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In a series of richly textured close readings, Jodie Medd’s new book expands and recontextualizes the meanings that accrued around the unstable signifier “lesbianism” during the Great War and its immediate aftermath. Recently modernist studies has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on the British construction of lesbianism during this period with exemplary studies by Laura Doan, Deborah Cohler, Heather Love, Jane Garrity, Gay Wachman, and others.
Medd offers a new twist on this crowded field, shifting the scholarly conversation away from ontological questions about what constitutes the lesbian and from epistemological questions about invisibility and foreclosure. Instead, she proposes that we focus on the “operational function” of lesbianism (4): its effects, or “how and why the extraordinary allegation of lesbianism at the beginning of the twentieth century functioned to condense modern social anxieties, figure concerns about modernism, and mediate modernist literary communities, while continuously resisting determinate interpretation” (2). Medd argues that what she calls “the suggestion of lesbianism” is a particularly promiscuous kind of perlocutionary utterance, one that precipitates “scandalous effects and consequences” (1), which exceed “the speaker’s intent and control” (10). Medd writes, “In this [End Page 869] way the suggestion of lesbianism emerges and functions discursively as an aleatory, variable, and ultimately unpredictable provocation” (10). The promiscuousness of lesbianism is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. First the strength: Medd is able to demonstrate lesbianism’s entwinement with a number of discourses, reading it as a tool for creating scandal and for working through a number of personal and national crises. This demonstration of lesbianism’s imbrication with a number of other social flashpoints (not usually considered to be sexual) fascinatingly extends the reach and shape of sexuality in the early decades of the twentieth century and highlights sexuality’s uneven and unwieldy construction. On the other hand, Medd’s claim that “lesbianism was not so much a coherent category as it was a provocative suggestion that always lent itself to figuring something else” (19) threatens to undermine the definitional center of the discourse of lesbianism. This can make the book feel diffuse, leaving the thread of lesbianism difficult to track and the reader wondering if lesbianism has any content at all.
The first chapter explores the famous libel trial of Noel Pemberton Billing, which brought “the discussion of female homosexuality” into the British popular press for the first time (31). Billing’s newspaper accused Maud Allan, one of London’s most famous and eroticized performers, of being a part of “The Cult of the Clitoris” in connection with her performance in a 1918 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Carefully reading the court records and the surrounding publicity, Medd contends that the trial “was clearly not about lesbianism” (as other commentators have asserted), but about spectacularly displaying “Britain’s national anxieties, epistemological crises, and psychological extremities during wartime” (74).
The second chapter examines Radclyffe Hall’s accusation that St. George Lane Fox-Pitt slandered her as a “grossly immoral woman” (76). Inventively building on her work in the previous chapter, Medd contends that this “trial has much to teach us about the definitional crises and unlikely deployments of lesbian suggestion in early-twentieth-century Britain” (76). One such unlikely deployment is the attempt on the part of Fox-Pitt to bar Hall from the Society for Psychical Research. But even as this was Fox-Pitt’s goal, the “disruptive effects” (92) of his accusation far exceed his aim, instead opening a nodal point at the intersection of “marital disruption, gender disruption, questionable female relations, and bizarre paranormal tales” (83).
Focusing on the frustrations that arose between Ezra Pound and his patron John Quinn during the obscenity trial of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the third chapter considers the ways in which lesbianism diffused the tensions (homoerotic and otherwise) between the pair. As is well known, Ulysses was serialized in the Little Review beginning in 1918. The review was edited by two lesbians—Margaret [End Page 870] Anderson and Jane Heap. Medd reads Quinn’s and Pound’s “misogynist...