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  • Women, Writing, and Fetishism, 1890–1950: Female Cross-Gendering
  • Lynette Felber
Clare L. Taylor. Women, Writing, and Fetishism, 1890–1950: Female Cross-Gendering. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. vi + 254 pp.

The odd, equivocal parallelism in Freud's accounts of the development of male and female sexual identity provides a major example of his phallocentrism. According to Freud, for instance, fetishism is rooted in the boy's discovery that his mother lacks a penis or is castrated. In reaction to this discovery, the boy supposedly experiences a disavowal of castration that creates "the negation of an idea through repression," as Taylor paraphrases Freud, but also produces an "affirmation of it on another level of consciousness"; thus disavowal is "necessary for sexual pleasure" (14). Most significant for Clare Taylor's study, however, is the claim that women do not experience the castration complex in the same way as men. If women do not fear castration, can there be a female fetishism? Taylor argues [End Page 228] for the existence of female fetishism at the same time that she acknowledges the problems of positing female fetishism, both for Freud and for feminists who worry that a phenomenon that focuses on substitution will merely reinscribe women's marginality or "lack." Cross-gender is a crucial part of Taylor's argument that "female fetishistic cross-dressing [is] a sexual performance which enhances the desirability of the body/self for both the subject and the object of her desire" (1). The texts she includes in her study "all 'convert' female sexual inversion into 'perverse' [that is, non-neurotic] fetishism" (22).

Taylor's approach in Women, Writing, and Fetishism is both historical and theoretical. The modernist women writers she examines—Sarah Grand, Radclyffe Hall, H. D., Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Ninproduced a "symbiotic" cluster of texts in conversation with the discourses of sexology and psychoanalysis, contributing to the debate about female fetishism (1). This study joins Laura Doan's Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (2001) in contextualizing lesbianism and transvestism in the early modernist period, a time when the articulation of theories of sexology and psychoanalysis converged. During the nineteenth-centuryfin de siècle, literature began to depict cross-gendering, a "range of practices and identities" including transvestism, cross-dressing, and female masculinity (2).

Taylor's first chapter centers on Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893), a novel about the dangers of male-transmitted venereal disease. Significantly, Grand's novel contains a lengthy narrative sequence in which a female character cross-dresses as a boy. Taylor finds the novel to be an antecedent of the texts discussed in the book's subsequent chapters, a forerunner that depicts cross-gender. This chapter is as much concerned with background on inverts and cross-dressing as a reading of The Heavenly Twins, but Taylor argues that this text is significant because it presents the pattern of avowal and disavowal essential to fetishism. Grand precedes Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing and thus is "uncontaminated" by the sexologists (28). Her novel presents a "fantasized ideal of female transvestism" that is "empowering" but that is "compromised" in the subsequent writers and texts (56).

The second chapter is the most extensive and rewarding. An analysis of "Female Cross-Gendering and the Theories of Fetishism," it begins with World War I, a period particularly important for Taylor's argument about cross-dressing because women donned military and police uniforms. The chapter's literary analysis opens with discussion of two novels by Bryher, whose work is used primarily to introduce the concept of cross-gendered writing, creating a segue for a [End Page 229] more detailed analysis of Hall's fiction. One of the strengths of Women, Writing, and Fetishism is its analysis of texts that are still noncanonical, even within the emerging subcanon of sapphic modernism. For example, this chapter presents a detailed analysis of The Unlit Lamp (1924), a novel relatively ignored compared to The Well of Loneliness (1928) yet important for its depiction of the mother-daughter relationship and coded symbols of lesbian desire such as fetishized hands. Taylor also gives some attention to the oft-anthologized "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 228-231
Launched on MUSE
2005-03-23
Open Access
No
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