Ackroyd’s Queer City and the ‘Natural’ Performance of Femininity

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new book, a history of London’s gay history ranging over an expansive 2000 years and titled Queer City, popped up in the Guardian today, and I read it. Andrew Dickson, the reviewer, makes the determinedly impersonal Ackroyd as much the subject of the review as the book itself, making one suspect that the biography of the man would be rather more interesting that of the city – and perhaps rather less prone to winsome ahistorical speculations.

But what interests me in the review (and the review, not the book itself) is the claim, mid-flow, that ‘unlike many chroniclers of gay culture, Ackroyd doesn’t neglect lesbianism’ (“the theory or the practice, sir?”). The details advanced in supporting evidence were delightfully familiar and expected, and especially so to me, as I read this review fresh from thinking about medieval men’s writings about female same-sex desire. We are told of Georgian dildo-selling shops, the account salaciously hedged about with the trappings of oral culture (‘it is said …’), and we’re reminded of ‘cigarillo smoke-filled Edwardian clubs’. These two anecdotes alone seem to be considered sufficient lip service (have I punned enough?) to the idea of a ‘queer’ city whose population extends beyond men. But they’re almost parodically predictable: the first a practice glossed as recognisably ‘lesbian’ because it uses a prosthetic implement resembling a male body part; the other a community tacitly depicted as such because it overtly resembles the stereotypical smoke-filled masculine equivalent. And these same exact characteristics – lesbianism as a practice dependent on a masculine prosthetic; lesbianism as imitation of masculinity – are also what male medieval writers devoted their energies to speculating about.

It could be that there’s simply nothing new under the sun: Ackroyd’s reviewer, Andrew Dickson, is unwittingly participating in a centuries-long trend of viewing lesbianism as masculinity manqué. But Ackroyd himself is credited with a telling quotation relating to one of the most-hyped medieval characters of the ‘queer city,’ the cross-dressing prostitute Rykener:

‘Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.’

The details of Rykener’s case have been chewed over plenty of times by scholars from Ruth Karras and David Boyd to Carolyn Dinshaw to Jeremy Goldberg. They’re found in court records (not, as has been pointed out, quite the unbiased source of information we might imagine), which report Rykener’s own account of his career. Ackroyd rather reads into the account, which quite insistently specifies when Rykener acted ‘as a woman’ (invariably, when conning men or prostituting himself to them) and when he acted ‘as a man’ (when sleeping with women – not, so it would seem, for financial gain). There is no implication that Rykener took on his female dress and persona during sexual interactions with women, but rather that various women already participating in the sex trade were well aware of his habits, and helped in pull off his lucrative deceptions.

But what’s telling is Ackroyd’s careful gloss of the behaviour – which, in the Latin, is described with lingering voyeuristic detail – as something Rykener ‘enacted … quite naturally’. To invoke ‘nature’ is a well-worn polemical gesture, of course, and a gesture that often goes unquestioned in modern LGBT activism. To argue that a fourteenth-century prostitute slipped between gender roles and sexual orientations ‘naturally’ is to mingle justifications of history with the justifications of biology. But it doesn’t wash. Rykener’s accusers don’t characterise his actions as natural or unnatural, but more to the point, Rykener’s own account contradicts Ackroyd’s reading. Rykener, we are told:

‘swore …  that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing …’

The practices of dressing and acting like a woman, and of performing whatever euphemised sex act is intended by the phrase ‘this detestable vice’ (and much ink has been spilled on the question), come not from nature but from careful study and teaching. Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

It’s perfectly fair (in my view) for Ackroyd to take a cheerfully magpie-like approach to the ‘queer’ history of London, and fair, too, to put his own spin on the historical records (as plenty of others have before and will again). That’s popular history, and you read it at your own risk. But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.

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3 thoughts on “Ackroyd’s Queer City and the ‘Natural’ Performance of Femininity

  1. A fine essay, and particularly impressive considering you are operating on what… 20 minutes of sleep a night.

    • 😀 Thank you! We’re not doing too badly for sleep, though tonight doesn’t bode well as she’s been unsettled all day. Eek!

  2. Pingback: Gendering The Past | Cheryl's Mewsings

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