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Secrecy and Sapphic Modernism is a monograph in four chapters that argues for the recognition of a specific roman à cléf genre within the context of Sapphic modernism. The work is dense and theoretical, relying on a historical approach to gender and sexology to bring new insight to the nature of hidden messages in some of the best-known women's writing.
In the introduction, Nair quickly establishes the principles of the various types of audiences implicated in the roman à cléf genre. The author posits that "American and English female authors of serious 'Sapphic' modernism . . . mobilized a layered, simultaneous address [End Page 215] to public, counter public and coterie audiences in order to represent same-sex desire" (4). The critic inquires as to how the "anticipated reception" of a work had an influence on an author's approach to literary production, and the ensuing analysis systematically addresses for whom and to whom the works were written, as well as decodes the "personal" messages intended for the coterie audiences. Another key element of the audience profile is taking into consideration which readers possess "extra-textual knowledge" (5) that they can bring to the works that treat a subject bound up in "unknowability" (10). It is this criterion of audience that will be used to determine, according to Nair, if a text is a true Sapphic roman à cléf or not.
Much attention is given to the legal, medical, and cultural approaches to female sexuality, in particular, the absence of knowledge of lesbianism and love between women. Two specific trials regarding the expression of female same-sex desire are revisited to identify the "semantic, social and legal shifts" (7) that were occurring at the time: the banning of Allatini's novel Despised and Rejected and the Allan vs. Pemberton Billing trial, in which just knowing the definition of the word "clitoris" equated perversion. Under these historical and cultural circumstances of censure and misunderstanding, it is logical that the novels undertaken in the study work at "encrypting the personal, rather than revealing it" (20). The introduction also considers the elegiac nature of Sapphic roman à clef, suggesting that for some women writers, the genre allowed them to express loss and failure in their texts without falling into the stereotypical "correlation between same-sex desire and shame and perversion" (27).
The book strategically begins with an analysis of The Well of Loneliness, and Nair explains why this particular text, while based on Radclyffe Hall's life events, is not a true roman à cléf due to its address of a mainstream audience instead of anticipating multiple audience reactions. For Nair, Hall fails to present a work to both readers in the know and readers who refuse to know—she offers just a single "polemical and unambiguous" address that created, yet stigmatized, a lesbian identity. The Well is equally problematic because its proposes figure of the lesbian as an invert relies on a gender binary in which Stephen is a gentleman who needs to protect the feminine Mary. Ultimately, too few readers could identify with the type of lesbian identity put forward by Hall. The Well of Loneliness, as a non-roman à cléf example, sets the backdrop against which the other three chapter-length analyses are conducted.
After reestablishing the validity of autobiographical considerations in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, chapter 2 investigates the different levels of anticipated audiences in the novel. Nair's analysis is based on reading Ladies Almanack and Nightwood together in the [End Page 216] measure that, for the critic, they "address the same coterie readership and strategically critique the discourses that would pathologize lesbian desire" (70). Elements seen elsewhere in Barnes scholarship, such as breaking the marriage myth for lesbians, rebellion against procreative sex, debunking sexual pathologies, and the writer's difficult narrative style are discussed from the perspective of the intended audiences: Thelma Wood, the Barney circle, and the public at large (thanks to T. S. Eliot's introduction). In contrast to Hall, Barnes has produced texts that, while not written for the public...