February 2011

Jenny McPhee

The Bombshell

Our Generalized Amnesia

With Lillian Hellman’s 1934 hit play The Children’s Hour opening (Feb 9) in London’s West End, the cyberpress is atwitter about catching some “on-stage Lesbian love” between the play’s two stars Kiera Knightly and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men’s Peggy). Interviewed in The Sunday Times, Moss says her character -- Martha Dobie, a New England schoolteacher accused of an affair with the headmistress (Kiera Knightly) -- isn’t exactly a lesbian and “the play isn’t about lesbianism either.” Moss elaborates on Dobie: “At the end of the play, she’s not, like, ‘Will you be a lesbian and will we get married?’ She’s saying ‘This is how I feel, help me, be my friend.’” Moss clarifies: “That type of relationship still exists. I mean, there’s an obvious sexual line, but then you can have a close girlfriend you really love, too.” Just to be crystal clear about her own position, Moss states that she has “wonderful female friends... although I’m not in love with any of them.”

Moss’s combined ambivalence, denial, and excitement at the nature of the female bond is a theme thoroughly examined in Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue (author of many books including the recent prize-winning novel Room and Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801). Donoghue’s latest work of literary history provides examples -- and critical responses to them -- in literature across the ages of women loving women. Written by both male and female authors, the literature cited ranges from the Sapphic Classics through the Coming Out novels of the ‘70s to contemporary fiction by authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters. Some of the works are well-known and widely read today, some very popular in their time but long since forgotten, others entirely obscure.

Donoghue describes her book as a “field guide to the flora and fauna of lesbian-themed literature” though she stipulates that “in studying the full spectrum of passionate relationships between women in literature, it is a pointless exercise to erect a fence down the middle, dividing the lesbians from the just-really-good-friends.” Donoghue constructs her narrative around “the most perennially popular plot motifs of attraction between women”: Travesties; Inseparables; Rivals; Monsters; Detection; Out.

She begins with “Travesties” in which “cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the ‘accident’ of same-sex desire.” Among her many revelatory examples (from the obvious to the recondite) are Ovid’s myth of Iphis and Ianthe (ca. 8 C.E.), Guillaume de Blois’s Alda (ca. 1170), Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532), Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600) and Twelfth Night (1601), Margaret Cavendish’s Matrimonial Trouble (1662), Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman” (1861), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987).

By the late-1500s “inseparable” was a common term for female pairs; from the 17th to the 19th century, Donoghue maintains, “there are few plots in English literature more popular than that of female friendship under fire.” In her chapter “Inseparables,” she mentions the Old Testament book of Ruth, Marie de France’s lai Eliduc (ca.1189), Jane Wiseman’s play Antiochus the Great (1702), Jane Barker’s “The Unaccountable Wife” (1723), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Euphemia (1790) by Charlotte Lennox, Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1865), Work (1873) by Louisa May Alcott, and Rosa Mulholland’s The Tragedy of Chris (1903). 

In “Rivals,” Donoghue considers plots of a man and a woman competing for a woman’s heart; “Monsters” examines evil women who prey upon the innocent members of their sex; “Detection” analyzes literature where the “crime” is same-sex desire; and “Out” describes texts about a woman discovering she is physically attracted to another woman (Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is discussed here). These chapters too are replete with literary example.

Inseparable is a magnificent act of textual archeology, an exquisite excavation of literature. Donoghue’s focus is on what has been ignored regarding the theme of love between women. She explains: “Passion between women has never had a settled status in Western culture, or even a definition with fixed parameters... In every generation it seems writers have asked themselves whether desire between women is unprecedented or omnipresent, holy or evil, heartwarming or ridiculous.” (Elisabeth Moss’s response to The Children’s Hour is a testament to this tension.) Donoghue wonders at our centuries-long neglect of the theme of women in love: “How can we have collectively forgotten it, let it slip out of the history of ideas, or not registered it in the first place?”

Donoghue could be lamenting equally about women’s writing altogether. Our generalized amnesia regarding literature by women is surely a symptom of neurosexism (see my previous column on this subject). The simplest explanation, asserts Donoghue, is phallocentrism, “the notion that nothing really counts unless it involves a penis or the owner of a penis.”

Phallocentrism in relation to writing has recently had an encouraging sounding in the media. Novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult raised the issue to a stir when, reacting to the media frenzy over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, they objected on Twitter to the disproportionate critical attention male writers regularly receive compared to their female counterparts; this led to an article in The Atlantic by book editor Chris Jackson confessing that even though his wife owns a bookstore when a female colleague asked him what was the last book he’d read by a woman, he couldn’t remember. In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin followed with “The Read: The Franzen Fallout, The New York Times’ shameful treatment of women writers.” Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers called for a boycott of The New Yorker for its lack of female writers, asserting that the top literary publications all grossly exclude women writers from their pages. And all is sadly confirmed by the shocking statistics just posted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

In Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), the protagonist Paquita obliquely tries to tell her suitor Henri that she is not, as he believes, the sex-slave of her guardian the Marquis de San-Réal but rather of his wife, the Marquise. Paquita tells him, “You’re forgetting the power of the feminine.” For centuries now, we have collectively fallen into the dangerous and insidious practice of forgetting the power of the feminine, especially, but by no means exclusively, in our literature. We do so at our peril.