The Muted Lesbian Voice

The Muted Lesbian Voice: coming out of camouflage

© Nicki Hastie

2nd year dissertation submitted for the degree of BA English Literature, June 1989

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Introductory note added in February 2000

Written some ten years ago, this essay is a product of its time. That may seem an obvious thing to say, but I’m aware of how easy it can be to make assumptions about written texts which removes them completely from their historical and cultural contexts. Some of the readings or interpretations of texts included in this essay are very different to readings I would have made a few years later, and to those I might present now – and one reason why some of those readings will be different is because I can now see how I was involved in creating or perpetuating certain assumptions when I wrote this essay.

I have reproduced this essay here, as I wrote it in 1989, because this is the experience which was possible and significant to me then. I continue to feel proud of this work as my first openly lesbian essay performed in public space. For me, part of the act of promoting lesbian visibility is to show a little of where I’ve come from and where I’ve been (a subject I explore elsewhere in Lesbian eXcursions: journeying through the personal narrative).


(A number in square brackets, e.g. [1] indicates a link to a footnote)


It is now widely believed that the late 1890s formed a crucial transitional period for the conceptualisation of homosexual relationships both in Great Britain and America. [1] In Britain the law against male homosexual relations had changed under the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, bringing within the scope of the law all forms of male homosexual activity and sentencing the offender to two years’ hard labour. [2] The real significance of this amendment was in its criminalisation of all homosexual activity between men, for this created a concept of “homosexuality”, and further, a sense of identity through a new social group of “homosexuals”.

Common reactions to the mention of homosexuality were revulsion, fear and hatred and these found elaborate and pernicious expression throughout the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. Wilde was charged with sodomy, indecency and corruption. This late nineteenth-century society ranked sodomy only one step below murder. Wilde’s whole life, his popularity and success as a dramatist were destroyed because of the trials. The name of Oscar Wilde was immediately removed from the hoardings of the two theatres where An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were in performance. [3]

Repression and self-concealment were forces imposed upon individuals in same-sex relationships, yet while on trial, his life already having been invaded, Wilde could speak out brilliantly about this “love that dare not speak its name”:

It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “love that dare not speak its name”, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. … the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Censorship and Repression

The Oscar Wilde trials publicised homosexuality and coincided with the sexologists’ developing interest in same-sex relationships. It was through the work of such men as Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing that the terms “homosexual” and “invert” became well-known. Up to this point, little mention had been made of lesbian activity. The common belief was that women did not indulge in such practices. The nineteenth-century certainly gave no identity to women-loving women, and, for the most part, denied female sexuality altogether.

The sexologists did attempt a discussion of lesbianism, but lesbians were explained always in terms of a male phenomenon. It seems these writers were not so much interested to trace the characteristics of lesbians as to establish that they existed at all. Lesbians were the “invisible women”. [5] If the sexologists gave lesbians anything it was the information that they were now not sinful, but sick. Their writings provided a new scientific vocabulary of congenital inversion which became the only self-identity available to many lesbians in the early decades of the twentieth century. Society now had access to medical “evidence” in order to diagnose lesbians as “deviant”.

Meanwhile, the notion of lesbian “invisibility” continued to be reinforced. When in 1908 the brother of Christina Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, edited her collected works he extracted a number of poems which appear to have been love-poems addressed directly to women. Such destruction and suppression of records, letters and literature has been a main prejudicial factor in the continued denials and invalidation of lesbian experience. The editing-out of references to lesbian love became a feature of the twentieth century as society experienced an awakening to women’s sexual nature. Emily Dickinson’s letters to Sue Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law, were written in the 1850s: Sue’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, edited these letters for publication in 1924 and 1932. Afraid for her aunt’s literary reputation, Bianchi censored the letters by editing-out all indications of Emily’s powerful involvement with her mother.

The 1920s displayed an ambivalent attitude to lesbian love. Any notion of the existence of lesbianism was suppressed, while literary critics freely practiced condemnation of lesbian writers. An attempt in 1921 to introduce legislation against lesbians similar to the Labouchere Amendment was opposed by Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor, who made this statement:

I would be bold enough to say that of every thousand women, taken as a whole, 999 have never even heard a whisper of these practices. Among all these, in the homes of this country … the taint of this noxious and horrible suspicion is to be imparted. [6]

Lesbian relations have remained beneath the law in an attempt to hide the reality of lesbian love, although lesbians have at the same time been subjected to a form of literary “trial”. In America, the validity of Amy Lowell’s poetic sentiments were challenged on the grounds of her sexuality. Some critics severely condemned Lowell’s lesbian relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell; others ignored her lesbian identity altogether, hiding discomfort behind acutely patronising language. Louis Untermeyer in his Introduction to The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell describes Lowell as a “monstrous distribution of flesh” before itemising those physical features he considers elements of her “essential femininity”. Russell appears as no more than a “close friend”. [7]

The real explosion occurred in 1928 when Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness formed the centre of a dramatic obscenity trial. Identifying with the sexologists’ attitudes, Radclyffe Hall wished to write a sympathetic and accurate account of “inversion”. It was her call for understanding and acceptance of the “invert” which horrified the majority who viewed homosexuality as the corruption of the young. The request to discontinue publication of The Well
of Loneliness
came first from James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express, who declared:

I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today. … The decadent apostles of the most hideous and loathsome vices no longer conceal their degeneracy and their degradation … The consequence is that this pestilence is devastating young souls. [8]

Douglas, completely without compassion, warned that literature could not survive another scandal as he believed it had not yet recovered from the damage done to it by the Oscar Wilde trials. But Douglas’ outcry had begun the scandal. The novel went to trial, and Sir Chatres Biron, chief magistrate in the case, judged the book to be “an offence against decency, an obscene libel”, and ordered it to be destroyed. [9] Radclyffe Hall was determined to speak openly about lesbian love. The Well of Loneliness contains no erotic passages; it is a simple plea for tolerance. The novel was suppressed even though it conforms to the stereotypical image in literature of the misery of lesbian existence, and Stephen Gordon, the main character, is left alone at the end, her lover, Mary, driven back into the arms of a man. Whatever the limitations of The Well of Loneliness for contemporary lesbian readers, Hall deserves the greatest respect as a pioneer in her courageous defiance of silence.

Lesbianism reached a high level of articulateness for the first time during The Well of Loneliness trial, and yet the repression of lesbian existence is ongoing. Critics have always dismissed those qualities of a text which do not conform to their own particular outlook. This becomes clear when considering the exclusion of most women writers from the central repertoire of English literature. As Jeni Couzyn states, it is “the context and not the style or form of their work that men have disliked”. [10] Male critics have simply continued to ignore content even when condescending to comment upon style and form, and this repression of content is far more common in the case of women writing from and about lesbian experience.

Denials of lesbian experience are not peculiar to the early decades of the twentieth century. A 1965 reading of “Goblin Market” reveals how lesbian love becomes trivialised and subverted by its critics. [11] In the poem male sexuality is attacked through the allegorical device of goblins and seen as a sexuality which is intrusive and poisonous to female love. Sensual love occurs only between the two sisters, who together challenge the violence of male sexuality. Yet Winston Weathers cannot allow Laura and Lizzie their separate identities. He sees instead Rossetti’s use of “sisters” as expressing parts of the divided self, parts of a fragmented personality which is appropriately resolved when both of the sisters marry and adopt heterosexual tasks and operations. He ignores all passion between the sisters, such as the intense sexual encounter when Lizzie returns from the brutal hands of the goblins, having saved her sister’s life:

Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew. …
Eat me, drink me, love me.

Reading from a lesbian or feminist perspective it becomes impossible to ignore the sisters’ love and to see marriage as the climax of the poem. Rossetti may have been forced to comply with the morals of her time by suggesting that although lesbian love is innocent during adolescence it is unacceptable in grown women, but she certainly cannot be said to uphold this position in the poem as a whole. Far stronger is the woman-identified stance of the poem. Male sexuality is consistently described as “poison in the blood”, and the “no friend like a sister” acts also as a lover.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1937) have suffered similarly from a dismissal of content. Written during two decades when lesbian activity was publicly and severely condemned, [12] these two novels provide instances not only of repression within critical activity, but also of how the unacceptability of lesbian love could enter into the writer’s own consciousness.

Woolf soon introduces the reader to Clarissa Dalloway’s powerful emotional involvement with Sally Seton and to “the most exquisite moment” of Clarissa’s life when “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips” (Mrs Dalloway, p.33), but many readers have not moved on to consider the larger significance of this “quality which could only exist between women” (p.32). Critics have most often been concerned with aspects of Woolf’s style and other technical detail; with the portrayal of the isolation of human perception and her “world of disembodied spirits” and with the use of Septimus to produce a doppelganger effect. Interest in character has commonly focused on the influence of Peter Walsh in Clarissa’s life. [13] Yet the conversation between Sally and Peter at Clarissa’s party emphasises their equally-powerful involvement with Clarissa. Sally, at this point, doesn’t follow her own advice that “One must simply say what one felt” (p.170), but, then neither did Virginia Woolf when writing and re-writing this passage.

The lesbian dimension of Sally’s attraction to Clarissa is far more overt in the manuscript version of the novel, as here Sally actually proclaims her love for Clarissa in explicit passages which do not occur in the final text. [14] This gives an indication of the repression of homosexuality operating throughout the text. Heterosexual relations are problematised and appear as a frightening and loathsome version of sexuality. Clarissa sleeps alone in a “narrow” bed in the attic, and cannot “dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (p.29); Septimus is terrified by his wife’s desire for children. He comments that: “Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end” (p.80).

Critics have tended to dismiss the degree of female bonding which Woolf allows to surface in the text. Mrs Dalloway appears to accord with the definition of “lesbian existence” given by Adrienne Rich, [15] where what is important is female affiliation and bonding between women who are sexually and emotionally independent of men. Clarissa
recognises the existence of a “feminine comradeship” which unifies her and other women in “a singular bond” (p.95). Elizabeth Dalloway fits into the role of the new independent woman. There is no need to underplay the lesbian content of the novel by giving it the status of “adolescent purity” as one critic does, [16] for implicit in this phrase is the suggestion that lesbian love is immature compared to its opposite of “adult heterosexual relations”; the accusation of “immaturity” is a common technique to invalidate lesbian love.

Nightwood belongs to that body of literature which has reinforced invalidation by detailing lesbian lives as parasitic and horrifically miserable. In Barnes’ novel, love of woman for woman becomes “insane passion for unmitigated anguish” (p.75). T.S. Eliot’s influential introduction to the text aims to put the reader off the scent of lesbian love altogether. Eliot admires Barnes’ poetic sensibilities and the musically rhythmic style which gives the writing intensity. He discusses characters for their potentially-patterned nature and the only character he dwells on at any length is the male doctor. Robin Vote, the true “invert”, becomes simply a problem-character for Eliot, which he doesn’t wish to analyse any further than thinking her “the most puzzling of all, because we find her quite real without quite understanding the means by which the author has made her so”. [17] Barnes herself succumbed to the negative presentation of lesbian images in literature. Adopting the language of the sexologists, Robin is depicted as a member of the “third sex”, a “true born invert”, who must clearly be differentiated from other “normal” women who simply fall in love with her.

Writing in the homophobic climate which could ban The Well of Loneliness, it is not surprising that many images of lesbians which appeared in print were wholly unsympathetic and derogatory. Lesbian-identified literature presenting more positive images was forced to remain hidden from the public world: “most lesbian writers probably believed that sympathetic or even human representations of lesbians would not get published, and they seldom tried”. [18]

At the very beginning of the twentieth century in 1903, Gertrude Stein made the conscious decision to hold back her first completed novel from publication. Q.E.D. is the account of an autobiographical agonised love-affair which became complicated by a triangular relationship. In 1901, Stein (“Adele” in Q.E.D.) fell in love with Mary Bookstaver (“Helen Thomas”) who was already involved with a third woman, Mabel Haynes (“Mabel Neathe”). Q.E.D. details
an extremely tormented period of Stein’s life, and perhaps she wrote the novel to free herself from some of the pain for as soon as the novel was completed Stein hid the manuscript and it did not come out of the closet for nearly thirty years.

And yet Stein did wish to publish an account of the affair for she returned to the same theme in “Melanctha” of Three Lives, although here Stein disguised her own involvement by changing the gender of the characters. She heterosexualises the lesbian relationship by turning her own experiences into those of Jefferson Campbell, a male doctor. It seems that Stein did not wish the account of the Stein/Bookstaver/Haynes history to appear autobiographical. She went to quite some length in order to hide the manuscript of Q.E.D. and even to justify its being hidden in the first place. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written around thirty years after Q.E.D. provides a version of the manuscript’s “discovery”:

The funny thing about this short novel is that she [Stein] completely forgot about it for many years. She remembered herself beginning a little later writing The Three Lives but this first piece of writing was completely forgotten … This spring … she was looking for some manuscript of The Making of Americans that she wanted to show to Bernard Fay and she came across these two carefully written volumes of this completely forgotten first novel. She was very bashful and hesitant about it … [19]

When Stein helped to construct the 1941 Yale catalogue of her published and unpublished works, Q.E.D. was still excluded.


Pseudonyms have played an important part in the history of lesbian literature. When a writer does not wish to write openly about sexuality, and especially about her own lesbian experiences, the adoption of a pseudonym can sometimes be her only protection against a heterosexual culture which retains the power to remove her from her job and to create public scandal.

Rosemary Manning first published her autobiography A Time and a Time under the pseudonym of Sarah Davys. Even in 1971, Manning felt unable to publish a “frank discussion of lesbianism” under her own name. Fear that the book might damage her career as a novelist and teacher led to her request that her identity be kept secret. Manning was pleased when in 1982 she felt free to republish A Time and a Time under her own name. She wished her autobiography to throw light upon the lives of the many lesbians forced into hiding in the decades before the seventies.

When Olivia, the work of Dorothy Strachey first appeared, its authorship was unknown. The book was published anonymously, and because it is written in the form of autobiography was known only as Olivia by “Olivia”. Strachey wrote the account of her love for her headmistress, Marie Souvestre (Mlle. Julie), in 1949, at the age of eighty-three. [20] Although published anonymously, Strachey was writing from “the urgency of confession”; she felt she owed something to herself at the age of sixteen and wished to stand against the repressive culture which had caused her to hide her love for so long. Strachey writes bravely in her introduction, accepting no challenge to her love:

I have occupied this idle, empty winter with writing a story. It has been written to please myself, without thought of my own vanity or modesty, without regard for other people’s feelings, without considering whether I shock or hurt the living, without scrupling to speak of the dead.

The dominant heterosexual culture has always been in control of what can be published. An obscenity trial is not always necessary to illustrate how publishing censorship works. Alma Routsong’s novel A Place For Us was refused publication even though she had established herself as a professional writer. A commercial publisher did not accept the novel until Routsong proved the book was marketable after printing it herself in 1969, as Patience and Sarah under the
pseudonym Isabel Miller. Patience and Sarah is a romantic novel which celebrates the courage and love of two women who lived together in the nineteenth century. It seems to have been suppressed originally because of Routsong’s refusal to conform to the conventionally negative literary representation of lesbians. The novel breaks away from the preoccupation with masculine and feminine role-playing in lesbian relationships and the “mannish lesbian” to present instead a strong affirmation of lesbian love. Patience knows she will have

Time enough later to teach her [Sarah] that it’s better to be a real woman than an imitation man, and that when someone chooses a woman to go away with it’s because a woman is what’s preferred.[22]

There is no likelihood that either Patience or Sarah will turn to heterosexuality at the end of the novel, and neither are they doomed to a life of sickness and depravity.

The history of lesbian literature is one of silence and suppression. Heterosexual society has required lesbians to remain discreet, which really means out of sight altogether. The many women who have complied with this insistence on discretion have done so because of the danger of speaking out. These women have needed to protect lovers, families, and ultimately, their own reputations and self-worth. No woman wished to provide a female version of the Oscar Wilde trials, but, for the lesbian writer, or a writer using a lesbian theme, there are considerable pressures and conflicting needs for expression and repression, disclosure and concealment – the desire to write out of the self, yet fear for society’s condemnation. Radclyffe Hall was determined to name her subject in The Well of Loneliness and “refused to camouflage in any way”, [23] although it had already become “the lesbian writer’s socially-imposed obligation to camouflage” [24] love between women if she was to escape public condemnation and retain whatever professional or social prestige she may have attained.

Ambiguity and Disguise

Censorship and the use of pseudonyms are two of the more explicit forms of “camouflage”. Subtler means involve ambiguous expression and devices of disguise in order to imbed the lesbian element as a subtext beneath the surface plot. In this way a writer may obscure her own lesbian identity or the identity of her characters whilst still sending signals to the reader, who may or may not be lesbian, but if she is, she is likely to be more perceptive to the subtext than a heterosexual reader.

The experience of reading as a lesbian within a heterosexual culture producing predominantly heterosexually-oriented reading material can have a sensitising effect to the presence of subtexts. Consistently alienated by a heterosexual culture, it becomes not a matter of changing the men into women in the reading mind but of being alert to events and activities which may be there in the text, although without specific attention being drawn to them. The reading experience can be similar to Pat Califia’s account of her life as a lesbian:

Knowing I was a lesbian transformed the way I saw, heard, perceived the whole world. I became aware of a network of sensations and reactions that I had ignored my entire life.[25]

Often, enjoyment gained from the aesthetic qualities of a novel, play, or poem cannot be adequately described or “named”, and yet this paradoxical “unnamed absent presence” is central to the analytical reading of that text. Contemporary critics have considered lesbian love as the unnameable source for the fictional writings of Willa Cather, [26] an American writer whose important emotional attachments were with women. Cather insists in her essay “The Novel Demeuble” (1922) that we consider the importance of “the thing not named”, [27] a phrase similar to Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name”. This is an essence of the camouflaging effect: “the thing not named” is that absence of language which would openly describe lesbian experience, and yet, describing a form of emergence from camouflage, Cather can conclude: “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there – that, one might say, is created” (my emphasis), [28] and will be assimilated more easily by an attentive or sympathetic reader.

This kind of playfulness occurs in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Orlando, published in the same year as The Well of Loneliness, records a struggle for an acknowledgement of lesbian existence in much the same way as the final sentence of Hall’s novel – “Give us also the right to our existence!” (p.447) – makes this aspect central to The Well. However, in Orlando androgyny and transvestism become a cover for lesbian relationships. Orlando’s “form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace” (p.86), and it appears sometimes as though Orlando belongs really to neither sex (p.99), as

a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above (p.118).

Writers of the Bloomsbury circle believed androgyny and homosexuality to be closely intertwined. Edward Carpenter’s theory of the “trapped soul”, which influenced Bloomsbury writers, focuses upon gender differentiation in the human embryo: according to Carpenter, in the homosexual, the embryo’s emotional and nervous regions (the “soul”) develop along a masculine line, while the outer body develops along a feminine line, or vice versa, and the individual’s personality traits are considered to correspond to the soul’s gender. [29] This theory has links also with transvestism, for just as the body acts as a cover for the gender of the soul, clothing can disguise one’s true sex. In actual fact, the whole of Orlando operates by this principle of disguise: an interplay between the concealment of reality and its revelation.

Orlando is not simply a “hymn to androgyny” as is frequently supposed. [30] Androgyny is the camouflage for lesbian desire – “the thing not named” – that which lies beneath the text’s own outer layers. If Orlando gains freedom from constraint by “her” “ambiguous gender” (p.138), and can become whatever “she” chooses, “she” can also choose to be a lesbian. The transformation from man into woman is Orlando’s awakening to lesbian sexuality. This transformation is a form of “coming out”, but in keeping with the pattern of the novel takes place within a conflicting atmosphere of revelation and repression. The three gods, Truth, Candour and Honesty call for “The Truth and nothing but the Truth!” (p.84), while the personified female figures of Purity, Chastity and Modesty attempt to conceal the “coming out” process, “to cast their veils over the mouths of the trumpets so as to muffle them” (p.85). They attempt to disguise Orlando in her moment of self-declaration by throwing “a garment like a towel at the naked form” (p.86). The three “Ladies” are allied with repressive forces, but the fact that they fail to clothe Orlando’s naked body marks this transformation as a definite ritual of liberation.

I would add one qualifying remark. Using androgyny as a cover for lesbian relationships can be dangerous, as the repeated and belligerent attempt by critics to obscure any connection between homosexual behaviour and androgynous theories of character makes clear. [31] To establish a sex beyond gender boundaries can mean that we begin to lose touch with women-identified experience. Much of Orlando appears to disguise the fact that Orlando ever became a woman. The implication is that Orlando belongs to a “third sex” of gender-free beings, which is not so far removed from the representation of the lesbian character, Robin, in Nightwood. Here, lesbians are actually named as the “third sex” (Nightwood, p.148) and are not women at all but savage animals who eventually shun human company: “Robin was outside the ‘human type’ – a wild, thing caught in a woman’s skin, monstrously alone, monstrously vain” (p.146). These tensions occur for the very reason that lesbians have struggled against a repression which is less self-imposed than socially-imposed. While lesbians have their lives socially-controlled by a heterosexual culture which aims to theorise homosexuality and to label lesbian love an inferior love, lesbian writers lose authority over their own texts.

Other elaborately playful texts hide their lesbian subject-matter within the theme of secrets and concealment. Having invited the reader to play detective, false trails are laid, and the secrets to be uncovered are, in actual fact, far deeper than surface impressions would imply: there are secrets beyond secrets, providing the text with layers of disguise.

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen operates in this teasing way. The novel details the relationship of three schoolgirl friends, often referred to by their childhood nicknames – Dinah/”Dicey”, Clare/”Mumbo” and Sheila/”Sheikie” – who meet again after a fifty-year separation, at the age of sixty-one. The resumption of their friendship is instigated by Dinah who contacts Clare and Sheila so that they may return together to the spot where, as schoolgirls, they buried some treasure. As The Little Girls is so intricately and subtly planned, and packed with symbolic material which cannot at first be deciphered, it assumes the nature of a mystery story, diverting attention from the novel’s basic emotional statement.

Jane Rule, in her important contribution to feminist literature, Lesbian Images, has identified a lesbian interest in Elizabeth Bowen’s novels, describing how her work “manifests a pattern she seems to see in life, lesbian experience bracketing the heterosexual experience of marriage and children”. [32] Clare is the most obviously lesbian character, but even her experience is veiled, for the reader cannot identify until much later her first important love for Dinah’s mother. The relationship of real importance is that between Clare and Dinah, who mistakenly believed that they said goodbye forever at the age of eleven. It is Sheila’s role to help to seal this relationship.

The Little Girls is a challenging book about the discovery of emotional potential and reality. References to a swing and to the buried treasure recur frequently throughout the novel and operate symbolically, providing a vital link between the presexual world and the larger experience of mature womanhood. The swing suggests a form of sexual tension; the presence of an “unnamed”, because unassimilated, sexuality:

no ground-kicking from whatever angle, with whatever force can steer an unevenly-hung swing out of the twirl. Higher you go the crookeder, leaning, lurching. Great it is to master a crooked swing: greater than straighter swinging. There were three masters, Sheikie a firework in daylight. Dicey upside down, hooked on by the knees, slapping not kicking at the earth as it flew under. Mumbo face down, stomach across the seat, flailing all four limbs. Pure from the pleasure of the air … Those were the days before love. These are the days after … (pp.55-6)

As it will not hang straight, the swing represents those “mysteries” which have to be uncovered, including the repressed physical and emotional desire of one woman for another. The expedition to uncover their treasure is the friends’ subliminal attempt to understand and develop their own affections. Buried treasure symbolises “buried emotional potential”, [33] which is why the discovery of the empty coffer which once contained their treasures frightens Dinah into thinking that her friendship with Clare may also lead to nothing. When Dinah visits Clare, she flinches at the name of “Dinah” (p.144); she prefers the nickname “Dicey”, for she sees them as the “little girls” they were. It is these memories which form the basis of their relationship and they are so vividly remembered that they have become “not ‘then’ but ‘now'” (p.22). The shock of the empty coffer causes them to fade so that Dinah confuses “then” and “now” and cannot bear it when Clare denies her comfort by refusing to stay with her (p.198). Only on the very last page does “now” become properly focused when Dinah accepts her disappointments and looks toward their future relationship as mature women. Dinah
opens the dialogue:

“Who’s there?”
“Not Mumbo. Clare. Clare, where have you been?” (p.237)

The novel has been moving to this moment when both women finally accept that they need each other. They had never properly said goodbye (p.133), allowing Dinah to realise their connection had “never not been happening” (p.22), and as Clare enters Dinah’s bedroom their relationship is sealed: “Sleep so gave this room a sensual climate that to enter was to know oneself to be in the presence of an embrace” (p.235).

A common device used in texts which aim to shift overt attention away from lesbian experience, while still retaining it as an underlying theme, is to place the events in a type of “other-worldly” existence. IF lesbian activity is “safely” removed from ordinary experience, the dominant culture feels able to dismiss lesbianism even if it does recognise a lesbian element to the text. Orlando, able to transcend history, is obviously no ordinary human-being. The novel has moved into the realm of vision and fantasy, introducing all the possibilities of magical and supernatural power. There are similar occurrences in Nightwood, The Little Girls and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), where either peculiar themes and locations disguise the subject-matter, or ceremonies and rituals are carried out at night.

Nightwood‘s Robin Vote is a nocturnal creature who hovers in description between vampirish monster and wild animal. She is one of those beings who “can never again live the life of the day. When one meets them at high noon they give off, as if it were a protective emanation, something dark and muted” (Nightwood, p.94). It is the night which is alive, a time for secret rituals and celebrations.

In The Little Girls, the night-hours contain all the significant events. The coffer and its secret contents are buried and uncovered by torchlight, and at various moments, Dinah, Clare and Sheila become associated with a scenery of black magic. The novel’s Macbeth theme identifies the three friends as three witches: the “weird sisters” (The Little Girls, p.139; p.152). Dinah and Clare are connected by a language of enchantment: Dinah is a temptress; the “enchantress’s child” “Circe” (p.198); and Clare falls under her “spell” (p.38). Sheila, at the ceremonial opening of the coffer, appears “webbed like a black cobweb” (p.157), and by a form of voodoo (the mask placed in Frank’s cottage), Dinah removes Frank in order to make way for Clare. Her bedroom is itself equipped as the scene of a secret rite (p.235). This is the real moment of truth, a moment of liberated “awakening” holding as much significance as Orlando’s transformation. Just as Orlando wakens from a long sleep amidst great revelations, Dinah wakes to find herself in the presence of Clare, her wanted and potential lover.

The central character of Lolly Willowes certainly gives “the impression that her kingdom was not of this world” (Lolly Willowes, p.117). Laura Willowes moves to the village of Great Mop in order to escape the identity of “Aunt Lolly”: she desires her own freedom away from all conventional family restraints which categorise her as the spinster aunt. Laura is searching for the secret meanings of her own life, so that the appearance of Titus, her nephew, in the village becomes an intrusive disturbance and a reminder of the life she has tried to leave behind. The village itself hides a fascinating secret: Laura had never “known a village that kept such late hours” (p.125), but all is revealed when she understands the village to be a coven and herself “a witch by vocation” (p.176).

Witchood serves as a symbol for subversive existence in the text; the choice of the witch’s life instead of the life of Aunt Lolly becomes a liberating step for all women. Laura is now strongly implicated in women’s culture:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries and unregarded (p.234),

and, as witch, she is able to transcend rigid social structures by denying convention to create her own revisionary world. One becomes a witch “to escape … to have a life of one’s own” (p.239) – that existence which lesbians are consistently denied. At the Witches’ Sabbath anything may happen, including exquisite moments of happiness as Laura dances with Emily:

They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. … The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness … (pp.192-3).

Lesbian activity is removed to the fantasy world: marginalised, and made purely a part of fiction. And yet, here, the writer’s hidden impulses may take shape even while overt description remains prohibited. By writing of a revisionary utopian society she can recover some power from heterosexual control. The heterosexual culture believes her message to have been silenced and her challenge defused by pushing her writing into a realm beyond experience, but, all the time, she has been detailing the liberation of herself and her lesbian readership.

In the work of Mary Daly, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous, [34] the witch and enchantress are celebrated as powerful female symbols who resist the dominant social order, rejecting men and heterosexuality: in the words of Lolly Willowes, “I can’t take warlocks so seriously, not as a class. It is we witches who count” (p.234). From the early twentieth century and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1917), women have demonstrated and shared a commitment to feminism by the creation of fictional feminist utopias. Through the creation of women-only communities, although unable in a repressive climate to write explicitly of lesbian experience, lesbian and feminist writers have created a space apart from heterosexual society and begun to detail their liberation in place of the more usual suppression.

Liberation is the theme also of Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp (1924), an early version of The Well of Loneliness. Hall was not deliberately making a statement here about lesbian love, but a lesbian interest is buried within the discussion of a person’s right to autonomy, and this familiar call for the right to live one’s life makes The Unlit Lamp obvious test-material for the later and more explicit novel.

Joan has a right to love whom she likes, and to go where she likes and to work and be independent and happy, and if she can’t be happy then she has a right to make her own unhappiness …(The Unlit Lamp, p.80)

The novel is ostensibly the story of Joan Ogden, a spinster daughter forced to discard her own ambitions in order to care for a demanding mother. In actual fact, her “problem” is larger than this, for the whole of society is set against Joan and rapidly stifling her. Joan’s governess, Elizabeth, becomes her closest friend; their relationship, although not sexual, is clearly passionate, and Joan is constantly forced to choose between her love for Mrs Ogden and her love for Elizabeth, who wishes to take her away and live the rest of their lives together. Joan lives a “crippled existence” (p.247) because she does not want to follow the “usual” course of marriage; she is suffocated by custom and convention because of her choice of a female partner. Unlike Laura Willowes, there is no escape to the village of Great Mop, and she remains the spinster daughter.


The lesbian writer learns how to “pass” in literature and life – when it is safe to speak out, and when to be silent. Some writers have been more “acceptable” than others, but they have still looked for codes in order to disguise their lesbian relationships in literary accounts. The heterosexual culture feels more firmly in control when it can describe lesbian relationships as a “deviant” version of heterosexuality. Gertrude Stein’s definition of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas as a “marriage” conforms to this heterosexist notion, and may explain why she heterosexualised lesbian experience as a means of disguise in her published writings. The easiest method of producing this effect is to switch the gender of one of the female characters.

One of the clearest examples of this practice is the fictionalised versions of Stein’s relationship with May Bookstaver in Q.E.D. and “Melanctha”. The connection between these two texts is well known. Stein is certainly making use of the same material, for particular passages or phrases in “Melanctha” are almost identical to the Q.E.D. manuscript. In both texts, the Stein character – “Adele” of Q.E.D. and the male doctor, “Jefferson” of “Melanctha” – are unsure of their feelings for Bookstaver – “Helen”/”Melanctha”. Adele wonders if Helen “may be playing some game” (Q.E.D., p.62); Jefferson “wondered if it was just a little play that they were doing” (“Melanctha”, p.130); and both had thought that once they “knew something about women”.

Stein rewrites the Adele/Helen affair in “Melanctha” in a second way: the story is set in a racial context – Melanctha is a black woman – completely displacing the territory from Stein’s experience as a white woman. Carl Van Vechten misrepresents or misunderstands the motive behind the racial setting when he writes: “It is perhaps the first American story in which the Negro is regarded as a human being and not as an object for condescending compassion or derision”. [35]

Racial issues are clearly important in the novel Passing by the black writer, Nella Larsen, although the title itself hints at some connection with the game of “passing” played by the lesbian in a heterosexual society, suggesting that the racial interest may also act as a form of disguise. Passing is overtly about black people “passing” for white, but the book itself is “passing” as a novel with heterosexual characters, for Larsen camouflages the desire of one woman for another. Larsen would have been only too aware in 1929 of the necessity of veiling the lesbian element in her novel. She was writing in an age that had grown up with the stereotypes of black female sexuality as primitive and exotic, and to disclose a lesbian theme would have done more harm to her attempt to give a black female character the right to healthy sexual expression. [36]

Larsen invites the reader to focus all attention on the specifically racial issues in the novel, preparing a neat diversion from the sexual tension between the two central female characters, Irene and Clare. Irene and Clare are both married – Larsen places them in a comfortably heterosexual background – but these marriages are sexless. In Irene’s case this appears to be due to her own sexual repression and this is another reason why the novel “passes” so well on a heterosexual level. Irene is not alert to her sexual desires, unable to analyse why she should find Clare “really almost too good-looking” (p.156) and her voice “so appealing, so very seductive” (p.165). It is the reader’s role to consider “the thing not named”, to identify the clues to lesbian eroticism which Larsen provides and to interpret those areas Irene fears to know.

Passing demands a great deal of the reader and appears to encourage a form of dialogue with the lesbian reader who is ready to accept signals of lesbian emotion. Irene never consciously identifies or admits to lesbian feelings. Although the novel describes her growing sexual awakening, the final assimilation of lesbian sexuality is left to the reading mind. Irene retreats from any sexual knowledge. “Clare kissed a bare shoulder, seeming not to notice a slight shrinking” (p.233): at this stage, Irene can no longer ignore an atmosphere of sexual tension, but she shields herself by displacing her own desire for Clare. By holding on to the pretence that her reaction to Clare’s touch is caused by suspicions of an affair between her husband and Clare, Irene refuses to acknowledge her developing lesbian desire and the true source of her fear. Passing can find acceptance in a heterosexual world, the close of the novel “passing” as a heterosexual woman’s concern to save her marriage. The “dangerous” theme of lesbian sexuality is diluted by “safe” surface plots.

The School Setting

Other writers have devised methods of lulling the dominant social order into a false sense of complacency. The reader is encouraged to engage and sympathise with the central characters of the text before any awareness of a lesbian connection. In this way a book may gain a homophobically-inclined audience and have impressed this audience before beginning to disclose its true nature. The text may be able to operate in this way because it ha a consciousness-raising theme, where characters only steadily recognise the truth of their own feelings or those of others with whom they come into contact.

Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden, set in the fictitious Bampfield School for Girls in the late 1920s, details a year in the life of Rachel Curvengen, aged sixteen, and her developing awareness of sexual love. The events of the novel take place in the aftermath of the publication of The Well of Loneliness, providing an important background for Rachel’s development: a period of awakening to lesbian desire countered by repressive forces which make lesbian activity a “nameless vice” (p.158). In this text we see another version of “the thing not named”: that “unknown knowledge” [37] which Rachel possesses without realising it. The hidden Chinese garden in the grounds of the school is a meeting place for two of the students, Margaret and Rena; a secret world where they share their love. The garden becomes a symbol for sexual knowledge and eroticism, and Rachel is implicated in this knowledge:

Its bravado, its romanticism, its secrecy … something so intimate, so powerful in its impact, that her final emergence upon the edge of the dark lake, with its silent pagoda and waiting willows was like an embrace (p.105).

What she fails to assimilate at this stage is Margaret’s involvement with the garden and the “undercurrents of meaning in Margaret’s casual words” (p.117). Rachel is hindered in her process of discovery until she can move beyond a presumption that the unnameable – the lesbian love of Margaret and Rena – is also unknowable. Margaret and Rena are found naked together in bed, but as a sixteen year old, Rachel remains largely ignorant of the nature of this “crime”, cruelly condemned by the school. She comprehends really only as the adult Rachel, able to rationalise from the experience of hindsight, who writes in the first person in the text.

Rachel’s experience mirrors the experience of the reader who comes naively to the novel. The reader has an advantage over Rachel in having access to the experience of the sixteen year old and the adult alternately, but the initial identification is with the younger Rachel and the reader undergoes a similar process of development in order to reach the knowledge of the adult. A reader who has already learnt to sympathise with the central character is less likely to condemn the emerging knowledge of lesbian desire. Rachel shares the experience of “Olivia”, who could assimilate the true nature of her feelings only at a distance:

at that time I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know what had happened to anybody. I was without consciousness, that is to say, more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again.
(Olivia, p.10).

Awakened consciousness features in Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. In this fictionalised account of a real school situation, Hellman presents the events leading to the trial in court of two women accused of lesbianism. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie are fictional representations of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie, operators of a school for girls in Drumshueugh in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. In 1810, Jane Cumming – the play’s Mary Tilford – told her grandmother of the teachers’ love. Lady Cumming Gordon spread the tale, and the two women sued her for libel. In Hellman’s play there is nothing to suggest any overt lesbian attachment until Mary presents her “evidence”, which appears at this stage to be a complete fabrication, a story conceived in the mind of a resentful schoolgirl. Karen and Martha are horrified by the accusation, and adamant in their reply:

It makes me feel dirty and sick to be forced to say this, but here it is; there isn’t a single word of truth in anything you’ve said. We’re standing here defending ourselves – and against what? Against a lie. A great awful lie. (The Collected Plays, p.43)

Yet the two women lose their case, and at this point Martha is forced into a new self-knowledge as she begins to assimilate her true feelings, revealing those repressed lesbian passions which she had no name for before the trial:

It’s funny; it’s all mixed up. There’s something in you and you don’t know it and you don’t do anything about it. Suddenly a child gets bored and lies – and there you are, seeing it for the first time … I didn’t even know (p.63).

The play ends with Martha’s suicide. The Children’s Hour, along with Lillian Faderman’s account of the real Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, [38] aims to bring the two women out of obscurity; to give a name to the unmentionable. Lord Meadowbank, the judge in the 1810 trial attempted a cover-up of the results, believing he was protecting the public’s innocence. In 1921, Lord Birkenhead expressed the similar opinions of the twentieth century. [39]

School situations have played a significant role in the literary representation of homosexual desire. The public-schoolboy image of homosexuality is perhaps more commonly recognised than its lesbian counterpart in girls’ schools, but there is a considerable body of literature detailing such lesbian attachments. These attachments have rarely been presented positively. As a smaller-scale version of society, the school setting may produce even tighter moral pronouncements on the evils of homosexuality.

The Chinese Garden‘s Bampfield school and the school in Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1917) attempt to impose the view of lesbian attachments as sickness and perversion. Lesbian love becomes a contagion threatening the stability of the school. As a prefect, Rachel is instructed by the headmistress “to keep [her] eyes open to see if the disease was spreading” (The Chinese Garden, p.158). The message is more pronounced in Regiment of Women, where the central character and senior teacher, Clare, is represented as harbouring a thoroughly diseased and evil nature – she is a woman who preys on young girls, destroying them in the process of making them fall in love with her.

In other school situations, female romantic friendships are encouraged for they are considered aids to self-control and the development of other mature personality traits. [40] Yet this belief only conceals the true nature of lesbian love. By treating female friendships as a lesson in development, lesbian desire is invalidated and given the temporary nature of an adolescent crush – merely an emotional education for the girl before she finds a heterosexual love. School represents an enclosed environment, a form of confine which places limits on love. When lesbian experience is placed within the school the heterosexual culture can condemn and choose to ignore, believing it will spread no further than the school-gate and be forgotten beyond adolescence. Schools are
products of their society, suppressing the child’s sexual nature as wider heterosexual society sentences the lesbian to silence and obscurity.

1989: Bringing the situation up to date

“Coming out”, for the lesbian, is an important struggle for recognition and self-identity. It is also, by necessity, continuous; unending. I have been engaged in a process which defies boundaries: the creation of language out of silence. [41] With the growth of the Women’s Movement and the Lesbian and Gay Movement in the 1970s, lesbians began to write in order to overcome prejudice and to fight for the freedom to love. We were no longer simply content to beg tolerance from the heterosexual. We had found the strength to speak out for and about ourselves, rejecting the homophobic definitions controlling our lives. The new literature presented positive role-models for the development of strong women-identfied identities. These were honest, fun-filled and powerful lives like that of Molly Bolt in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

Yet our words are still turned against us when heterosexist literary criticism negates our experience; and when books go out of print almost as soon as they are published. [42] It becomes much harder to suffer silence once a language exists. The word “lesbian” has gained an almost revolutionary potential, still considered too intensely charged by some writers. Lillian Faderman’s overview of love between women has one shortcoming – the title, Surpassing the Love of Men. This title has been chosen for the mainstream culture. Other texts make their impact and challenge oppression by keeping “lesbian” in the title; for example, Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body (Le Corps Lesbien, 1973), which celebrates all aspects of the female body through supportive and erotic lesbian love.

The importance of the last two decades has been the growing understanding that lesbian experience is itself diverse. Emerging from the angry liberation movements came the recognition that different individuals desire different kinds of liberation. Throughout most of the twentieth century the known lesbian writers have belonged to the middle and upper classes. An almost “respectable” community of “deviant” women writers met in Paris in the early decades of this century. Natalie Barney was the inspiration behind the group, devoting her salons to women writers, including Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein and Vita Sackville-West. She provided financial and emotional support for literary women. Circles such as Barney’s presented the false impression that lesbian activity was strictly an upper-class phenomenon, relieving the heterosexual culture which could not accept this threat to the social structure at all levels of society. Working-class lesbians have written; they have simply been excluded twice over from literary recognition.

More recent published fiction has reported on working-class lesbian experience. The work of Caiea March who grew up in industrial South Yorkshire, is an important example, for she is committed to encouraging working-class women, like herself, to create literature from their lives. Her second novel, The Hide and Seek Files, recovers working-class women’s history, spanning seventy years in a South Yorkshire mining community, and interestingly describes the life of a woman who was forced to “pass” by dressing as a man. As a mother, March also makes a literary contribution to the often neglected experience of lesbians with children.

In the 1980s, black lesbian writers have gained freedom to write openly of the lesbian experience closed to Nella Larsen in 1929. The realities of black lesbian lives have been buried deeper than those of white lesbians, but now black writers are identifying themselves as lesbian and writing overtly from a lesbian perspective. Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple and Audre Lorde’s Zami have black lesbian experience as a central theme. It is unfortunate that this openness was not repeated in the screen version of The Color Purple. The film does not explore the full sexual nature of Celie’s relationship with the female singer Shug, although this is central to Celie’s development as she discovers the love and support of women to replace her experience of rape with men.

The defiance of silence is a defiance of oppression, but although disguises are employed less often now, there are times when we still cannot do without our camouflage. In the introduction to Naming the Waves, a collection of contemporary lesbian poetry, Christian McEwan depicts the reality:

There are photographs missing from this book, surnames altered. Some women found it necessary to use a pseudonym. Some, I know have not allowed themselves to be included. [43]

This anthology was published only last year, in 1988, a year which threatened the death of any existent lesbian and gay rights in this country through the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. The section states that local authorities shall not intentionally “promote” homosexuality, the term “promotion” remaining undefined and raising dangerous censorship implications. Section 28 has provided the “authorisation” for increased physical attacks against lesbians and gay men: a violent enforcement of silence. We have to speak out. We cannot afford to be self-oppressive, even when “Everything we write / will be used against us / or against those we love”, [44] for while we remain silent we accuse ourselves. The lesbian writer is discovering herself. She will find this easier when her audience listens:

I would like to go
to a meeting where my voice is heard
and talk about my
struggles to become a lesbian writer …

I would like to know you to let you
near enough to listen to my talking,
my joys, or speaking bitterness.



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We stand with Orlando ribbonSo here I am – driven to leave my quiet-ish hiding place (of late) and send some comments out into the world. It’s hard to have anything new or powerful enough to say about the atrocity in Orlando, FL, USA this weekend, but I must register my voice of grief, outrage, solidarity and connection with LGBT+ communities and allies everywhere. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected directly through the loss and injury of loved ones, and through the weight of being witness.

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