Rocks, Hard Places, and the (Lesbian) Interpretation of Literary Texts

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an interpretation of a text legitimate – or valuable, or rigorous, convincing, or even useful. Your standard English Lit 101 will tell you that an interpretation of a text has to be supported by 1) close reference to the words and the way they’re used and 2) awareness of the context in which the text was written. Simple, right? You look at a precise word, and you narrow down what it means by looking at the rest of the text. And the person who wrote it. And the people who read it. And everything you can find out about the time and place it was written in, and the technology used to record it, and the texts written before it and at the same time as it and after it. And possibly also whether the moon was in the seventh house at the time, and whether it’s a coded message in Trithemian cryptosystems referring to the hay wain, the night of Saint John, and the knights with the white cloaks.* Not so simple anymore, right?

These are the questions we face before we even consider the implicit acknowledgement of power dynamics – relationships of economic capital and lack, of educational privilege and deprivation, of linguistic prestige and genre-based inferiority, of cultural status and material cheap ephemerality, all represented by a written text on a page. If something is legitimate, who allowed it? Who stands as authority to judge, and where do they get that power? If an interpretation is valuable, are we talking monetary value? To whom? And so on.

My questions came about for two reasons. One is that, over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a popular medieval text which, I’m increasingly convinced, has a carefully constructed subtext of innuendos about female homosexuality. Medieval lesbians! Yay! I’ve mentioned this – occasionally in almost exactly those words – to both colleagues and friends. There’s not that much point putting the argument more seriously, because if I do, pretty soon, they cut in, grinning. Medieval lesbians! Yay! Now, I’m enjoying this bit of research, but I can’t help noticing that (surprising as it may seem), it’s not quite the response I get when I talk about the fascinating details of Latin marginal interpolations into fifteenth-century Lives of Christ, or the finer details of manicule usage in Anglo-Norman penitential tracts**.

Alongside this, about month ago and in response to a conversation with some friends, I wrote a quick, slightly tongue-in-cheek post titled ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?’ Wimsey, as you may know, is a fictional character, the hero – and sometime dashing heterosexual love-interest of the heroine – of Dorothy Sayers’ classic crime novels, written in the 1920s and 1930s. Amongst his many colleagues and friends is the flamboyant lawyer, fan of the music hall and aficionado of canary-breeding, Sir Impey Biggs, known by Wimsey’s mother as the handsomest man in England, for whom no woman will care. Biggs, I think we can fairly safely say – with a cursory knowledge of subtextual hints  – coded as homosexual. Wimsey, though, is a more complex proposition, and I wanted to see whether I could quickly scare up sufficient textual support for the idea of his bisexuality, and what this kind of thought experiment could tell us about our own cherished biases. You can read that post here.

I was surprised – which was daft of me – but the responses to what I said. Some people read it, and told me they could accept Sayers’ minor characters being homosexual or bisexual – but not Wimsey. Not possible. Others pointed out that Wimsey ends up with a woman – as if (as we’re conditioned to believe) bisexual men don’t really exist, or that a charge of bisexuality levelled against a man is more or less the same thing as claiming he’s homosexual, and can be disproved by evidence of a heterosexual marriage.

But I was most surprised to find that, for some readers, interpreting Wimsey as bisexual came across as disrespectful to bisexual or homosexual readers. Another criticism came from an academic whose professional work centres on Sayers, and who pointed out that it was a little out of line for me – a medievalist – to put forward an interpretation of this bit of the text. Over at ArmsAndTheMedicalMan, Dr Jessica Meyer explains how she feels about ‘uncritical’ readings of Sayers – a particular problem for a scholar working on texts that also generate a substantial amount of interpretation outside the academy, which isn’t a problem (or a blessing) I have to deal with much in my field. Like me, Meyer’s interested in the way fiction sheds light on the past, but unlike me, she’s working with texts many people read for fun, in the original. There are people who read Chaucer or Langland for fun, of course, but they tend (and I do apologise if I’m misrepresenting anyone here) to be people who already have a basic grounding in the types of literary criticism whose absence Meyer deplores.

I could quibble about some of her readings – she is mistaken, for example, in thinking that the text does not claim Impey Biggs is blushing as he examines the witnesses in the pivotal trial scene to which I refer, although I suspect she would say that we must put this down to mere heat and emotion, rather than anticipatory nerves before Peter’s entrance – but her wider point that Wimsey’s sexuality is largely impugned by other heterosexual men in competition with him, stands. If it tends to conflate bisexuality and homosexuality, that’s probably perfectly in keeping with the period. So, Meyer’s criticisms give weight to the concerns other readers had: in offering a speculative picture of Wimsey as bisexual, am I disrespectfully ignoring the complex realities of sexualities in the past? In citing subtext and innuendo, am I trying to look at a gas-lit Edwardian novel under twenty-first disco strobe lighting?

At least two people advanced, as a disqualifying argument to Wimsey’s bisexuality, the fact that the rhyme he parodies – referring to ‘two pretty men’ – is a nursery rhyme. But this in itself tells us something about our ingrained assumptions about when, and where, homosexuality is a thinkable prospect. It’s not that nursery rhymes cannot make coded and child-like references to sexual and romantic contact: The Owl and the Pussycat is, depending on your perspective, a charming tale of heterosexual love and marriage, or a depraved picture of cross-species bestiality with explicitly objectifying lines addressed with vulgar crudity to the female pudendum. But I digress. The point is that we assume – still, I think – that if the heterosexual majority of society do not see an innuendo, it is therefore invisible to everyone else, too. We cannot imagine a child born in the late Victorian period who could possibly think in categories later periods would call homoromantic. Yet, we’ve no difficulty accepting that a three or four year old Victorian child, reading Lear’s nonsense rhyme hot off the press in 1871, would recognise that what is described is a recognisable, if delightfully strange, version of a marriage ceremony.

Is this observation ‘uncritical’, or simply critical in a different way?

Lying behind some of these issues is, I think, the feeling that if you enjoy reading against the surface of the text – if you pick on innuendos, jokes, hints, and all of that material that lies uneasily between comedy and the unpleasantly exclusionary politics of euphemism – then you are making a game of what you interpret. If you find bisexuality in a novel by reading into its subtext, you are, in some sense, making a game of bisexuality itself.

I disagree quite strongly with this, and I’d distinguish between the kind of game that is mocking (and genuinely exclusionary), interested in policing sexuality by pointing and laughing at aspects of it, and the kind of game that is joyful, and fun, and part of a tradition of shared, understated recognition.

Novels can be compared to visual art: what one person sees is not the same as that of the next person, because of environment, their experiences, their thoughts – their feelings at the time. People who go to the Tate year after year find different things to appreciate, different things to notice. But that’s what makes a great painting or a great novel – the readings between the lines.

We tend to worry a lot about the distinctions between ‘critical’ and ‘uncritical’ readings, between ‘educated’ and ‘amateur’ interpretations, between ‘literary criticism’ and ‘appreciation’. But it worries me that, as we make those distinctions, readings in which Peter Wimsey is bisexual, or my medieval characters are lesbians, are unhesitatingly aligned with the ‘uncritical’, the ‘amateur’, the ‘appreciative’ reading, as if only a reader devoid of rigorous scholarship could arrive at such an interpretation. And it worries me more that these readers – when they have any truck with the methods of literary criticism – come across as a game, a form of mockery, a way of treating the real struggles of sexuality as if they were the province of fiction, of that trivia that is literary criticism.

I don’t think either way of looking at these texts is right for me.


*If you’re wildly curious, the cryptosystem is that referred to in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, p. 135.

**Latin marginal interpolations into fifteenth-century Lives of Christ, and the finer details of manicule usage in Anglo-Norman penitential tracts, are the bomb in certain comedy circles, I’ll have you know.

A Quick Note on Moderation

Just a note to explain the way I (haphazardly) moderate this blog. Dead boring, but it seems it’d be useful to have this written somewhere.

All sorts of people comment on my blog. I try to respond to everyone (though I sometimes miss comments, because once you click ‘approve’ on one comment, WordPress automatically sends all subsequent comments through the filter, which is nice because it means regular readers can post in real time without waiting for me to send their comments through).

If I get comments that are obviously spam, or strings of obscenities/death threats/etc., I delete them. Unless they tickle my slightly dark sense of humour, or are useful in demonstrating the kind of idiots who write this stuff. It’s a bit hit and miss.

I also leave in comments I don’t personally agree with, including those I think are pretty offensive. I tend to think ignoring die-hard bigots is the best way. But I don’t automatically delete, as I do with plain-out spewing of swear words. Partly this is because I don’t feel comfortable setting myself up as Grand Arbiter of Bigotry, partly it’s because I spend a fair bit of my day job agonising over when to pull someone up on what they say or claim, and partly because it could take a very long time to get into a proper, considered argument. And I don’t always have that time.

So, there you go. It’s not a perfect policy and I might very well change how I do things in the future, but for now, that is what you can expect if you are reading my stuff.