Sore-footed camels and Unfocussed Thoughts: A New Year’s Resolution to Procrastinate More

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I never managed to write a pre-Christmas post this year. You can probably see why. According to the New Year’s Resolutions I see anxiously discussed by friends and colleagues, I’m not alone. Christmas is a disorienting time to be a woman academic. Our analogues in the Biblical texts are the Magi: old men poring over the stars and consulting prophecies, who nevertheless manage to miss the deadline everyone else met, to blab angelic unpublished material to a rival research unit, and to bring the most impractical and tediously symbolic gifts ever to grace a newborn’s crib. T. S. Eliot’s Wise Men speak in an absurd echo of Four Yorkshiremen Do Christmas, moaning with would-be stoicism ‘A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year … And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory‘. Like pampered dwellers in the Ivory Tower, they soon let slip the perks of their lifestyle (‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ And the silken girls bringing sherbet‘).

I’d like to imagine it’s only Magi – or perhaps senior professors – who presume they deserve a research lifestyle smoothed around the edges by the silent attentions of feminine bringers of drinks (and, presumably, preparers of astrolabes and wrappers of boxes of myrrh). But there’s a wider academic culture that functions on these expectations. You see it at conferences, in senior common rooms, in libraries. Sitting in Newnham Senior Common Room the other week, I overheard the tail-end of a conversation between two (youngish) men. As one made to pick up his cup and return it to the tray, the other casually instructed him ‘you don’t need to do that’ – even though a female colleague was, just then, doing exactly that piece of clearing up. After all, some unobtrusive non-academic person would soon pop by, with fresh coffee, to tidy the papers and pick up cups left on various surfaces.

The entitlement of this little episode, which casually presumes that someone else will do the clearing so long as we do the hard thinking, makes me rather uncomfortable with the trappings of academia. It also makes me think again about the reasons why hard thinking has become synonymous with freeing oneself from distractions. I have seen several articles recently that claim, approvingly, that good researchers are those who stick at a problem longer than everyone else, who become single-minded in pursuit of an answer. This concentration is, obviously, an awful lot easier with a certain kind of freedom from other obligations. The pram in the hall is the enemy of promise, Cyril Connolly helpfully claimed; Virginia Woolf equally helpfully suggested that a women needs ‘a room of one’s own’. I would find these quotations less annoying had I heard them less frequently over the last few months.

I think that, especially for women writers and academics, the rhetoric of freedom from distractions has been internalised, and has turned in on itself as a means of self-flagellation. We express guilty regret for insufficient productivity and efficiency, for too many hours spent in procrastination, too many dead-end tasks, too few publications. We need to be more focussed, more single-minded, more concentrated, say my friends and (mostly female …) colleagues. As we balk at leaving the coffee cups on the table, we tell ourselves we need to stamp down on the day-dreaming and the wasted time. While we meet with upset students or respond to distressed colleagues or pick up crying babies, we resolve to be less easily distracted.

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Given the all clear from the midwives. May.

I kept telling myself these things too, as I wondered why I hadn’t written as many papers as I believe I ought to have done. I sat down to work out where the year went. In March this year, my daughter was born. I submitted and received the contract for my first book (forthcoming from Boydell and Brewer). I had my first article accepted (forthcoming in The Chaucer Review in April 2018). I wrote and submitted my second article (Postmedieval). I organised a series conference sessions with Emma Bérat for our project on Women’s Strategies of Memory at Leeds IMC 2018. I started a new job at Newnham College as affiliated lecturer and Director of Studies while my lovely colleague is off on maternity leave, and I found a home for a third paper in an edited collection put together by the fabulous Carissa Harris, Liza Strakhov and Sarah Baechle. Before we quite get to the end of 2017, I’d like to finish writing my paper for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in early January.

This past term, my partner went back to work 3.5 days a week. I had 12 hours teaching for my first and second-year medievalists at Newnham and Murray Edwards, which fitted into the remaining 1.5 days she was at home with the baby. My marking (22 essays, so around another 11 hours), teaching prep, admin, and all of my own writing and research, happened around the baby. She learned to stand up grabbing onto the chairs in my office, and babbled through a lot of phone meetings with the Senior Tutor in one especially fraught week. Midway through term, in November, I had surgery to remove a 20cm cyst in my ovary, and after term ended, I came back for another week of admissions interviews (and felt devoutly thankful that my colleague, the other Newnham DoS, was doing most of the admin!).

During this past term, I followed my friend Rachel Moss’s posts (here and here) as she movingly and thoughtfully discussed the ways in which our bodies and our physical circumstances shape our academic work. Her posts made me gratefully aware of how lucky I am, but also made me think about my own changing ways of being productive. In a sense, being very busy with a baby seems to be a highly concentrated state of thinking. You have no option but to focus on one strand of thought. You don’t have time to daydream. It looks awfully like what high-achieving scholars piously claim is the ideal … only, funnily enough, it doesn’t quite feel as stimulating and efficient as they suggest.

Big, speculative tangents that take you from Chaucer to the Heroides to the Middle English Dictionary to Bourdieu aren’t going to happen if the second priority in your mind is always ‘can I pin this paragraph down before the baby crawls off the edge of the sofa?’ Like the Dreamer in Pearl, more elusively rounded thoughts tended to slip through my fingers ‘from grass to ground,’ and get lost.

I thought, wistfully, about the way in which medieval dream-visions operate on multiple levels, constantly throwing up speculative possibilities and inviting us to fellow tangents and digress down unexpected paths. I thought about St Augustine, calmly dissecting the processes of his own memory as he ponders the experience of reciting a psalm, all the while conscious of the remarkable way the text winds itself through the reciting mind from anticipation to memory. I thought, and I began to doubt, somewhat, that what these ideal academics are doing when they free themselves from distractions really is single-minded, concentrated thinking.

I am not suggesting we should all equip ourselves with climbing babies, still less that we should be martyrishly positive in the face of unethically busy workloads or crises with student mental health, or (god forbid) our own health issues. But I would like to see a version of academia in which we could take the time to consider how these things shape our thoughts, where we could acknowledge that being single-minded and concentrated is, in fact, a poor way of thinking. Perhaps if the Magi had bothered to make the sherbet themselves, the break from star-charts might have stimulated a new approach to a problem. Perhaps they would have arrived on time. Perhaps if the men in Newnham Common Room had picked up their coffee cups for themselves, they would have found themselves chatting (as I have) with a chance-met colleague who offered a completely unexpected new perspective on a piece of work.

Speculative, open-ended, seemingly ‘trivial’ conversations led to some of the work I’m most excited to be settling down to for the next year. Many of these conversations were ‘distractions’ from work – chats about babies and health issues, jokes about fertility clinics or surgical wards. But they turned into serious thoughts about how the printing press changed the available ways for thinking about (queer) reproductivity, about how Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is interested in the sterility of inherited Classical narratives; about how the pardon Langland’s Piers Plowman rips in fury is, in a sense, also the textual body of the infant Christ, both mutilated and brought to birth.

My New Year’s Resolution won’t therefore be to be more productive or more driven – but to celebrate the speculative, thoughtful, unfocussed moments we need to value more in our own work and in each other.

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‘Queerly Invisible’: Medieval and Modern Fictions of Lesbianism

Tomorrow – December 14th – I’m going to be giving a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London, for their new Queer History MA. It starts at 5pm, and there are more details here. The talk is open to everyone, so please come! I’ll talk for about 40 minutes, and then there’ll be lots of question time.

I’ll be talking about medieval lesbians and public history. There’ll be quotations from the delightfully censorious finger-wagging accounts of medieval clerics, speculating (in somewhat implausible detail) about the activities of deviant women, and details from a fabulously bizarre Middle English romance. But I’ve also been trying to think about how I approach the task of researching something as nebulous and personal as sexuality, something that leaves so little mark on the ‘historical record’ as it’s generally understood. It’s hard to find historical accounts of women’s desires for other women. It’s hard to find texts where women reflect on intimacies with other women. We end up piecing together narratives from the tiniest hints, or reading between the lines to catch a glimpse of something that looks familiar. And – so I believe – we end up exaggerating not only the silences of the medieval record, but also the certainties of our own contemporary ideas of sexual identity. In my paper, I make brief mention of a modern novelist whose work helps me to think about both those silences and those contemporary (un)certainties: Barbara Trapido.

Trapido’s first novel focuses on Katherine, a young woman growing up in the 1960s and 70s, who’s acutely conscious that her rather innocent suburban childhood makes her an outsider amongst her more confident, cultured peers. This novel isn’t overtly about lesbianism at all – in fact, you’d initially think it was far more about Katherine’s entanglement with a gorgeous and rather arch older man – but it has a lot to say about attitudes to sexuality at the time. Katherine tells us:

My mother coincided only once with John. … “He’s queer,” she said, priding herself on her instinct for nosing out sexual deviance. “The world is full of nice young men. Why do you go out with an old queer?”

In the mildest and most socially acceptable of teenage rebellions, Katherine ends up studying philosophy at a London university, under the guidance of the paternal and opinionated Jacob, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany who specialises in Marxist philosophy and who makes space for Katherine as a visitor in his chaotic family home. We learn that Jacob shares at least some of the conclusions previously drawn, as Katherine tells us:

I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling [him] an old faggot. For one thing he said it so loudly it filled the air without shame. It had none of the same prim moral censure. 

I love this, because I can relate to the way in which Katherine is industriously persuading herself that there’s a rhetorical – and ideological – distinction between her mother’s unabashed homophobia and the equally derogatory language of her newly-found father figure. I enjoy the way we recognise – via Katherine –  that despite his patina of intellectual respectability and his profoundly sobering history as a childhood escapee from Nazi Germany, Jacob is still something of an enfant terrible, indulging a juvenile enjoyment of flouting conventions. But I also love this exchange because it sets the scene for something much more interesting to me as a scholar of same-sex desire, and that’s the innuendo that Jacob (unwittingly) contributes. Warning Katherine away from John, Jacob advises:

“Tell him to use his own house, lovey, and don’t you venture into the bedroom without taking a spanner with you.” 

Obviously enough, Jacob has in mind nothing more subtle than a swift metallic thunk, to be applied to a more-than-desirably amorous suitor, but Katherine claims innocently:

“To this day I don’t really know what he meant by it, but he made me laugh a little, which was a gratifying release.”

As a fig-leaf for the violent implication, then, we’re given the assurance of humour, which neatly links this episode with Katherine’s own recycling of the same image, much later on in the novel. Arguing with her Petruchio-like Italian boyfriend, she is faced with a sudden (unfounded) accusation of lesbianism:

“You spend your evening with Janice,’ he said. ‘How does it feel to go to bed with a woman?”

“You should know,” I said.

“Is it that the woman is too ugly to find a man, that you do this for her? Or do you want to be a man, my Caterina?” he said, pityingly. “You are lacking in important respects.” I found this so absurd, not to say distasteful, that I could not take it seriously. … I said we used spanners, Janice and I. This was a mistake, because he believed me, I think.

In many ways, this is the most nebulous, most elusive evidence relating to female same-sex desire I could possibly cite. The text casts shadows around lesbianism rather than writing about lesbianism. Its lesbians are invisible – hypothetical, counterfactual – and they are mentioned only to construct the punchline of an innuendo-heavy joke directed against a paranoid man.

Later on, though, Trapido revisits the topic. Her novel Temples of Delight (1990) features Alice, a bright, isolated and mildly rebellious daughter of conservative and conventional parents, who falls under the spell of a brilliant, bohemian schoolfriend adept at quoting Mozart and skipping school. It’s clear enough that this is a ‘lesbian’ encounter – at least on Alice’s side – because later, in the sequel (Juggling, 1994), we meet a grown-up Alice who eventually leaves her husband and comes out. Despite this, the juvenile Alice’s inability to name her own feelings is convincing, that any suggestion this was a potentially lesbian relationship completely passed over my head when I first read it, aged about 14. All I noticed was that Alice expressed a perfectly rational and normal (so it seemed to me) reluctance to sleep with the handsome, thoroughly decent, but heartily and oppressively masculine young man who was keen to pressure her towards him. Certainly – and I like to think Trapido would appreciate the irony – it didn’t occur to me we were supposed to draw any conclusions about Alice’s sexuality from that unexpressed reluctance. Alice is an ‘invisible’ lesbian, a character who (in the first book) never names her sexuality or identifies herself unambiguously.

It’s a vital story that Trapido is telling, when she tells us about Alice. Yet it’s a narrative that never seeks to name Alice’s sexuality, never suggests she has a ‘self conscious’ understanding of that sexuality. It flies in the fact of popular understandings of what it means to be lesbian, in our sophisticated post-Foucault world. And what Trapido tells us about Katherine is even more elusive. We’re given to understand that sexuality is not a binary matter – else why include John, a ‘queer’ who is clearly not exclusively interested in same-sex relations? – but we’re also invited to understand sexuality in terms of innuendos that will rapidly slip beyond the understanding of historians (‘what is this word “spanner”‘? What did it mean in twentieth-century English?).

The very subtlety of these texts has a lot to tells about perceptions of sexuality. Much of what we communicate about sexuality – and especially ‘alternative’ sexualities – is conveyed through unspoken implications, through silences, through moments that need to be reinterpreted in the light of a later story, through innuendos and suppositions and hypothetical examples. Much of this won’t leave a mark on the historical record; much more of it might be hard to decode within a few hundred years. But, because these texts construct such fleeting, tacit and tangential images of same-sex desire, they maintain a space in which sexuality can be about unexpressed possibilities and unspecified impetuses. It’s a space in which we might be able to imagine a meeting with the distant past, and an understanding of a period that didn’t have a terminology to describe, much less name, same-sex desires. But it’s also a space that should remind us how fictional – how hypothetical, how tacit – our own certainties regarding sexuality can be. It’s a space to remind us how easily our own sure identities might be disrupted in a future historian’s interpretation, and how cautious – and generous – we need to be in reading between the lines of the past.