Earlier this year, I was checking out my library’s 2SLGBTQ* selections and I came across a book that piqued every part of my interest. Not only was it about women who love women, but it was also about literature. I immediately requested the book, so I could dive into a novel that combined two of my biggest passions.
The book I am reviewing today is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue.
I knew going in that this book would read differently than the other texts I have read since graduating university. It would feel like an academic textbook, rather than a consideration for personal growth. However, I also knew that I wanted that experience immensely. It’s not often that you come across a text book that brings together two of the things you are most passionate about. For me, it is literature and lesbians.
I was not sure exactly what to expect from the text either. How could there possibly be a whole history of desire between women in literature and I don’t already know about it? How would it be broken down?
This book not only surpassed every single one of my expectations, but provided me with a huge list of works to track down in order to catch up on what I missed.
These days, it seems high time to let readers of all stripes hear about and enjoy the whole range of literature about desire between women, whether romantic or smutty, thrilling or funny, and with bloody-fanged fiends included too.Donoghue 14
As with any good textbook, we begin with a simple introduction: the explanation on the how and why from the author, along with the breakdown that the remainder of the book will follow. This is where we get a glimpse at how Donoghue opted to divvy up the subject matter of the works she reviewed.
There are highlights in each of these six sections that I want to touch on.
Travesties is the section on cross-dressing, where a women dresses as a man or vice versa, then catches the attention and affection of a woman. My first thoughts were that this would be a more recent phenomenon, but I was completely wrong. The book cites Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was composed around 8 C.E., as one of the earliest and most memorable examples of this type of story. In fact, most of the examples in this chapter are from earlier than 1700.
One example we get was written before 1311: Yde et Olive (Ide and Olive in English). It was an epic poem that was written anonymously in Old French and has been translated many times. This story almost ends with both women being burned alive by Olive’s father when they are found out. However, God intervenes, changes Ide into a man, and the two continue in their love and marriage.
You could say that the sex change is a daring way of making the girls’ illicit passion acceptable–or a cheap trick to reestablish the status quo. I see it as both at the same time: a handy device to wind up the story, which has the side effect of rewarding same-sex love.Donoghue 22
The flip side of the ‘female bridegroom’ stories above is the ‘male Amazon’ stories, where it is a man cross-dressing as a woman. The most interesting aspect of these stories is that it follows two people presenting as women falling in love before the reveal.
In the 1668 drama, The Covent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish, the female protagonist lives in an all-female community when a “Princess” joins them. She is wooed by the “Princess” and they eventually exchange vows while the entire community celebrates. It is only after they marry as women does the “Princess” reveal that they are actually a prince in disguise. However, the reader and the audience (as it was written as a play) is not aware of the fact that this is man dressed as a woman.
… the postponed unmasking of a male amazon… forces watches or readers to confront the idea of same-sex desire for quite a while before soothing them with a last-minute transformation.Donoghue 55
As I was reading this chapter, something beyond desire between women occurred to me. In the examples where a woman is cross-dressing as a man and the two women fall in love, the resolution often ends up being that the woman somehow becomes a man. Yet, there is no discussion about this being early recognition of trans folks. Yes, I know that cross-dressing and being trans are not the same thing. It was simply something that occurred to me while I was reading the text, that given a broader lens, these may be trans characters, rather than cross-dressers.
Based on likeness, it springs up spontaneously, with no need for gender disguise as a trigger.Donoghue 61
Inseparables, considering it is the name of the book, is a surprisingly short chapter. That being said, it could probably include a lot of the texts from other sections, yet they fit better elsewhere. Inseparables are characterized by two women refusing to be separated due to their passionate feelings.
Often, this feels more platonic, than romantic, but the passion is there. It is even evidenced in the Old Testament book of Ruth, when Naomi and Ruth refuse to be parted after Naomi loses her son, who was Ruth’s husband. Ruth gives up her entire world to follow Naomi to Israel, even asking to be “struck with afflictions” if anything besides death parts her from Naomi. The vow Ruth makes is famous:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and they God my God: Where though diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.Book of Ruth, Old Testament, qtd in Donoghue 61
Another example given is Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Shirley and Caroline form an intense and flirtatious friendship. When it appears that a man may tear things apart, they both admit how intense their bond is. Shirley compares Caroline to the sun and moon, while Caroline states that only Shirley can sooth and support her. The man from earlier apparently has a brother, so the two women marry the brothers and can remain close for all time. Another trick to revive the status quo, while also allowing these women to keep their inseparable bond.
Long before there was widespread familiarity with the concept of a same-sex preference, it was possible to write stories in which male and female rivals duke it out on the battlefield of love.Donoghue 82
Rivals, if the title is not obvious, discusses the rivalries between a man and a woman competing for the affection of one woman. This was a fun section to read, simply for the tropes that exist within it: Rakes vs Ladies and Feminists vs Husbands.
In the first, a woman must decide between a passionate female friend or a charismatic, but unscrupulous rake. These rarely end well for either woman. However, there was one that I intend to seek out: Ormond; or, The Secret Witness by Brockden Brown (1799). I don’t want to spoil this one, since I’ll eventually blog about it when I get a copy, but it has a much more satisfying conclusion than the other ones discussed in this section.
The second trope is the Feminist trying to steal a woman away from her husband. Often, the plot follows some refusal by the husband to allow his wife to see her friend, so the women decide to push back. That’s not always the case, of course. Eliza Lynn Linton’s The Rebel in the Family (1880) takes the opposite side, where the protagonist’s female friend, Bell, ends up being manipulative and abusive. When the male rival, Leslie, joins the fray, Perdita (protagonist) is clearly going to choose him, and I do not blame her.
In a particularly crude bit of phallic symbolism, Henry manages to crush Banford under a huge falling tree.Donoghue 102
This section ends by looking at women who live together or move in together. This act seems to bring about the hostility of a male rival, who is often successful in wooing one of the women away. The rivalry in The Fox (1918) by D.H Lawrence ends when the female rival is killed by a tree. Though in a nice twist, the successful male rival becomes frustrated that his new wife cannot “relax into passive feminine acquiescence.” He wins, but he also loses in a way.
The rivalry motif is still thriving today, and it is still not simply a private duel, but a clash of worlds. Because in Western culture passion between women is always a big deal, whether presented as glorious or shameful, angelic or monstrous.Donoghue 105
Monsters. You might assume this section is geared specifically towards books about lesbian vampires or other monsters. While it does do that, it also covers the more broad idea of a wicked woman who attempts to seduce an innocent, and often younger, woman, resulting in destruction for one or both of them. It is the latter that the book starts with, calling them sex fiends.
One of the most famous of these is Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (series between 1797-1801). The female protagonists exhibit no shame in their passion for other women, but they are also involved in things beyond the scope of morality for most people: cannibalism, torture, mass murder. Oh and of course, atheism and hedonism, because that was definitely outside the norm back when this was written. Despite the aggressiveness of the narrative, the female protagonists do get a version of a happy ending, more than most so far. The extremeness of the storyline is likely why de Sade was able to get away with a happy ending. The story is so explicit, that two women deciding to stay together hardly seems to merit concern.
In Alfred de Musset’s Gamiani (1833), we get a story that ends with the ‘Kill The Gays’ trope that is often found in mainstream media today. However, he brings it to us in a different way since the female protagonists poison themselves, so they can die together.
The other type of human monster that this section discusses is the unknown rival to a man, a secret enemy. A male POV recognizes that he has competition for a lady’s heart and assumes it to be a man. However, it is eventually revealed that he is competing against a lesbian. They are a monster, not for the reason that the sex fiend is or that vampires would be, but rather because they remain in the shadows and work to take what the man feels is his.
Finally, we get to the nonhuman section. One of the first examples this section brings is Allan’s Wife (1889) by H. Rider Haggard, which is a racist and homophobic novel. It follows a woman named Hendrika, who is described as a black ape-woman and falls in love with the white daughter of her foster family. She is eventually killed because of course she is. She is human, but subhuman based on the characterization of the author.
This part also gives us ghosts, such as in “The Apple Tree” (1934) by Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). I’m going to have to reread the latter because I do not quite remember that from when I covered it in a horror fiction class.
Queers fit the vampire profile even better: a hidden identity revealed only by subtle signs, a nocturnal subculture of predators looking for naïve victims to recruit into their lifestyle. And it is hardly a stretch to draw an analogy between same-sex desire and the vampire’s thirst for blood: a secret craving for the exchange of fluids by mouth, a nonreproductive melding of bodies, associated with disease sterility, and death.Donoghue 137
Then there is the vampires. We first see this in Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and I need to read this book, like yesterday. Some of the others listed are The Hunger (1981) by Whitley Strieber, I, Vampire (1984) by Jody Scott, Minimax (1991) by Anna Livia, and Vampire Lesbian of Sodom (1985) by Charles Busch. And if you like science fiction there is Katherine V. Forrest’s novella O Captain, My Captain (1987), which brings together vampires and spaceships.
Complaining about the insipidity of much of the [lesbian] literature, [Bertha Harris] argued that the lesbian should represent “the Female enraged,” and posted that the lesbian equivalent of the literary hero, is, in fact, the monster.Donoghue 138
It’s a crime – or is it?
Although lesbian sex has rarely been criminalized in law, it has often been presented as at least borderline: vaguely, murkily criminal. And in literature it is often associated with murder.Donoghue 140
Detection is an incredibly interesting section because it ties in with crime stories, creating a parallel between the discovery of a crime and the discovery of same-sex desire. Donoghue describes it beautifully as “narratives shaped by the double helix of homoeroticism and the discovery of a crime” (140).
This section is by far the most complex of the six, mostly due to the extravagance of the plots involved. For example, Gladys Mitchell’s 1929 Speedy Death follows the investigation of the murder of Sir Everard Mountjoy. Everard is discovered to actually be a woman when found dead in the bath. While everyone feels bad for the fiancée, Eleanor, for being duped, it comes to light that she is the one who pressed the engagement, then murdered her fiancé when she found out the truth. Surprisingly enough, the investigator does not bring her to a traditional sort of justice, but the vigilante type.
And that is one of the simplest plots to boil down for a blog post. One of the subsections here is “Crimes of Passion,” while the other is “It Takes One to Know One.” It is the latter that includes Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters, which I have seen the film for, but never read the book. Seeing it in this novel though has added it to my TBR list as one that I will need to check out, especially after this well crafted line about the text:
Fingersmith is an investigation into the psychology of plotters: the smugness as well as the guilt, the performing and the second-guessing.Donoghue 160
Out is my favourite section because the characters in these stories get to grow into themselves as they realize that they have feelings for other women.
But this storyline – the discovery, recognition, and acknowledgement (whether public or private) of a same-sex preference – has been part of Western consciousness and Western literature since at least the second half of the nineteenth century.Donoghue 161
It is in this section that we find some of the most well known lesbian novels: The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, The Price of Salt, or Carol, (1952) by Patricia Highsmith, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown, Patience and Sarah, or A Place for Us, (1969) by ‘Isabel Miller’ (Alma Routsong), and of course, Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters.
While I have tried to read The Well of Loneliness, it was a resounding failure both times. So much so, that I even wrote a blog post about it, which you can find here. However, the rest of these titles, I am prepared to seek out to read, especially since I already own a few of them.
The book comes to a powerful conclusion, which I have included in its entirety, as it truly captures the importance of seeking out texts like this to study and enjoy.
Yes, like all writing and more than most, writing about desire between women is derivative (or, put more positively, intertextual). It reworks ancient motifs of quest, obstacle, rivalry, disguise, and fall, using and combining such genres as comedy, tragedy, romance, the crime story, the coming-of-age novel. The literature of love between women overlaps with the literature of the family, the nation, the school, the brothel, the factory, the library, the farm, the city, the car, and so on. And, of course, it overlaps with the literature of desire between men and women. If in some stories same-sex relationships stand in furious resistance to opposite-sex ones, in other works they are parallel or entwined with them, and in all cases the connection is a tight on. The “lesbian idea” is not necessarily non- or antiheterosexual; in Western literature, these forms of love are all inseparable.Donoghue 202
Stay tuned for a post where I list all the books that I have added to be TBR list as a result of this one text.
Have you read any of the books I mentioned? If so, what did you think? Was it categorized correctly? Are there any books listed here that you want to read now?