Making Lesbian History Visible

At this point I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and life long experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace. The conversations that did happen and did not. The words permitted, and those uttered without permission. The invitations refused and accepted. The fears. The imaginations, erotic and projected. The walks in the woods, the fucking, the pleasure of the company acknowledged and refused. The meals, the conversation, how and what conversations provoked, the actions, the artworks, the articles, books, tears, orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered, caresses, tendernesses, the refusals of tenderness, kisses that were and should have been, and how this moved the earth, the culture, the society or even just one or two people’s small lives. I propose that we call this whatever we want to call it, but that we not let it fall by the wayside, because when those of us creating queer history and culture display a reluctance to go deeper and transcend the artifice of restrictive thinking, the mainstream representations are handed a convenient model of hesitant obscuration. Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret. It doesn’t have to be clean, neat, safe, compartmentalized, or expected. Show it all and let the chips fall where they may.

Sarah Schulman, ‘Making Lesbian History Visible: A Proposal’ at Out History

5 Things (sand, fossils, junk food, vintage lesbians, dresses)

This image is one of my favourites, so I was delighted to discover this article from FACTS.FM which has more astonishing photographs revealing the Hidden Beauty of Sand. I’m especially taken with the grains of sand that are actually tiny fossils.

Continuing with the fossil theme, I adored David Attenborough’s 1989 documentary Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives.  Attenborough’s passion for the subject is so infectious and I think the documentary is improved by being produced before the advent of CGI. Without the option to create CGI images of the animals (which is almost certainly what would happen if this was made now), the documentary has to focus on the actual fossils.  So if you want to see fossils in abundance, this is the one to watch. I think it’s stunning and can’t wait to show it to my nephew when he’s old enough.

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This week’s culture round-up

Flavorwire tells us that these are the 20 most iconic books covers ever . It’s interesting that most of the books on the list are books that middle-class adolescents are expected to read.   This is not to say they’re not iconic covers, just that someone with more mental energy than I have right now could probably say something about the politics of canon formation.

From the Paris Review, an article about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Hound of the Baskervilles .  I was such a Sherlock Holmes fan when I was a teenager.  I couldn’t start reading The Adventures without going on to read the entire series. The Hound of the Baskervilles is not my favourite, but I do like its gothic atmosphere.

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Emma Donoghue, Landing (2007)

Emma Donoghue is a lesbian writer with an impressive range.  She’s produced literary history, plays and short stories, as well as her novels which cross the genres of historical fiction, contemporary realism and, in the case of Landing, light romance.

In a chance meeting, Sile, a glamorous, 39 year-old, Irish-Indian flight attendant falls for Jude, a twenty-five year old Canadian Quaker from the tiny town of Ireland in Ontario. The book follows the progress of their relationship over the course of a year and, though light in tone, Donoghue includes just enough serious issues to give the story an edge.

As this review notes, Jude and Sile have to deal with generational, economic, cultural and spiritual differences.  Landing also uses the theme of the long-distance relationship to explore broader questions around the ways in which technological developments have created new possibilities, but also new problems, for relationships. What should a relationship be based on? How much should you be prepared to give up for a relationship? What are the limits of compromise?

Although Sile is probably the more vivid character, I felt that Donoghue had slightly more sympathy with Jude’s simple lifestyle, an impression created most strongly by the representation of Sile’s atrocious yuppie friends. But both women have to change if their relationship is to succeed and, all in all, it’s a good story about taking risks, compromise and personal growth.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Donoghue creates a narrative problem for herself by having Sile in a long-term relationship when she meets Jude. This creates conflict, which is good for fiction, but Donoghue doesn’t seem to want to risk the reader losing sympathy with Sile, which leads her to create a rather unbelievable relationship and the girlfriend quickly turns into a cardboard cut-out nasty lesbian ex.

Landing resonated with me personally because my partner (who also reviewed Landing here) and I met in inconvenient circumstances and did long-distance between the UK and the States for two years, so we had to deal with a lot of similar issues.   I especially enjoyed the emails which reminded me so much of the early days of our relationship when we were very dependent on email – the agonising over sending the message, the excitement of getting a reply, the misunderstandings caused by language differences and the inevitable problems that occur when trying to communicate without the use of voice and body language (thank goodness for emoticons). Donoghue herself emigrated from Ireland to Canada to be with her partner, so I suspect a lot of the emotions attached to that experience went into the writing of Landing.

This is a good holiday read (it was exactly what I needed while having a hard time in the spring).  It’s definitely one for fans of lesbian romance, and I’d say worth a look even if  (like me) you don’t usually enjoy the genre.

Diana Souhami, Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (2004)

Natalie Barney (1876 – 1972) and Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970) were lesbians whose extremely long lives and 50-year non-monogamous romance spanned a period of time from the fin de siècle to Stonewall.  They were both from wealthy families and active in the arts – Natalie was a poet and novelist and Romaine was a painter.  Between them they seem to have been friends or lovers with most of the famous lesbians of the period.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think this is a very good book. It reads like an extended gossip column (all description and little analysis), the prose is serviceable at best, the title is inappropriate for a book about two such highly complex women and Souhami weirdly intersperses the narrative with episodes that are apparently drawn from her own life.

However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed reading Wild Girls and might call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if, that is, I felt guilty about reading silly books. Even in such an unsophisticated take on their lives, Natalie and Romaine come across as fascinating characters and I really enjoyed finding out more about them and their relationships with women like the poet Renee Vivien, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, the dancer, Ida Rubenstein, and of course Radcliffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge.  Truman Capote once referred to Romaine Brook’s paintings as ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’ and you really can’t argue with him on that one.  The book includes some great photographs and images of Romaine’s paintings.

Romaine, in particular, had an incredibly traumatic upbringing and I would have liked to read a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to her subsequent mental health problems.  Actually, it was the attitude to mental health that made me most uncomfortable with this book, as a lot of the women had problems which come across as sensationalised – Renee Vivien’s anorexia is one example and Dolly Wilde’s depression and addictions another

Wild Girls is a non-challenging introduction to a specific lesbian sub-culture of the fin de siècle and first half of the twentieth century and it’s probably the kind of book best read while lying on the sofa sick with the flu.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about this drama is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.