Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 4 – Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction
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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.]
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