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.

Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual? Some brief thoughts on innuendo

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For some time now, I’ve been reading Jem Bloomfield’s excellent, speculative posts about Dorothy Sayers’ novels. And I’ve enjoyed them – they coincided with me discovering her work – but until now, I’ve not felt able to add anything much. But, recently, I took a break from writing my current article on Chaucer to think about modern innuendo, and found myself led to the passages in one of Sayers’ less well-rated novels, Clouds of Witness, and so, to the burning and perhaps unexpected question: is Peter Wimsey bisexual?

Wimsey is famous in certain (admittedly, small) circles for his erudite romanticism and for being, we tend to agree, really rather nicely feminist despite being a fictional character born in the late nineteenth century. I’ve heard more women than I’d like to admit – and me included – exude a little sigh over the idea of an academic-gowned proposal taking place in starlit Oxford streets and crowned with “Placetne, Magistra?” as the phrasing of the time-honoured question. And so, perhaps I need some justification for what might seem an alarming suggestion.

My first exhibit for the jury is not Wimsey himself, but his good friend and oftentimes colleague, the dashing lawyer Sir Impey Biggs, of whom the Dowager Duchess of Denver once remarked:

‘”Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.’

The Dowager Duchess is, as readers of Sayers will know, not always the most reliable or systematic observer, but she does have a much-cited talent for understanding people, and for hitting on the crucial detail. And here, she’s speaking in fluent code. Biggs is a ‘confirmed bachelor’. The music he appreciates is ‘revue airs’ – that is, the currency of the Music Halls, which often featured cross-dressing acts and innuendo-laden songs.

Sayers goes on to describe her hero, Peter Wimsey, meeting this famous figure:

“He answered Wimsey’s greeting in his beautiful, resonant, and exquisitely controlled voice. … Wimsey expressed himself delighted to see him in a voice, by contrast, more husky and hesitant even than usual.”

On one reading, the scene is a knowing cliché: two people, conscious of the precise tones of each others’ voices; the one ‘controlled’ as if against betrayal of unseemly emotion, the other deepening into ‘husky’ tones. But, before we fan ourselves hastily, there’s another reading. On the surface, Sayers clearly means, also, to indicate that, in the presence of the great lawyer, Wimsey appears more diffident even than normal, less artificial in his control, more uncertain. This is a quality consistently associated with Wimsey, and it’s a quality Sayers takes great trouble to present as part of his appeal, as a counterweight to his frequent flashes of arrogance and self-assurance. And so, we can’t be certain this scene is to be read in the light of innuendo, especially if we’re anticipating the introduction of Wimsey’s unlikely love-interest, Harriet Vane. And yet … we’re soon treated to another telling scene, as Wimsey sits in the firelight setting the world to rights with his friend:

“Lord Peter watched his statuesque profile against the fire; it reminded him of the severe beauty of the charioteer of Delphi and was about as communicative.”

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The Charioteer of Delphi (detail)

On the surface, Wimsey’s thoughts suggest his irritation with Biggs’ discreet refusal to speculate too much on a current murder case, but the suggestiveness of the image Peter evokes is telling.

The Charioteer of Delphi is an Ancient Greek statue, portraying a young man. It was discovered in 1896, the year after the trial of Oscar Wilde, in which Wilde expounded at length on the nature of what he called ‘Greek love’, and in which the phrase (coined by Wilde’s lover Bosie) ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ was first popularised as a byword for homosexuality. In short, Wimsey recognises Biggs as a ‘Greek’ figure, an uncommunicative figure (or a figure who ‘dares not speak’) – and he phrases his recognition to himself in terms of aesthetic appreciation of another man’s Classically captivating appearance.

From this, it’s a short step to the ditty the rather rattled Wimsey comes out with when, hauled up to the witness stand before a surprised and blushing Biggs, he sings out:

“Biggy and Wiggy
Were two pretty men,
They went into court 
When the clock –“

The rest is silence: the ditty is cut off, the judge demands obedience, and Sayers rapidly retreats to a less subversively suggestive hero and, eventually, to a conclusion of impeccable Oxford courtship and ensuing matrimony.

This could all be taken as a fun parlour game – and reading books against the grain is one of my favourite things to do. But, perhaps there’s more to it than that. When I first suggested, to devoted fans of Sayers, that Impey Biggs might be a covertly homosexual character, they were willing to run with the ball. And when other readers have raised the point that Eiluned Prince, Sayers’ quite obviously lesbian character, is ‘a type to keep her hands in her pockets’, I’ve seen very little dissent. But for us to imagine Peter Wimsey as bisexual requires more of a shift of readerly attitudes, because of our own contemporary assumptions about fiction and sexuality.

It’s a truism that we are, even today, liable to imagine bisexual men are fictional – ‘in the closet’ – and that men who are truly attracted to women cannot also be attracted to men. And we tend, too, to assume that the subtle reach of innuendo in 1930s England could not possibly have denoted a sufficiently widespread tolerance of homosexuality such that Dorothy Sayers might possibly have penned a bisexual central character. But, as I hope I’ve shown by keeping one eye on the subtext, anything is possible.

Update: I can’t believe I never checked this when I first wrote the (more controversial than I was expecting) original, but apparently, ‘canary’ is theatre rhyming slang for homosexual (‘fairy’). Not sure how much I trust this, nor how it would work in terms of chronology, but I leave the suggestion here.