- "The Voice of the Prophet":From Astrological Quackery to Sexological Authority in Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack
"I speak," said Masie Tuck-and-Frill, "in that Voice which has been accorded ever to those who go neither Hither nor Thither; the Voice of the Prophet. Those alone who sit in one Condition, their Life through, know what the plans were, and what the Hopes are, and where the Spot the two lie, in that Rot you call your lives."—Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack
Just as histories of literary modernism have frequently consigned Djuna Barnes and her 1928 Ladies Almanack to the margins of their narratives, so has the almanac genre itself received little critical attention. Yet, like Barnes's text—dismissed for its triviality before being reclaimed as a significant work of feminist and lesbian critique—the generic status of the almanac has been subject to shifting fortunes. This article examines the perverse relations between the changing rhetorical authority of the almanac and Barnes's playful, authority-subverting chronicle of the rakish lesbian seductress Dame Evangeline [End Page 716] Musset.1 I argue that Barnes's high-spirited parody of contemporary discourses about "the lesbian" relates both to particular features of the astrological almanac—its medical content, its treatment of time—and also, crucially, to matters of generic integrity suggested by the almanac's history.
In 1917, Virginia Woolf—a figure who, unlike Barnes, has moved from the margins to the center stage of modernism—emphasized the hegemonic authority of the almanac. In "The Mark on the Wall," Woolf invokes Whitaker's, the dominant British almanac from the late nineteenth century onward, as representative of "the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard" (80). Ladies Almanack refuses to privilege this singular "masculine point of view," and the text as a whole brings into question the stable, assured position of knowledge occupied by the self-appointed prophet Masie Tuck-and-Frill. Instead, Barnes's Almanack is, as Susan Sniader Lanser puts it, "a text that speaks in tongues," and feminist and queer readings have often stressed Barnes's celebration of multiple perspectives and shifting identities ("Speaking" 158).2
Along with superstition and quack medicine, prophetic voices were key features of the astrological almanacs that became popular in the early modern period. Barnes's own Almanack employs these features in an attempt to satirize and discredit the medical and moral authority of the contemporary sexologist, and such a strategy of course depends on the fact that the astrological almanac had itself become an object of ridicule by this time. By the early twentieth century, many almanac makers had long sought to distance themselves from these astrological origins in an attempt to lend respectability and authority to the genre. Brian Maidment argues that many almanacs produced during the nineteenth century "sought to deny the traditional association between superstition and the almanac . . . in order to create a genre that was deeply rationalist, and which sought to construct a world out of fact, tradition and utility rather than out of superstition and prediction" (98). That their attempts were successful is suggested by Woolf's perception of Whitaker's Almanac, whose appearance in the late 1860s is used by Maureen Perkins to mark the end of her narrative of the transformation of almanacs during the nineteenth century. For Perkins, Whitaker's represents "the definitive statistical almanac, a publication which can be seen as a symbol of the final defeat of astrological almanacs which had for so long dominated the popular market" (12). Yet tellingly, Perkins also notes that this generic reform was accompanied with a certain anxiety about the almanac's earlier history: in 1868 the editor of Whitaker's felt it necessary to give a disclaimer in his first preface, reminding readers that "No attempt has been made to [End Page 717] peep into futurity" (81). The story of Whitaker's, therefore, is one that involves the establishment of authority and generic integrity through the denial of embarrassing origins—origins that threaten to resurface and must be emphatically disavowed.
This article connects Barnes's satire with both the discredited "Voice of the Prophet" typical of early almanacs...