Terry Castle

Terry Castle teaches at Stanford. She is working on a critical edition of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt.

Gotcha, Pat! Highsmith in My Head

Terry Castle, 4 March 2021

Consider her brilliant reveals: the slow build-up of mad, off-kilter thoughts; the choking bolus feelings of hatred, fright, revulsion; then the explosive release of force – corporeal, appalling, exquisite – immediately followed by inrushing panic and dread. In the 1950s and 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was her only rival at capturing such vertiginous changes of state: the lightning-quick slippage from normal to horrific and back again. Back, that is, to a now nightmarish perversion of normal life from which you, the killer, realise you’ll never escape, even should the outrage you’ve just committed go undiscovered. (In classic Highsmith – witness the supremely twisty Ripley novels – even the most frenzied murders sometimes go unrecognised as such.) You’re not dead yet, but you’re unquestionably in hell: for ever. Also indisputable is the fact that Highsmith was able to dramatise the loss of control so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it was like to be one. Her brain had been arranged for it: she had blown out her own frontal lobes early on.

Love-impaled Sappho, help me in my discombobulation! Did you hear that? HILLARY CLINTON IS FLIRTING WITH ME! She’s got my hand and she is warming it up! Bejeezus! (It’s getting positively toasty!) Not only that – my god! She’s giving me the Look! (What look?) The Look You Can’t Mistake! The Nanosecond Too Long Look! The Look you get when someone shows you her trowel for the first time! The Look you get when contemplating the Mysteries of Rosicrucianism! The Look that goes with the wordless poetical language of Secret Handshakes!

Rhodes, July. Charmed marine breezes, Blakey and I in the Old City, ensconced in medieval hostel-cum-boutique hotel formerly occupied by those nutty-crusader Knights of St John. (A few grim-faced Saracens, too, no doubt – especially after Suleiman the Magnificent’s successful siege of Rhodes in 1522.) Cobbled streets around the fortress awash in the fanatic blood of centuries, but we’re in a holiday mood, sipping ouzo, feeling spoiled, a bit bloated even, also somehow holy. With iPads out and glowing numinously we’re discussing the latest mishmash of blog news from our homeland.

‘There is a visibility so tenuous, so different, or so discomfited that it is easy to miss,’ Lisa Cohen observes in All We Know, and, contrariwise, ‘a visibility so simple, so precise, or so extreme that it, too, is obscure.’ Why do we see what we see? Why do we fail to see what others see? Can we see things before they are ready to be seen? Can we see things before we are ready to see them? Such questions lie at the heart of Cohen’s strikingly elegant and assured biographical study of three now almost forgotten lesbian women.

Do I like it? Outsider Art

Terry Castle, 28 July 2011

His lips with joy they burr at you, But, Betty! what has he to do With stirrup, saddle, or with rein?

Wordsworth, ‘The Idiot Boy’

Like most people who live in cities I’ve had occasional street encounters with lunatics – none of them (the encounters) exactly Wordsworthian. There was the man with Tourette’s, whimpering, on the bus in Minneapolis – head and...

Adieu, madame: Sarah Bernhardt

Terry Castle, 4 November 2010

Sarah Bernhardt’s strangest gift – or so it seems a hundred years after the fact – was her ability to make the most improbable people go cuckoo over her. An otherwise mopey young D.H. Lawrence, for example. In 1908, having seen her perform one of her signature roles – Marguerite, the doomed courtesan in La Dame aux camélias – Lawrence sounds like a decadent...

Diary: Moving House

Terry Castle, 27 August 2009

Thinking about the three things I learned yesterday, courtesy of Levine Breaking News – a mysterious right-wing, LA-based, showbiz-obsessed website that sends me, unsolicited, ‘breaking story’ email updates several times a day. The first: Odontophobia is the fear of teeth. Good to know, but surely raises some questions. Whose teeth? What about that lady on the catafalque in...

Leaf through old New York Times reviews of the novels of Maude Hutchins – from the 1950s and early 1960s especially, when her reputation was at its height – and one is instantly struck by it: the old-maid-like embarrassment she aroused in her critics. Not one of them could get through an essay about her, it seems, without a biddyish dilation on the carnality of her themes....

First, a somewhat spittle-laden squawk: how one positively slavers for a good biography of the astonishing French artist known as Claude Cahun (1894-1954). Mention her in conversation and you are likely to draw a puzzled ‘Claude who?’ even from otherwise predatory culture vultures. In my own case – it’s true – certain vile French diphthongs may be part of the problem: the phonetic distinctions between Cahun, Caen, Caïn, Cannes, Cohn, canne, cane, cagne, camp, cône and con remain, sadly, a perpetual trial. Yet it’s also undeniable: though one of the most extraordinary personalities associated with both the French Surrealist movement and the Resistance, Cahun is still scarcely known to an English-speaking public.

Travels with My Mom: in Santa Fe

Terry Castle, 16 August 2007

Off to a great start at lunch in Phoenix airport: Terrorist Threat Level Orange for ‘high’ as usual, women’s restrooms jammed, and then the waiter in Aunt Chilada’s Cantina – garish faux-Mexican with a jalapeño pepper theme – calls me ‘sir’ when he takes our order. Fume for a second, then descend into bath of elemental shame. Why does this always happen to me? Do I really look like a guy? No doubt, after great persecution, I will suffer the miserable and lonely death of the sexual pervert. Can’t squeak about it, though: my mother is sitting right across from me in her US Airways wheelchair – peering around inquisitively at the lissom Hispanic busboys, off-duty pilots eating lunch, and our monstrously fat fellow diners.

“At its best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge – or possibly Stalin and Malenkov. Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer. Whenever she came to San Francisco, usually once or twice a year, I instantly became her female aide-de-camp: a one-woman posse, ready to drop anything at a phone call (including the classes I was supposed to be teaching at Stanford) and drive her around to various Tower Records stores and dim sum restaurants. Most important, I became adept at clucking sympathetically at her constant kvetching: about the stupidity and philistinism of whatever local sap was paying for her lecture trip, how no one had yet appreciated the true worth of her novel The Volcano Lover, how you couldn’t find a decent dry cleaner in downtown San Francisco etc, etc.”

The island of Lesbos: talk about a small world. Pick up any edition of Sappho’s fragments and the same old names keep coming up: Erinna, Gongyla, Attis, Kleis, Anactoria. You would think that after two thousand years these girls would be ready to quit the scene, but no, here they come again – a bit leathery from all the centuries of tennis and golf, but still the only game in...

You know you’re getting old when sleeping with a vampire no longer gives you a sickly thrill. At the age of ten or eleven, having absorbed the requisite number of creaky old Bela Lugosi films, I evolved such a baleful Dracula-fear that I began sleeping every night with one arm slung backwards over my neck. This neurotic and slightly awkward posture – still habitual, I’m...

My Heroin Christmas: Art Pepper and Me

Terry Castle, 18 December 2003

Living without love is like not living at all.

Art Pepper, 1958

Writing this in San Francisco, having just come back from San Diego and a heroin Christmas at my mother’s. Not that I used any: there was definitely no blowing, horning, tasting, fixing, goofing, getting loaded or laying out. I’ve always been afraid of serious drugs, knowing my grip on ‘things being...

You speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.

Hamlet, I.iii.101-2

A year ago this past autumn – a year before the old life so shockingly blew away – I made a long-contemplated trip to France and Belgium to see the cemeteries of the First World War. My quest, though transatlantic, was a modest, conventional and somewhat anorakish one: I hoped to locate the...

Pipe down back there! The Willa Cather Wars

Terry Castle, 14 December 2000

First, a fiery allegory – the reviewer’s house is burning down! After tossing the cats out of the window, she has time only to save one object before fleeing: either a compact disc reissue of Sarah Bernhardt declaiming from Phèdre or an old sepia-tinted postcard of Eleonora Duse in D’Annunzio’s La Città morta. Quick! Which to choose? The Bernhardt has...

Who more omnivorous – not to mention lewd – than Colette, the frizzle-headed Cat Woman of 20th-century French writing? Shocking still the sheer salaciousness of the prose, even in the works of her apprenticeship, written in the days when ladies wore bustles and carried parasols. Take the following scene from the autobiographical Claudine à Paris (1901), in which the precocious yet virginal 17-year-old heroine, recently arrived in the capital with her dreamy widower father, is flirting with her ‘uncle’ Renaud, a handsome older friend of the family by whom (though she hasn’t realised it yet) she desperately wants to be fucked. She tells him a titillating story about one of her schoolmates in the country village of Montigny:’‘

Always the Bridesmaid: Sappho

Terry Castle, 30 September 1999

Perhaps the most embarrassing consequence of reading Victorian Sappho – Yopie Prins’s impressive account of how Victorian poets over the course of a century imagined, exploited and distorted the mysterious figure of Sappho – is being forced to confront one’s own mental images of the long-dead Greek poet. My own most cherished notions of her, I find, are at once detailed, puerile and unbending – a strange hodge-podge of Baudelaire, Mary Barnard and Ronald Firbank, all coloured still by the prejudicial fancies of a flannel-shirted, late Seventies lesbian adolescence:’

When slave girls rebel, boss ladies watch out! In literature as in life, the revenge of a female underling on a female superior can be a messy business – with limbs, eyeballs, breasts, and other detachable body parts left dripping in gore around the house. A variety of situations may propel such fury. In Euripides’ Electra, Western civilisation’s mythic prototype for female-on-female mayhem, the rebel is an Outraged Daughter and the boss lady her Wicked Old Mother: Clytemnestra’s doom is sealed when she puts her sex life ahead of her daughter’s. At other times it’s a matter of plain old class rage: a put-upon servant who’s had enough of a tyrannical mistress. In France in 1933 the notorious Papin sisters – real-life models for the homicidal domestics in Genet’s The Maids – disembowelled their bourgeois mistress and her daughter in a fit of bestial frenzy after the unfortunate Mme Lancelin complained once too often about a blown fuse on her electric iron.’

Changelings, centaurs, ogres and elves may no longer inhabit the earth, but occasionally we run into their descendants: people so monstrous, in-candescent, or freakishly themselves that only a quasi-supernatural description seems to do them justice. In the 20th century they come in all shapes and sizes: from the obvious ghouls and werewolves (Rasputin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Jeffrey Dahmer) to various mid-rank demigods and unicorn-people (T.E. Lawrence, Wittgenstein, Che Guevara, Greta Garbo, Edith Sitwell, JFK, Maria Callas, Howard Hughes, Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould, the late Princess of Wales) down to minor bog-sprites such as Eartha Kitt, Cher or Quentin Crisp. (Such lists are infinitely expandable.) What links each of these disparate individuals is a singularity so tangible as to border on the uncanny. We register each as a unique assemblage of moral and psychic tics: and each, in turn, seems to connect us to some alternative world. We are deeply impressed when one of them weakens and dies.

Flournoy’s Complaint

Terry Castle, 23 May 1996

The dilemma: it is 1892, you are a 30-year-old female shop assistant in a small silk manufacturing concern in Geneva, the city of your birth. You live with your parents in a modest but pleasant suburban house; you travel to work on the streetcar. You have no suitors, but don’t really mind: you have a spiritual protector named ‘Léopold’, a reincarnation of the 18th-century magician Cagliostro, who appears to you in visions in the long brown robe of a monk, offering advice and emotional solace. Your main hobbies are embroidery – of mystic shapes and patterns bearing no resemblance to anything in the visible world – and the obsessive cultivation of states of ‘obnubilation’, during which ‘strange multicoloured landscapes, stone lions with mutilated heads, and fanciful objects on pedestals’ float before your eyes.’’


Terry Castle, 3 August 1995

It is impossible for the lover of Jane Austen – and lover is the operative word here – to have anything but mixed feelings about Austen’s older sister Cassandra. On one hand, we owe to Cassandra the only surviving (if bad) portraits of Austen other than silhouettes: the famous, somewhat lopsided sketch of 1801, in which the novelist’s mouth is awkwardly pursed and her eyes, gazing in different directions, look like small, astigmatic raisins; and an equally inept watercolour back-view from 1804, in which nothing of Austen can be seen – Cassandra giving her all to the rendering of the complicated dress and bonnet – except the nape of a neck, the exposed back of one hand, and a tentative, slipper-clad foot. Crude they may be, yet without these sisterly gleanings we would know next to nothing of Austen’s face or figure or how she held herself in space: dead at 42 in 1817, she is part of that last, infinitely poignant, generation of human beings who lived and died before photography.’

Sublimely Bad

Terry Castle, 23 February 1995

How bad are most of the novels produced by English women writers in the decades before Jane Austen? Sad to say, just when one thinks one has read the very worst of them, another comes along to send one’s spirits plummeting further. Eliza Fenwick’s excruciating pseudo-Gothic epistolary novel, Secresy; or, The Ruin of the Rock (1795), is hardly the first ‘lost’ 18th-century woman’s novel to be resurrected over the past decade by feminist literary historians. Other recent finds include Eliza Haywood’s snooze-inducing The British Recluse from 1722 (‘a sad Example of what Miseries may attend a Woman, who has no other Foundation for belief in what her Lover says to her, than the good Opinion her Passion has made her conceive of him’); Sarah Fielding’s deeply unpleasant David Simple (1744), in which characters with names like Spatter, Lady Know-All and Mr Varnish assail the gormless hero until he drops dead of despair; and Sarah Scott’s thoroughly demoralising Millenium Hall (1762), on the supposed consolations of living in a grim all-female community where one does nothing but sew all day and read aloud from Scripture with one’s pious fellow virgins. Whether, given the competition, Secresy is so ‘sublimely bad’ – in Pope’s phrase – to take the crown of ultimate badness, remains to be seen.’


My baby done left me

18 December 2003

John Heath is right to distinguish traditional Cretan music from the gritty urban (usually Athenian) recorded music of the 1920s and 1930s known as rebétika (Letters, 5 February). I was obviously hitting the ouzo. But in my own defence I find, consulting the liner notes of Greek-Oriental Rebetica: The Golden Years: 1911-37, that the words of my favourite rebétika song, ‘If I were...


15 April 1999

Alas, in my review of Rosemary Mahoney’s A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman I mistranscribed the final line of Eileen Myles’s poem, ‘On the Death of Robert Lowell’ (LRB, 15 April). It should read ‘Fucking dead’, not ‘Fucking nuts’. My sincere apologies to Eileen Myles for this authorial flub.


3 August 1995

There has been a spate of reports in the British press saying that in my essay about Jane Austen’s letters (LRB, 3 August) I made the claim that Jane Austen ‘may have been gay’ or may have had a ‘lesbian relationship’ with her sister Cassandra.My comments have been grotesquely, indeed almost comically, distorted. Nowhere in my essay did I state that Jane Austen was a lesbian...

Sublimely Bad

23 February 1995

In her response to my review of Eliza Fenwick’s 1795 novel Secresy (Letters, 9 March) Amanda Sebestyen accuses me of Being Mean (à la George Eliot) to ‘silly lady novelists’ of the 18th century like Fenwick. In turn, I am Not Mean Enough, it seems, to Jane Austen, that ‘crucial contributor to the terrain of English conservatism’ who wrote ‘uncomplainingly...

One Night in Maidenhead

Jean McNicol, 30 October 1997

‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, that’s what she is, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me.’ Radclyffe Hall has...

Read More

Paean to Gaiety

Lorna Sage, 22 September 1994

In this camp and dashing and deliberately lightweight study of a certain strand of ‘sexual ontology’ Terry Castle pursues the lesbian-as-ghost from Defoe’s wistful nearly-real...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences