restricted access Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
Patricia Juliana Smith. Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women’s Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. xvii + 236 pp.

Patricia Juliana Smith’s book on women’s fiction of the twentieth century is an exciting and welcome addition to the study of women’s writing and especially to the study of lesbianism in fiction. Although at the outset, Smith distances her study from recent theories of lesbian fiction, her book must be considered part of the growing work on lesbianism in fiction because it not only explores thematic instances of lesbian panic in straight women’s and, for the most part, closeted lesbian fiction but also develops and describes lesbian panic as a structural element in narrative. Lesbian panic becomes, in Smith’s text, a narrative device that creates plot movement in the traditional heterosexual, romantic story. As a technique of narrative structuring, lesbian panic occurs as an unacknowledged trope in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers, indicating an author’s rather than a character’s fears of lesbianism, and later as acknowledged lesbian characters who disrupt the courtship plot in twentieth-century women’s fiction. Smith covers a range of women writers, from Virginia Woolf to Jeanette Winterson, arguing that the use of this device shifts even in the twentieth century from innuendo to an open acknowledgment of lesbian existence. In the process of this examination, Smith offers insightful readings of texts by twentieth-century women writers such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing, Brigid Brophy, and Fay Weldon.

The definition of lesbian panic is in one way quite simple; it is, as [End Page 436] Smith says, “the disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character—or, conceivably, an author—is unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire.” Smith develops but also distinguishes lesbian panic from Eve Sedgwick’s definition of gay male panic. Gay male panic occurs when men experience the potential loss of subjectivity through identification with women’s position as the Other; women, however, fear the loss of value in a heterosexual system of exchange in which their economic security is at stake. In the romance or courtship plot, lesbian panic provides for narratability, forcing a crisis in the heterosexual plot system but also providing for movement that propels the plot to its accepted, heterosexual closure. This narrative situation, then, is not ideal for the representation of lesbianism in fiction but has been prominent in the historical context of the repression of homosexuality. Smith’s ideals for the narratability of lesbianism without such a negative trope are “narrative strategies that carve out a space in fiction for lesbianism as a thing in and of itself.” The ideal narratives Smith envisions are nonmimetic and experimental, placing her on the side of current postmodern critics who believe that only postmodern experimental fiction can narrate lesbianism given the imperatives of the heterosexual plot system. Thus, although Smith eschews philosophical quarrels, postmodern assumptions of the inadequacy of the romance narrative and the nondefinition of lesbian as a “free-floating signifier” are important to her arguments.

Her careful readings, particularly of Virginia Woolf’s texts, are excellent examples of the quality both of her prose and of her analytic skills. Long, insightful analyses of The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse occupy the second chapter and set the tone for the attention to narrative detail that marks the rest of the book. In The Voyage Out, lesbian panic is barely implied, but it is Mrs. Dalloway herself who narrates her lesbian panic in that eponymous novel, which provides insightful comments on both male and female homosexual panic. Woolf, who was clearly bisexual, gradually moves out of the narrative dilemma of lesbian panic with Lily in To the Lighthouse. Here, Smith’s postmodern views again emerge without much argument when she describes Lily as negotiating the “traps of gender,” allowing her the potential to love a woman and complete herself artistically. With Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts, Woolf presents the fullest development of an open lesbian, but since the trope of lesbian panic is not motivating [End Page 437] the plot movement, Smith...