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.


About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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16 Responses to Rocks, Hard Places, and the (Lesbian) Interpretation of Literary Texts

  1. Pingback: Rocks, Hard Places, and the (Lesbian) Interpretation of Literary Texts – joaoalvesdacosta

  2. The second footnote made me laugh so hard my cat left the room in a huff.

    As for the rest of your very thoughtful essay, I enjoyed it very much,

    I think that postmodernism has a lot to answer for, especially with its arguments, which are more assertions than anything I would recognize as an argument, for the infinite malleability of a text. I recall listening to a very long paper on Romeo and Juliet that was based on the line that was the exact middle of the play. The author argued that Shakespeare chose to put this line at the center because of some ridiculous reason or another. When it was pointed out that this line was the exact middle only in the particular modern edition he used, thereby rendering his take on Shakespeare’s take irrelevant, he said that in no way affected the value of his argument. I agreed, but only because I found his argument equally specious before and after the revelation that he had based it on a modern edition. What I suspect is that any unorthodox reading of a text can be dismissed as mere pomo mishegoss, which saves the objector from having actually to engage the argument. I did not see pomo frippery in your argument in either post. What I saw was a scholar using the tools she has to think critically about a text. Marginalized people are, well, marginalized, and efforts to find us in standard texts are a useful antidote to that marginalization. Thank you.

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      right and for those of us infidels, Deborah… “What I suspect is that any unorthodox reading of a text can be dismissed as mere pomo mishegoss, which saves the objector from having actually to engage the argument. I did not see pomo frippery in your argument in either post. What I saw was a scholar using the tools she has to think critically about a text. Marginalized people are, well, marginalized, and efforts to find us in standard texts are a useful antidote to that marginalization. Thank you.”

      you’re just an arse hole blinging your superiority…and I thank you.

  3. Hannah G says:

    Thank you for this post!

    What I find most significant is that homoerotic readings have traditionally been subtext and innuendo, both intended by the author and initiated by the audience, or a combination of both. I find that level of audience participation often makes an analysis seem silly or not “literary” enough, especially since so much literary analysis focuses on the author. Your point of it being a “game” is well taken, too. But all of that just contributes to an ongoing silencing and marginalizing effect, the idea that a tradition of subtext doesn’t count as a tradition and therefore queer audiences are irrelevant.

    “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.” Yes!!

  4. Pingback: Two Interesting Blog LitCrit Essays | Cheryl's Mewsings

  5. Thanks for this fascinating piece. It’s a bit of a tangent, but your account of the methods, disagreements and responsibilities of this kind of analysis reminded me of theological processes of reading. They both share a concern with going beyond the surface or literal meaning, involve a belief in the complexities or mysteries of a text, refer the text’s meanings to forces or meanings behind itself, and can both provoke irritation or offence.

    The element of ‘game’ in them seems linked to this offence, as if moving away from a literal or surface reading is – as you say – interpreted as mocking or belittling the seriousness of the text or the seriousness of the world beyond it. I can recognise both the impulse to say ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, stop being impressed with your own cleverness’ when faced with a speculative reading (though never whilst reading your work, I hastily add!) and the shock at realising someone else thinks my careful reading is illegitimate or mocking.

    The element of game doesn’t seem to be something that can simply be cut out: as you suggest, the distinction between ‘critical’ and ‘uncritical’ readings is rather unsatisfactory. There’s a temptation towards ‘post critical’ readings of the Biblical texts, which acknowledges historical-critical insights and the history of interpretation, but doesn’t take them as the authoritative modes of reading – though that’s vulnerable at times to the charge of faux-naïveté. The ‘serious play’ of reading (I think it was Mike Higton and Rachel Muers that called their experiments in Biblical interpretation The Text In Play) does seem to inevitably involve taking the risk that someone will see you as unseriously playing…

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      Alas…Are you THE Jem BloomField? THE MAN?????? and again I say dear sir… YIKES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      we shall meet again I am sure… as you and Lucy ponder just HOW to relate to and educate the riff raff in between your private concerns.

      • Don’t get entangled, Tabby. Let IT GO. Lucy is a great teacher and writer. She has shared a book. You love her work. So what if she likes what Jem has to say? So what he cut me out? I don’t care! Why do you? Lucy has considered all of us. Allow her beautiful leadership. please. Please. She’s smart and listening and well. she has the right to her own interests too. Who are you or we to say what is what all the time????????????

      • tabbyrenelle says:

        There’s NO entanglement, luv. Hatred don’t rule me. You deserve the respect MY LADY. NOT Jem. Jem’s a dick. He know’s it and is a pompous dick.

        Sorry Lucy you are awesome and I am an uncultured person. I am not trying to ruin your blog. I think you are beautiful and Jem is a fucker so I’m trying to go away so everyone can live their privileged lives. It does come down to that. To entitlement and Jem is a dick. YOU chose a man. Feminism was about inclusion but not a male take over. Jem is a male take over, Lucy.

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      oh and plus, way to sound over all our heads pompous… mr. man feminist. You didn’t allow a real feminists voice on your blog and here you are ruling Lucy’s blog? because you are. She’s lost her grounding connecting to you.

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      hi again JEM… husband and editor of women calling himself a real feminist, QUESTION: why did you edit Kate and allow all the Trolls? If I understood your fear of Kate I might read the bisexual books you’re into.

  6. tabbyrenelle says:

    Are you getting it yet Lucy? Are you understanding your enablement of a Man when you declare feminism? Mind you, you get to have you faults. Feminism did mean inclusiveness. We as woemn tho, do accommodate toooooooooooo much. So where the fuck are you funny lady?

  7. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    This response is largely replicated from the previous linked thread. Apologies for that. I think I need to draw a line under this, for the sake of commentators who are not part of this argument and for myself.

    I think there is quite a bit of confusion. For the record, I have no links to Jem beyond the fact that he is a blogger I frequently read and respond to (many times on this blog, none of which have caused any controversy). So far as I understand, Jem is an academic in English Lit in England. He’s not a father to a daughter, and he’s never met me in real life.

    I wrote this post with some academic interest (I work on fiction), some casual interest (I like Sayers), and some ideological interest (I think people can resist interpretations of literary characters as bisexual, and this tells us something about attitudes to bisexuality). That’s the limit of my bias here. I certainly don’t have any other reason to support this reading, and I am finding the comments increasingly go beyond what I’m comfortable with moderating or responding to.

  8. Pingback: Doing history across time | armsandthemedicalman

  9. Max Dashu says:

    But… but… where are the medieval lesbians? inquiring minds want to know…

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