- Androgyny in Modern Literature
Tracy Hargreaves offers us a study of androgyny in modern literature, a fascinating topic because of its protean nature: androgyny is a classical figure of nostalgic wholeness, a justification for the naturalness of heterosexuality, a term used by sexologists at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the intermediate type, a second wave feminist trope for the reconsideration of desires, an embodied subject, a misrecognition, an opportunity to reconsider the debate between nature and nurture in gender studies, an alchemical union, and even a humanist dream of “Man.”
Hargreaves’s book follows all these cultural and historical meanings of androgyny, relying on a wide range of texts spanning from Earl Lind’s Autobiography of an Androgyne and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” to Gore Vidal’s Myron and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. Although part of the introduction and chapter 1 are devoted to writings that are not overtly literary, the overall focus of the volume is on how androgyny has figured in works of fiction.
The first chapter starts by tracing the influence of Plato’s Symposium on sexologists, especially Havelock Ellis and Xavier Mayne, but also Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds. It is surprising, however, to see that even though chapter 1 “takes as its starting point the translation into English in 1871 of Plato’s Symposium,” there is neither a direct analysis of Plato’s text (in any of the translations cited) nor any mention of Plato in the bibliography (which also omits mention of Lyndsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, object of chapter 6). Together with these curious omissions, there are a few typographical errors that Palgrave Macmillan should have identified at proof stage: a missing footnote in chapter 5 scrambles the following [End Page 926] forty or so, and footnote twenty-three in chapter 2 repeats what has already been incorporated in the body of the text.
A more in-depth study of the English reception of the Symposium would have created even more persuasive claims about the “relationship between homosexual sexuality and the androgynous intermediate sex or type” and the role of the Symposium as a “homosexual code” (here backed up by the famous conversation between Clive and Maurice in E. M. Forster’s novel) (16). It would have also fed well into more recent interventions on classicism and psychoanalysis, as debated in Rachel Bowlby’s new book on the topic. Hargreaves’s convincing analysis of the sexological uses of the androgynous would have also been strengthened by a more historically detailed account of the complex roles that personalities such as Huysmans, Rachilde, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, and Edward Carpenter have played in mediating among French decadence, Oxford Hellenism, and modernism.
The volume offers good readings of Lind’s The Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) and Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (1884), which lead the author to conclude that “medical typologies identified androgyny as a form of bisexuality, as hermaphroditism, and with cross-gender identification and homosexuality. Texts like The Autobiography of an Androgyne both legitimised and subverted the authority of those categorisations by inhabiting and then relocating them” (36). It is precisely this fascination with the implicatedness and the subversion of taxonomies that interests Hargreaves and constitutes the guiding principle of the volume. This heterogeneous array of texts is read as sharing an engagement with the androgyne that is coupled with an inability to redesign the politics of gender through this figure. This approach enables Hargreaves to produce helpfully critical, not merely celebratory, readings of texts spanning from Rose Allantini’s Despised and Rejected (1918) to Gore Vidal’s 1970s and Lyndsay Clarke’s 1997 novels. What we gain from her analyses is a complex and, at times, frustrating picture of how negotiating with androgyny throws on the table the problems of femininity and masculinity and their relationship in often unexpected ways.
Allantini’s novel is read precisely in this light as both a passionate plea for the regenerative powers of the intermediate and a somewhat reactionary call to rejuvenate an old and diseased...