novels.

[Note: it occurs to me to speculate on how much of Castle’s identification of “ghost” themes in lesbian literature is driven by her earlier specialty in ghost motifs in literature in general.]

Turning the “ghost” motif around, Castle notes that an important feature of ghosts is that they do exist, perhaps insubstantially, but they are visible, they have presence. And they can be difficult to banish.

Sometimes the motif of the ghost reflects the lesbian character’s perception that she has no substantial reality in her lover’s life - no ability to influence the outcome of their lives. This appears in Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.

 In lesbian “pulp” fiction, the repeating motif of “shadows”, “twilight”, “darkness” marks not only the secretive closeted society the characters moved in, but also carries the negative connotations of secrecy and darkness. A life that exists only in shadows can be nullified by the application of light.

But after the brief excursion into the pulps, Castle considers it necessary to return to “more ambitious and self-conscious literary works” and moves on to the later 20th century.

Having completed a literary tour, Castle returns to the “why” of lesbian ghosting. Patriarchal authority relies on the denial and suppression of love between women. Beginning in the 18th century, cultural upheavals placed traditional social structures under assault, which encouraged anxiety about female independence and the potential for women to be free of men for social, legal, economic, and emotional needs. But the denial of lesbian reality that this generated only served to reinforce the concept of lesbianism in social awareness. (Castle cites Freud on the power of repression to reinforce a concept.)

Contents summary: 

This chapter opens by debating how one defines “lesbian fiction”. What requirements of authorship, content, and self-consciousness apply? Is it possible to define necessary and sufficient conditions? [HRJ editorial comment: no.]

The topic is under-theorized, even in contexts that address homosexual desire in fiction, such as Sedgwick’s Between Men: English literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which deliberately excludes lesbians from its scope. Sedgwick’s thesis is that, since the late 17th century, English literature has been structured around an “erotic triangle” of men’s homosocial bonding in relation to an objectified woman. Within the structure comes a tension between male homosocality and homosexuality. Patriarchy relies on mediating male-male bonds via a woman to avoid the blurring of gender categories that m/m homosexuality evokes.

That is: Sedgwich's theory is that the literary canon is defined relative to the function of creating, maintaining, and policing male-male bonding. Within such a theoretical framework, there is no place for literature that centers bonds between women of whatever nature. In contrast to the ongoing tension within m/m bonds, Sedgwick sees no cultural distinction between homosociality and homosexuality among women – and thus no theoretically meaningful category of “lesbian” or “lesbian literature”. [Note: Rather than Sedgwich taking this as a sign that one cannot simply apply male structures to f/f content, her argument seems to be that f/f content cannot be meaningfully analyzed at all. Please note that Castle is challenging all this!]

F/f desire cannot be meaningfully analyzed within Sedgwick’s “erotic triangle” because f/f desire dismantles the structure and rebuilds it. Sedgwick’s triangle is only stable if its female apex is unconnected to any other female character. Castle now undertakes to apply the “triangle” analysis to 18th and 19th century novels that do include female bonding. And that analysis based on this “triangulation” can identify structures that might be useful in defining “the lesbian novel” via a sort of pattern-matching. The centerpiece of this analysis is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show.

The analysis is complex and detailed and I won’t to try to summarize it. Suffice it to say that the overall structure is “abandoned wife makes common cause with husband’s mistress and they discover they like each other much more than they ever liked him.” This triangular analysis is reconfigured once again in settings where male characters are marginal or absent, such as school stories. There, the structural disruption is typically supplied by death or departure.

In another structure that Castle labels “post-marital” the prior withering of a heterosexual relationship is the female protagonist’s impetus for entering into relations with another woman.

The chapter concludes with a speculation that the lesbian novel tends to reject realism in favor of the fantastic, allegorical, or utopian. [Note: SInce Castle's overarching theme relies on seeing lesbian characters in literature as "un-real" in various ways, I worry that it isn't "the lesbian novel" that rejects realism, but rather that realist lesbian novels are un-seeable under Castle's theoretical structure. A sort-of "meta-ghosting" that paralells what she claims is happening in the literature itself.]

Contents summary: 

A motif that haunts the search for lesbian history is the assumption that – prior to the advent of sexology – female couples, no matter how clearly romantic, must not have been sexual. This motif is exemplified by couples such as Ponsonby and Butler who – it was concluded – could not have been sexual, because their relationship was publicly known and celebrated. This was aided by a deliberate campaign by the Ladies to deflect any suspicion that there was anything improper about their relationship. They contemplated bringing a libel accusation against a journalist who dared to suggest there was somethng odd about them.

That view of the Ladies was supported by the commentary of later, more openly sexual, sapphists, such as French writer Colette. Yet one of their contemporaries – diarist Anne Lister who visited them – speculated in correspondence that their love was “not platonic”. Lister herself, of course, is the clearest contradiction to the assumption of sexlessness in 18th and 19th century female pairs. Her diaries are full of detailed descriptions of her sexual exploits with women, though concealed via a cipher and coded references.

Castle compares Lister to a Jane Austin heroine: active among the local gentry and a terrible snob toward those she considers less educated and less cultured. (I’ll skip the detailed review of Lister’s exploits as they are familiar to my readers.)

Lister felt uneasy about her relations with women when they constituted adultery, but not for the simple fact of involving two women, which she considered a personal preference. Castle notes a theme of fascination and identification with Byron in Lister’s musings, and sees something of a repeated motif for a certain subset of lesbians across the long 19th century.

The butch lesbian as Byronic rake is a motif that persists to the present day. Castle connects this theme to the theory that, in a society that “ghosts” women who desire women, one way for such women to “see” themselves is as masculine in their desire.

This returns Castle to the myth of “no lesbian sex before 1900” on the principle that women could not imagine f/f sex until the sexologists presented it to them as an option. But alternate images and models, such as those that Lister reflected, were always available. And that availability was present not only for the women in these relationships, but to their relatives and associates who were reaching frameworks to understand them. Lister gives us a glimpse of a society “more worldly and comprehending than one might expect” at the time.

Contents summary: 

This chapter introduces a late 19th century spiritualist who, along with other supposed past lives, recounted her past life as Queen Marie Antoinette. Her performance as Marie Antoinette was knowledgeable but erratic, often “forgetting” that she wasn’t supposed to be familiar with modern objects and activities, then reacting to audience skepticism by reverting to ignorance of them. Her audience, including a psychologist studying her, recognized it all as an act, but one with significant verisimilitude.

Another early 20th century woman became convinced she was being visited by the ghost of Marie Antoinette and became obsessed with the queen and artifacts associated with her. This evolved into vivid dreams in which the dreamer was a boy struggling to save the queen from execution. The woman wrote a memoir of this lifelong obsession.

A few years later, two respected female Oxford academics claimed to have encountered the ghost of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers in the gardens at Versailles. Having later learned that their visit had been on a significant anniversary associated with the revolution, they postulated that they had experienced some sort of mental time travel, and went on to try to document the people and events they had seen as historic fact. These efforts were met with a certain amount of understandable scorn.

Castle asks the question, why is Marie Antoinette the focus of so many supernatural encounters? She suggests the possibility that above-mentioned experiences were linked directly – each woman having access to and being aware of the previous account. But this doesn’t answer the question of why Marie Antoinette would inspire this sort of sequential mass delusion.

The psychologist who studied the “past lives” example analyzed it in Freudian terms as reflecting emotional isolation from her parents and an antagonism toward her middle-class background. Marie Antoinette was a natural fixation for someone who dreamed of elegance and extravagance, possibly sparked by a story about Marie Antoinette by Alexandre Dumas that closely matched some of the characters and themes in her delusion. A similar psychological background can be traced in the second example.

The two academics also came from large and distant families which did not support their academic careers. For them, as for the other dreamer, Marie Antoinette may have represented an idealized mother figure. The rigorously academic approach by which the analyzed their experience could be seen as showing up their unsupportive male (academic) parents.

However, the Freudian idea of the “royal romance” (the fantasy that one is secretly an adopted lost aristocrat) doesn’t address an aspect of all three experiences in which Marie Antoinette carries a romantic, lover-like connection.

All of the women involved were resistant to marriage, in some cases mediating this through male figures in their visions, either as mentors dissuading them from marriage, or as an alternate persona through which they could express passion for Marie Antoinette, though not in an overtly homosexual framing. The two academics, however, only recently acquainted at the time of their supernatural experience, afterward became domestic partners in a relationship described by others as marriage like. Marie Antoinette, as it were, was their matchmaker.

We come back again to “why Marie Antoinette?” [Those who follow this blog may already have identified the connection.] Marie Antoinette had become something of a cult figure of royalist romantics in later 19th-century England among women, imbued with a homoerotic tinge (not uncommon to women’s romantic culture of the time). And, Castle suggests, the rumors of Marie Antoinette’s own lesbian relationships may have been a strong factor in attracting homoerotic fascination.

The next section of this chapter lays out the historic background and documentary evidence for the development of those rumors. This section is a good survey of the evidence on the topic, which I won’t summarize in detail.

After the restoration of the French monarchy there was a program of rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette’s reputation, which included rejection of the lesbian rumors. But rejection of the sexual aspect of Marie Antoinette’s relations with women did not require erasing the romantic nature of those relations, which were refashioned to fit later 19th century ideals of romantic friendship. Her friendship, especially with the Princess de Lamballe, was framed as noble and faithful until death, creating an archetype for a “safe” model of f/f passionate devotion. To suggest that it was (also) sexual was declared a monstrous slander. There is extensive exploration of depictions around this theme.

This, then, provides a motive for Marie Antoinette as the focus of hazily homoromantic fantasies and experiences. [Note: although outside the scope of what Castle is discussing, we can see this at play in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess, in Sarah Crewe’s fixation on Marie Antoinette and Lamballe as a fantasy escape.]

In “sanitizing” Marie Antoinette of lesbian overtones, biographers and romantics contradictorily transformed her intense same-sex friendships into a symbol of homoerotic romance, with an imprimatur of acceptability.

But alongside this creation of Marie Antoinette as a “sanitized” icon, lesbian writers of the 20th century romanticized the queen as an overtly lesbian figure, including (as only one example) Stephen Gordon’s pilgrimage to Versailles in The Well of Loneliness. Several other similar literary references are cataloged.

Castle’s summary returns to the motif of Marie Antoinette as ghostly figure, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to tie this in to the theme of lesbian presence enabled by its erasure – it was the sanitization of Marie Antoinette's slegacy that enabled more women to connect with her homoerotic symbolism.

Contents summary: 

This chapter tackles the question of the way in which Henry James’s The Bostonians can be considered a “lesbian novel”. The central character of Olive is clearly experiencing and motivated by same-sex desire, and critics of the work regularly dismiss it as concerning “perverse” desires, but the actual “lesbian content” is elusive when pinned down.

James claimed he was merely writing an “American tale” about “one of those friendships between women which are so common in New England.” This is, of course, not at all in conflict with the external analysis of Olive and Verena as a romantic couple of the type that gave rise to the term Boston marriage – the type that James’s sister enjoyed with her “beloved friend” and companion (who otherwise did not at all resemble the characters in the novel).

Despite James’s emphasis on the story as “American”, Castle traces its connections to French decadent literature of the 19th century that treated lesbian relationships far more explicitly. Despite James’s avoidance of any explicit reference to lesbianism, he hints at it through oblique references to Emile Zola’s Nana – perhaps the most notorious work of its type. Castle traces these references in detail.

The chapter concludes with a look at how James than diverges from the underlying logic of the “decadent lesbian” plot (however concealed) to maintain his heroine Olive as pure and virtuous, and as an innocent victim of Verena’s omni-sexual desirability. Olive is betrayed by Verena’s decision to marry her male suitor, but she is not destroyed by this betrayal in the way a more stereotypical lesbian protagonist of the era would be.

Contents summary: 

This chapter looks at mid-20th century journalist Janet Flanner, publishing in the New Yorker under the ambiguous pen name “Genêt”, who worked in an era when being open about her homosexuality was not a practical option. But evasiveness and compartmentalization was also a feature of her life and work more generally.

Here Castle returns to her theme of the “ghosting” of lesbian identities, noting that later biographies of Flanner – even those that were otherwise detailed – appear to have found her sexuality at best uninteresting, if not taboo, even though those biographies were written at a date when attitudes were more open about sexuality.

Having embedded herself in the bohemian expatriate Parisian society of the Left Bank, that aspect of her life seems unlikely to have been uninteresting. Castle makes an effort to fill that biographical gap to some extent.

Flanner’s move to Paris was not only to pursue literary interests as an aspiring novelist, but to escape a stifling home situation. There she met the women who would be her partners, and her sexuality provided entry to the Parisian artistic circles dominated by American and English lesbians such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Flanner found her stride writing “Letters from Paris” that combined travelogue and artistic commentary. (Castle provides a detailed summary of topics and personages, and a description of Flanner’s literary style.)

Flanner’s official biographer not only skims over the evidence of her several romantic relationships, but inflates – or perhaps invents – Flanner’s internal conflict over her sexuality. This idea of conflict is contradicted by the pervasive gay content and subject matter of her public writing. The writing is riddled with cues and only semi-coded references to the sexuality of the community she moved in.

Castle concludes that a biographer cannot do justice to the life of a lesbian subject without engaging with the sensual aspects of her life.

Contents summary: 

For this chapter I will mostly skim for aspects of Castle’s theoretical structure rather than the topical content.

This chapter concerns German opera singer Bridget Fassbender. Castle discusses the context of opera that has given women in the 19th and 20th centuries license to openly admire other women. [Note: although Castle focuses exclusively on opera singers, the same observations can be made about actresses, see for example the female fans of Charlotte Cushman.]

The discussion offers a survey of examples of this f/f diva worship across the 19th and 20th centuries. After this general exploration, Castle tackles the subject of female diva worship from within her own admiration for Fassbaender.

In the end, this chapter is simply a celebration of the topic rather than creating an underlying theoretical argument. From this position at the end of the collection, it demonstrates that the collection overall is not so much an integrated work of theory, but simply an expression of the range of Castle’s writing.