‘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.

 

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