- “And I Wondered If She Might Kiss Me”: Lesbian Panic as Narrative Strategy in British Women’s Fictions
1. Invisible in Plain Sight; or, Toward a Theory of Lesbian Panic
Let us consider a familiar scenario:
A young woman, courted by an aggressive and impetuous young man, is more far more deeply attached to her daring and androgynous female companion. One evening in a garden, the passion between the two women reaches a climactic point. They kiss; but their moment of jouissance is disrupted by the appearance of the young man, who ridicules them in their socially awkward juxtaposition. Upset by this incident, the young woman abandons both her suitors and marries a relatively undemanding and uninteresting admirer. Afterwards, her life becomes one of external privilege and respectability which serves to [End Page 567] mask the sexual repression, depression, and pointlessness of her quotidian existence.
A popular and flamboyant teacher, middle-aged and never married, attracts a coterie of schoolgirls. One girl, frustrated by being less than first in her teacher’s affections, attempts to draw closer, at least metaphysically, to her by engaging in an affair with the older woman’s male lover. When this liaison comes to a crisis, the student publicly exposes and denounces the teacher’s seditious political beliefs. The disgraced teacher is dismissed from her position; the student retreats to the celibate homosociality of the convent.
Or still another:
Two divorced mothers share a flat. This arrangement not only provides a certain economy in terms of housing expense and a system of mutual child care that allows them to conduct their various affairs with men, but also serves as the foundation of the close friendship between them as they face the challenges of life as “free women.” But one woman’s lover, a psychiatrist, warns her that her living arrangements with the other woman are not “good for her,” implying that their relationship is unconsciously lesbian. Accordingly, she moves out of her friend’s home and rents an expensive flat of her own. Her lover subsequently abandons her, and, in her solitude, she suffers a nervous breakdown.
And, finally, another:
A highly respectable, sixtyish widow, in possession of a lavish house, a family, and a doting male admirer, becomes obsessed with finding two girlhood friends whom she has not seen in fifty years. When, through elaborate machinations, she is reunited with them, she desires the constant companionship of one of them, a successful and unmarried businesswoman whose private life is surrounded by secretiveness. After a pleasant outing, she pleads with her friend to retire and come live with her; her friend demurs. She asks if her friend is a lesbian, and, without directly answering the question, the friend angrily leaves. Subsequently, the widow is found unconscious from a head injury, the result of striking her head against the wall in her frustration and shame.
If these scenarios sound familiar, they indeed are. They stand as [End Page 568] crucial turning points in four widely-read novels by some of the more celebrated female authors of the early and middle twentieth century; namely, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Little Girls (1964), respectively. Yet despite the familiarity of these narrative incidents and the considerable amount of critical attention given these writers and their texts, they have heretofore remained undefined as what, I posit, they in fact are: examples of the narrative strategy of lesbian panic. In terms of narrative, lesbian panic is, quite simply, the disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character—or, conceivably, an author—is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire. Typically, a female character, fearing discovery of her covert or unarticulated lesbian desires—whether by the object of her desires, by other characters, or even by herself—and motivated by any of the factors previously described, lashes out directly or indirectly at another woman, resulting in emotional or physical harm to herself or others. This destructive reaction may be as sensational as suicide or homicide...