Paean to Gaiety

Lorna Sage

  • The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture by Terry Castle
    Columbia, 322 pp, £20.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 231 07652 5

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 Mrs Veal onwards. She had, she explains, been planning and researching a much heavier straight book about hauntings – on ‘the waning of belief in apparitions in Western culture after the Enlightenment’ – but in the end decided to come out of the closet and produce this labour of love: ‘I felt scandalously energised.’

It’s a fetching performance, this opening apologia, but also a bit of a puzzle. Hang on, you want to say: surely that particular closet disgorged its ghosts long ago? Well, no, is Castle’s answer, and in a way she’s right. Lesbian-feminist theoreticians may have succeeded in making the lesbian into almost the representative woman, but it’s been at the cost of vanishing her, making her into a figure for absence of identity, and anti-essence. She has stood for the disembodied euphoria of a feminine gender always on the run – interstitial, liminal, betwixt. Castle takes issue here with queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick, ‘lesbians who enjoy writing about male-male eros’, but who seem captive to the ‘privilege of unknowing’ when it comes to lesbian libido. So there is a ‘coming out’ to be accomplished still – and along sweeps Castle like Prince Charming to rescue the lesbian heroine from liminality and carry her with a flourish over the threshold.

Another related set of arguments inhibiting literary-historical study has been the one deriving more or less lazily from Foucault: that the ‘lesbian’ was invented by turn-of-the-century sexologists like Havelock Ellis, a special case of the more general proposition that gender is a construct of discourse. Castle finds this line unconvincing: was it really all ‘a matter of a few cuddles and “darlings” and a lot of epistemic confusion’ before 1900? ‘Common sense alone suggests otherwise ... For all its mystifications, literature is (still) the mirror of what is known: and Western civilisation, it seems, has always known on some level about lesbianism.’

Not that Castle wants to insist on a naively common-sense account – ‘I am, I suppose, a kind of closet Wittgensteinian ... the word [lesbian] is part of a “language game” ... in which we all know the rules.’ We use it as a means to an always-provisional but indispensable and living truth-in-process. So: having reconstituted the closet, and found a way out, we’re launched on a quest for incarnation, putting bodies and acts and sensuous suggestiveness to the imaginative wraiths mirrored in words (mostly). And that includes the author’s characterisation of herself, via autobiographical glimpses, off-hand asides, and enthusiastic paeans to gaiety which some of her readers may find ‘too rapturous and utopian’.

Some of this personalised, confessional stuff works well, some not. The brief prefatory piece coyly called ‘First Ed’, about a formative sighting of a ravishingly handsome gay woman in the swimming-baths at the YWCA, has its moments, mostly when it echoes Lolita, and Humbert Humbert: ‘First, Ed – who, for all the sense of drama her name evokes, is surrounded with a certain haze, a nimbus of uncertainty. Did our encounter, the one I remember, take place in 1963 or 1964?’ The idea is that this is the experience that sets one apart on enchanted ground, like H.H. the pervert and nympholept with the fancy prose style. Now you see the difference, now you don’t. Of course, my spotting Nabokov’s monster’s traces here depends on ambivalent and fleeting signs, as do some of Castle’s own readings. ‘Haze’ is the main clue: Lolita’s surname, and the kind of caressing aura Humbert regularly placed around his love-objects. The extra gloss – ‘a nimbus of uncertainty’ – is also in his manner, studied, affected, textually pleasuring itself in its redundancy; and ditto the luxuriating self-interrogation. This sort of tone is not the main thing Castle means when she cites Edward Said in praise of ‘worldliness’, but it’s connected: ‘gay men,’ she mock-complains, ‘have always seemed to monopolise the wit-and-sophistication department.’ Rediscovering such kitsch delights, one aspires to ‘point and savoir faire’ – or at least the version of those qualities represented by (say) a Violet Trefusis or a Jeanette Winterson, two Castle favourites. Common sense only gets you so far.

It’s not always such fun playing along, however. The title-essay is more sentimental than pointed, and the ghostly presences she detects in work by writers ranging from Defoe and Diderot to Compton Mackenzie, Woolf and Mary Renault are not for the most part memorably haunting. There’s a depressing mixture of pretension and weary piety about the argument’s crowning assertion that lesbianism is ‘the repressed idea at the heart of patriarchal culture’. The piece on Radclyffe Hall, however, does manage to get some amusement out of her ‘infelicities of tone’: despite the climactic, advertised agonies of The Well of Loneliness, Hall was ‘not drowning but waving’. Castle is at her best when she’s celebrating the powers of pastiche and parody and the sly strategies of re-writing. In essence that, for her, is how a text acquires its lesbian character: by acquiring more or less camp quotation marks. And in the absence of such self-consciousness (as with Radclyffe Hall) tragi-comic failures of feeling will do.

Still, some writers and some texts respond to this treatment splendidly. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s little-known 1936 historical novel, Summer Will Show, forms the basis for an elaborate revision of Eve Sedgwick’s ‘homosocial’ model for the classic novel plot (basically, women as means to male bonding). Here, argues Castle, we have a knowing ‘counterplot’, in which the hero’s wife and mistress get together in the revolutionary Paris of 1848, parodying L’Education sentimentale among other things: ‘What is particularly satisfying about Townsend Warner’s plotting here is that it illustrates so neatly ... what we might take to be the underlying principle of lesbian narrative itself: namely, that for female bonding to take, as it were, to metamorphose into explicit sexual desire, male bonding must be suppressed ... Townsend Warner’s Frederick has no boyhood friend, no father, no father-in-law, no son, no gang, no novelist on his side.’ We can extrapolate from this the kind of generic narrative recipe that will allow space for lesbian life – the pre or post-marital plot. Townsend Warner’s own plot, which kills off one of the lesbian lovers (or does it?), has a more complex savour. Plausibility is sacrificed, Castle argues, as a deliberate ‘insult to the conventional geometries of fictional eros ... an assault on the banal’.

It’s an appropriately devil-may-care argument, and one you need an authorial dandy like Townsend Warner to sustain. Other tragedies stay tragic. Reading Henry James’s The Bostonians as a rewrite of Zola’s Nana doesn’t cancel the cruelty of his treatment of Olive Chancellor’s love for Verena, but it does establish Olive as a specifically lesbian tragic heroine, and so credits James, ‘whether consciously or no’, with the ‘opening up of ... tragic space’ to women’s same-sex love. Castle is particularly proud of having been able to arrange this piece of ‘intertextual pollution’ for the chaste, fastidious master. It fits, too, you realise, with a general pattern of thinking, to do with the sexual charge associated with the old world and its pre-texts. Hence her affinities with Humbert, of course. Her chapter on Janet Flanner emphasises just how much all those New Yorker pieces from Paris went in for the pleasure of text, the sheer ‘heft and fleshliness’ of the writing, and she takes Flanner’s conscientious biographer Brenda Wineapple to task for having produced a portrait of a ‘morose’, ‘neurotic’, veiled personality: ‘as long as a biographer remains imaginatively untouched by the sensual life of his or her subject – the result will be pale and wraithlike.’

Re-enter the ghost of gaiety. The book’s governing metaphor often seems a bit forced, but there is one essay that does it proud, about that strange book by Charlotte Moberley and Eleanor Jourdain, An Adventure (1911). In it the two scholarly ladies, Principal and Vice-Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, told how they had got lost in the grounds of Versailles, strayed somehow into the past, and encountered Marie Antoinette herself. Once a famous ghost story, An Adventure now takes on a new lease of life as one of a whole series of obsessive lesbian reveries surrounding the romance-figure of the Queen – who became, Castle is able to show, a kind of lesbian icon. Scurrilous pamphlets published in the revolutionary period accused her of sexual liaisons with her women courtiers. These ‘libels’ were transposed by later hagiographers into ecstasies of sentimental friendship, and made Marie Antoinette into ‘a kind of communal topos in lesbian writing of the earlier 20th century: a shared underground motif or commonplace’. For Jourdain and Moberley it was this shared vision of Marie Antoinette that made their life-long love-affair possible. She was the ghostly third who blessed them, and acted as their point of reference. It’s a convincing argument, in fact, even though its links are candyfloss fine. And it combines with the book’s final chapter, about Castle’s own romantic adoration from a distance (a true fan) of mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, to provide the book with a suitably kitsch set of parting images.

Fassbaender in her grandest breeches role – Octavian from Rosenkavalier – and Marie Antoinette from the old prints suddenly start to look terribly familiar, and eerily akin. All that silver lace, and cross-dressing, the powdered wigs and panniers and buckled shoes – the whole fake 18th-century wardrobe belongs of course to the pantomime of Cinderella. Castle for once doesn’t come out and say so, but surely that triangle at the centre of the traditional script, Cinderella, Prince Charming and Dandini, girls together, ought to figure as popular culture’s testimony to her thesis? Or perhaps panto mores haven’t penetrated yet to Stanford? Be that as it may, there is something saccharine about her celebration of Fassbaender, even if you assume that she has her tongue in her cheek in celebrating Brigitte-Octavian’s performance of ‘gynophilic rapture’. This is to push the argument about loving your subject over the top, and being knowing about it doesn’t help. On the whole, though, and incongruously enough, The Apparitional Lesbian is doing the same job for its homoerotic tradition as a straight feminist classic like Ellen Moers’s Literary Women did a generation ago: establishing a canon, making a common place, assembling the book-lists. So the imagery of the ancien régime rightly prevails, you could say – deconstruction’s credulous and kitsch other.