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Ghosting Transgender Historicity in Colette’s The Pure and the Impure
Kadji Amin
Stony Brook University

This essay reads Colette’s The Pure and the Impure from the perspective of critical transgender historiography. It argues that the text’s effort to redeem certain forms of gender variance by purging them of any association with subculture, fashion, and time symptomatizes an acute anxiety about the historicity of gender transitivity.

AS A RARE FIRST-PERSON TEXT containing extensive depictions of both same-sex and cross-gender subcultures written, not by an outsider, but by someone both socially and erotically involved with them, Colette’s The Pure and the Impure (Le Pur et l’impur) is an enticing object of historiographic inquiry.1 The text does not offer unmediated access to its historical subject matter, however, but instead demands a form of literary close reading attuned to the text’s ellipses, limits, and contradictions, its abrupt and unexplained shifts in tone and affect, and its persistent soldering of a discourse on gender and sexuality to concerns about historicity and time.2 The text’s structure, as a series of vignettes that are primarily dialogue-based, and thus dialogic and contextual, allows for a perspectival, partial, and shifting relation to its subject matter. This multivocal, fragmentary text resolutely refuses a unitary, objective vision, frustrating the demand for overarching theories and classificatory schemas through which to understand the queer genders and sexualities it describes and largely ignoring the various sexological terms of the time it might have used to render them more legible.3 In the place of sexological explanations and classifications, the text offers affect as a classificatory device; nostalgia, pity, lyrical idealization, vicious aggression, phobic denial, arch condescension, and studied disinterest name some of the text’s various responses to what we can surmise to be distinct modes of inhabiting queer gender and sexuality. Whereas the temptation of the historio-graphically-inclined critic might be to attempt to strip away the affects of the text in order to reveal the historical reality of the sexual and gendered subjectivities that such affects distort and misrepresent, or to extract from the text an overarching theory of gender and sexual types, my practice instead is to read the text’s emotions, contradictions, and incoherencies symptomatically. I propose that such breaks, incoherencies, and excesses in the text are indicative of the tensions and anxieties that resided within the shared history of same-sex sexuality, female masculinity, cross-gender identification, and the medical alteration of sex before the advent of medicalized transsexuality began to separate these categories with some degree of taxonomic clarity in the 1950s.4

This reading departs from the existing literature on The Pure and the Impure, which takes for granted that the range of non-normative sexualities [End Page 114] and genders around which the text obsessively hovers may be described as “lesbian.”5 As Judith Halberstam has convincingly argued, the contemporary assumption that “lesbianism” can function as a transhistorical umbrella category for female same-sex sexuality groups together, on the basis of sexual object choice, people for whom cross-gender identification or types of sexual acts performed and positions assumed may have been far more salient bases for categorization and identification than the simple fact of being attracted to women.6 In addition, whereas “lesbian” as a category presupposes female identification, The Pure and the Impure describes gender transitive behaviors that are not always correlated to female identification and that may, at times, signal a desire to be a man, to have a male body, to have a mixed gender or to be neither male nor female. Whereas Halberstam is confident that the contemporary critic can create Sedgwickian “nonce taxonomies” of sexuality and gender based on the vernaculars and the narratives of the time period in question, The Pure and the Impure demonstrates that, in some cases, historical vernaculars are insufficient to the emergent practices of gender and sexuality that they might seek to describe. Lacking a language for the specificities of gender transitivity, The Pure and the Impure struggles to narrate subcultures within which there is both friction and leakage between same-sex sexualities and distinct yet related modes of cross-gender behavior, style, and identification. The text seems both to sense and to disavow nuanced differences between queer genders and sexualities; however, it maps such differences through an anxious discourse on purity, sensuality, historicity, and time instead of according to what now seem to be more fundamental distinctions between gender identity, gender presentation, sexual orientation the desire to live as another gender, and the desire to change one’s bodily sex. In The Pure and the Impure, queer genders and sexualities cannot be separated from concerns about time and historicity, which themselves animate powerful textual movements of desiring idealization, energetic purification, and phobic denial. I will conclude my reading by countering the text’s moments of phobic denial with a focus on a series of ghosts which, I argue, could be made to haunt contemporary readers ethically as unresolved figures of historiographic uncertainty.

Sapphic timelessness as the impossible object of historiographic desire

The seventh chapter of The Pure and the Impure distinguishes itself immediately by its elevated, lyrical tone, necessitated, the narrator suggests, by her subject matter: “[h]ow reluctant I am to handle dispassionately anything in creation as perilously fragile as an amorous ménage of two women!”7 The reader will be asked to pity and treasure the fragility of such a union, [End Page 115] which the term “amorous ménage” (“un couple amoureux”) immediately differentiates from the text’s prior figures of same-sex relationality—La Chevalière, the leader of an aristocratic subculture, the voluptuary, Renée Vivien (surnamed “Miss How-Many-Times”), preoccupied with counting her conquests and narrating their sexual acts, and the male-attired La Lucienne, who persistently drives her female lovers to despair. The amorous ménage of two women becomes so invested with positive affect for Colette because, unlike the leader of a subculture, the voluptuary or the seducer, the self-enclosed and self-sufficient ménage can be disarticulated from its social, historical, and temporal contexts, as well as from sex itself.

Colette envisions the ménage of two women as locked together in an eerie temporal stillness that negates the ideas of progression, change or futurity:

When could they lay hold of a sense of the future, those two enamored women who, at every moment, demolish and deny it, who envisage neither beginning nor end nor change nor solitude, who breathe the air only à deux, and, arm in arm, walk only in perfect step with each other? It is the period when a monstrous life is established, set up like a contemplation in front of a mirror, a life whose regularity would stifle normal love.


The mirror-like sameness of the two women is rooted in their “twin bodies that have similar afflictions, are subject to the same cares, the same predictable periods of chastity” (117). There is, for these women, no temporal movement because there is no embodied sexual difference, and thus no energizing motor of conflict, transformation, growth or eventual separation. Given this lack of energizing difference and tension, the “kinship” or the “similarities” between the two women can be praised for nurturing “a sensuality less concentrated than the orgasm, and more warming” (119). Enclosed in perfect sameness, more affectionate than sexual, alien to conflict or change, a ménage so constituted proves “perilously fragile” and ready to shatter upon “the most ordinary eruption,” whether of the social world or of the “dazzling difference” of a man (118). The text’s valorized model of female same-sex love is staked on the ontological claim that there can be no difference, and therefore no temporality, within femaleness. This claim rests on the specific exclusion of gendered differences between women and on a perfect silence regarding the social opprobrium and non-recognition that produces the ménage’s exile from temporality and vulnerability to the outside world. This model of female same-sex sexuality might be seen, in part, as a response to the far more threatening vision, in the 1930s, of female sexual deviance as a viral product of gendered modernity, irritated by women’s increased access to public spaces and passed on in modern same-sex institutions.8 As opposed to widespread fears [End Page 116] of such a contaminating, public, aggressively sexual, and emphatically modern female same-sex sexuality, Colette’s Sapphic ménage is so fragile, asexual, private, and non-temporal that it cannot but collapse should it so much as come into contact with the modern, public world, or its representative, a fully sexual man.

Purifying the ménage from the various threatening and disparaged connotations of female same-sex sexuality in the 1930s is, however, precisely what permits Colette to idealize it so lyrically. She transitions seamlessly from her praise of “[t]wo women very much in love” into an even more lyrical evocation of the Ladies of Llangollen, an eighteenth-century couple of aristocratic Welsh women who lived together in reclusion in the countryside for more than fifty years. The passage that accomplishes this transition cites Lady Eleanor’s own journal to claim that “so great is such a love that by its grace a half century can pass by like ‘a day of delicious and exquisite retirement’” (119–20). This section plays on the prior theme of timeless cohabitation to return repeatedly to the idea that, secluded from the social world, in perfect happiness, the extraordinary love of the Ladies of Llangollen was able “to endure half a century, without change or variation” (128). Critical to their love’s flawless immunity from change is Colette’s authorial agency in deliberately effacing the dates from the journal entries she cites and in powerfully portraying the Ladies as outside of history altogether:

A vow of reclusion descended on this couple of young girls, separating them from the world, veiling and changing and remaking the universe in their eyes. In the distance would rumble and then die down the storm of no popery riots in London; the United States would proclaim its independence; a queen and king of France would perish on the scaffold; Ireland would revolt, the British fleet would mutiny; slavery would be abolished... The universal excitement, the conflagration of Europe did not cross the Pengwern Hills that shut in Llangollen, or disturb the waters of the little river Dee.


The historical couple of the Ladies of Llangollen is thus initially presented as the perfect realization of the prior model of a timeless Sapphic love rooted in similar female bodies and sheltered from social and historical change.

Perversely, however, as if such a utopia could be neither tolerated nor sustained, the narrative voice begins to worry away at the differences between Eleanor and Sarah and at the absence, in the archive, of Sarah’s own testimony. The desiring narrative voice at first interprets the lack of a first-person testimony from Sarah as indicative of a happiness so perfect that words would be superfluous. Soon, however, it begins to obsess paranoiacally at the gap between Eleanor’s authorial mastery and “[t]he secret” of Sarah’s silence (133). [End Page 117] As Elisabeth Ladenson has astutely observed, the scission between authorship and silence—between the archival evidence of Eleanor’s journal and the archival absence of Sarah’s ‘missing’ diary—is structurally gendered: “Colette seems to have invested Sarah with pen envy. Her speculations about what the latter might have had to say for herself belong to what has since become the standard feminist move of trying to recreate the untold story of female experience.”9 The now suspicious narrative voice gradually gathers around this gendered gap of authorship a series of other signs—Eleanor is older than Sarah and more robust; it is she who decides who may and may not come calling at their country home—until it has collected enough evidence to admonish:

[s]ee here, stouthearted Eleanor, you who were responsible for all the daily decisions, you who were so profoundly submerged in your Well-Beloved, were you unaware that two women cannot achieve a perfect union? You were the prudent warden—the masculine element. It was you who measured the distance at which the real world must be kept, who gave to some parts of a few miles of rolling countryside a pastoral aspect.


The object of the text’s desire—a utopic Sapphic ménage that is pure in the sense of not being relationally constituted by gender difference, historical change or the social world—is shown to be, strictly speaking, impossible. The gestures necessary to sequester the couple from the outside world themselves establish a relation to this world as they enact a ‘masculine’ form of gendered protection, sovereignty, and even imprisonment. Paradoxically, the text’s desire for a non-relational Sapphic purity is responsible for constituting Sapphic love as vulnerable to history, time, sociality, and masculinity. I want to propose that what the text desires is not Sapphic purity per se, but rather the delicate and touching spectacle of a Sapphic purity on the verge of an inevitable corruption, that is, the pathos of the spectacle of Sapphic vulnerability itself.

The following section asks:

Can we possibly, without apprehension, imagine two Ladies of Llangollen in this year of 1930? They would own a car, wear dungarees, smoke cigarettes, have short hair, and there would be a liquor bar in their apartment. Would Sarah Ponsonby still know how to remain silent? Perhaps, with the aid of crossword puzzles. Eleanor Butler would curse as she jacked up the car, and would have her breasts amputated. No longer would there be a village blacksmith with whom she would have cordial relations; she would exchange familiar remarks with the garage man.


This ‘fall’ from the ideal of Sapphism as a feminine utopia, dramatically and phobically rendered by cross-dressing, cigars, automobiles, and Eleanor’s amputation of her breasts, has been read as embodying what was the truth of [End Page 118] the Ladies of Llangollen all along—their contamination by gender difference (Ladenson, 40). Such a reading, however, can be sustained only if the constitutive context of time in this text is ignored. In fact, the passage on the Ladies of Llangollen in the 1930s intensifies the pathos of the preceding chapter by suggesting that, due to the emergence of a queer urban subculture with its own distinguishing vestimentary styles, gendered roles, and consumer fetishes, we are now hopelessly removed from a context in which a Sapphic couple could be exiled, in a fragile and vulnerable purity, from sociality and historicity. The beginning of this passage is presented as dystopian not because it unveils the truth of the Ladies of Llangollen all along, but because it enacts a fall into the all-too-historical present. This transition reveals the way the text’s desire structurally requires that any configuration of queer sexuality and gender able to swim within the waters of history will be constituted as no longer a ‘true’ Sapphism—where Sapphism is defined by the intensified femininity of a domestic privacy, a retreat from the public masculine social world, and a feminine vulnerability and corruptibility—but rather as a fall from ahistorical grace and an inauthentic adherence to quick-changing subcultural fads. Time and subculture, indexed by vestimentary and consumer fashions and by gender transitivity as the paradigmatic sign of the times, are constituted as antithetical to a true Sapphism. Thus, instead of being attributed to any deep-seated male identification, Eleanor’s imagined amputation of her breasts in the 1930s is positioned as the extreme sign of a fall into history and a capitulation to the subcultural trend of a cross-gender masculinity synonymous with modernity.10 Transsexuality, imagined not as an identity or a personal narrative but as a surgical self-mutilation of which anyone might be capable, thus functions as a compound figure for the dystopian contaminations of a modernity associated with fashion, female masculinity, historicity, and subculture. At the same time, this phobic evocation of sex-altering surgery allows a nostalgia for a Sapphism imagined as both poignantly outdated and utopically outside of history to continue to delineate the direction of the text’s unfulfillable desire.

“[A] man who can’t do pipi against a wall” and transgender incomprehensibility

Just before the Ladies of Llangollen chapter, the narrator recounts a conversation with her older friend Amalia X in which they aggressively criticize female masculinity in general and Amalia’s male-attired rival, La Lucienne, in particular. Although the narrator-Colette collaborates with and shares Amalia’s views on gender, she is also portrayed, in this chapter, as something of a cruel young fool, seeking to one-up Amalia’s mean barbs even as she [End Page 119] proves herself incapable of understanding nuances of La Lucienne’s gender that Amalia somehow sympathetically grasps.

In her description of a photograph of La Lucienne, the narrator-Colette repeats many of the stock rhetorical moves through which female masculinity is typically delegitimated:

A photograph signed with her assumed name, Lucienne de ———-, shows her in correct men’s evening dress, correct but with traces of bad taste, I mean to say, feminine taste. The pocket handkerchief points two inches too high; the lapels of the coat are too wide, and the style of the shoes is dubious. One feels that a feminine imagination, imprisoned beneath the bared forehead of the spurious man, regrets having been unable to let itself go in jabots, ribbons, silly fabrics. Strange, that a woman like this who rivaled and defrauded men should have as her signal ambition to look and act the part of a dashing young man about town.


The narrator describes La Lucienne not as a masculine being, but as a woman unsuccessfully suppressing her authentically “feminine imagination” in a failed attempt to dress and behave like a man. The emphasis on dress, fashion, and taste implies that cross-dressing can be understood as cultural and historical—a fad or a trend—while the closing phrase makes the stereotypical suggestion that La Lucienne’s cross-dressing as well as her pursuit of women can be diagnosed as a man-hating woman’s misguided desire to compete with men on all accounts.

By the end of the chapter, however, when Amalia recounts the story of the final quarrel between La Lucienne and her lover Loulou, it becomes clear that Amalia does not share the narrator-Colette’s understanding of La Lucienne’s gender. La Lucienne has asked Loulou to choose between her and Loulou’s husband, Hector:

“Well,” says the girl, “I’m going back to Hector. I’ve just realized he can do something you can’t.” “Oh, naturally!” says Lucienne, spitefully. “No,” says Loulou, “it’s not what you think, I’m not all that crazy about you know what. But I’m going to tell you something. When you and I go out together, everyone takes you for a man, that’s understood. But for my part, I feel humiliated to be with a man who can’t do pipi against a wall.”


The narrator laughs at the end of this anecdote, exclaiming that what Loulou said was “childish,” a comment that inspires a brief, inconclusive debate with Amalia about how the anecdote should be interpreted:

“Childish! Why, my pet, Loulou simply found the unkindest thing in the world to say!”

“I don’t see why. To me, her retort was childish, rather comic.”

“Such things can’t be explained. There are... subtleties... you have to feel them. If you don’t understand, then I can’t explain it to you. And I really wonder what interests you in these subjects which you don’t at all understand!”

(110) [End Page 120]

Colette’s and Amalia’s opposed reactions to the anecdote—laughter, on the one hand, and grave sympathy, on the other—eloquently convey their quite different understandings of La Lucienne’s gender; for Loulou’s “pipi” comment, with its childish word choice, could be considered cruel and hurtful, rather than simply comic and immature, only if rather than a woman in male attire, La Lucienne desired to be male or a man. Amalia sympathizes with the rival she also pities because she sees La Lucienne as a transgender figure— someone whose cross-dressing indexes a cross-identification with men or maleness rather than merely a vestimentary affectation or a form of competition—though she cannot always find the words with which to put this into language. The narrator-Colette laughs at Loulou’s comment and is clumsily cruel in her descriptions of La Lucienne because she understands her to be a conventionally feminine, but faddishly cross-dressing man-hating woman. Loulou’s own comments support Amalia’s reading; they indicate that La Lucienne regularly passes as a man, that Loulou desires La Lucienne as a man, and that Loulou knows La Lucienne will be mortally injured by her professed shame at being, not with a woman, but, in her own words, with a man incapable of urinating against a wall. Although the anecdote itself very clearly indicates that La Lucienne and Loulou both understand La Lucienne to be a female-bodied person who identifies as a man, the text balks at such a conclusion, which is incomprehensible within the narrator’s framework of fad-dish cross-dressing. The mortal insult of not being able to do pipi against a wall is presented as an incomprehensible monstrosity, which Amalia can intuit, but cannot explain, and about which the narrator remains fundamentally clueless.

“I will have been a mirage”: La Chevalière and transgender ghosting

In a chronological reading of the text, the Amalia chapter’s cruel depiction of gender transitivity as either an incomprehensible monstrosity or a faddish and inferior imitation of male masculinity surprises by its abrupt departure, in both tone and interpretation, from the earlier chapter centered around the character of La Chevalière. This most ethnographic of all the chapters details, with a careful historical specificity, the class milieu, vestimentary codes, and tastes (for horses, cigars, and women) of La Chevalière’s clique of aristocratic cross-dressing women. We learn that, when the narrator-Colette frequented them, she wore “a pleated shirt front, hard collar, sometimes a waistcoat, and always a silk pocket handkerchief” (70); that the women themselves “wore a monocle, a white carnation in the buttonhole, took the name of God in vain, and discussed horses competently” (75); that they conceded to the Préfecture [End Page 121] de Police’s enforcement of the code against cross-dressing by cloaking themselves in public and gathering in private and semi-public spaces; and that we might understand this sect as the historically-specific, though doomed effort of a group of women, “trembling with fear,” to form a semi-public culture capable of rivaling that of male homosexuality, “that imperturbable establishment” (70). Even these women’s highly scripted sexual liaisons, in which they play the role of givers rather than receivers of pleasure with younger members of the servant class or of the artistic demi-monde (such as Colette herself) are described socio-historically rather than through either a moral or a medical discourse. The narrator-Colette suggests that the historically-defunct practice of having servants rear and care for the children of the aristocracy durably shaped the age-, class-, and sexual-role-differentiated eroticism of these women, who relive with their lower-class lovers “the tremulous and secret pleasure of their childhood when dining at the servants’ table” and maintain class hierarchy only through their non-reciprocal sexual practices, in which they take “pride in giving pleasure” (73).

Despite the potential sensationalism of this chapter’s topic—cross-dressing members of a decaying aristocracy practicing non-reciprocal sex acts in cross-class, intergenerational, same-sex couples—the overall tone is respectful and at times even elegiac rather than mocking or pathologizing. This respectful tone is partially enabled by the fact that, early on, the narrator makes it clear that this clique has all but perished due to the fading of “class consciousness” (70). Having become historical, “the vanished charm” of this clique—which, even in its heyday, signified aristocratic privilege in decline—might be carefully described, with all of its temporally-bound customs, without being associated with the passing fads of modernity. The non-threatening pastness of this milieu, as well as its particular embodiment of a ‘backward’ modernity are what allow this section to be the text’s least phobic negotiation of the historicity of queer culture, gender, and desire.11 It is worth underlining, however, that cross-dressing here is understood neither as the expression of an inner masculine self nor as an effort to project a male social persona, but simply as an ethnographic marker of membership within the clique. Just as in the Amalia chapter and in the ‘fall’ into the 1930s from the Ladies of Llangollen chapter, cross-dressing is associated, first and foremost, with historicity and with subcultural belonging, though in this section this is not cause for alarm.

It is also likely that, since the leader of the clique, given the alias of La Chevalière, is clearly a thinly disguised portrayal of Colette’s very public lover of six years, known variously as Missy, Mathilde de Morny, Max de Morny, Oncle Max, and Monsieur le Marquis, Colette took care to portray her [End Page 122] former lover’s circle of friends in a reasonably respectful light. In addition to treating cross-dressing with a notably greater degree of dignity than the other chapters, this chapter undergoes a fascinating change of both tone and content as it introduces La Chevalière herself. Initially, La Chevalière is presented as the epitome of this subculture, “the best-known woman among them,” whose home, in which “fine wines, long cigars, photographs of a smartly turned-out horseman, one or two languorous portraits of very pretty women, bespoke the sensual and rakish life of a bachelor,” exemplifies the subculture’s masculine, aristocratic ideals (71). The first characteristic that sets her apart is that she is the only female character, within this subculture as well as the text as a whole, described as authentically, tastefully manly:

she had all the ease and good manner of a man, the restrained gestures, the virile poise of a man. Her married name, when I knew her, was still disturbing. Her friends, as well as her enemies, never referred to her except by her title and a charming Christian name, title and name alike clashing with her stocky man’s physique and reserved, almost shy manner.

(71–72, translation modified)

Whereas, according to the narrator, La Lucienne is incapable of convincing, tasteful masculinity since her “feminine imagination” gives the lie to her attempts at masculine style, La Chevalière is portrayed as a man to her core, in her gestures, comportment, and embodiment as well as her outer dress. It is not an internal ‘feminine imagination,’ nor even a material female body that clashes with La Chevalière’s male style, but only the incongruous femininity of her given name, which, in this passage, is the only remaining sign of her assigned sex. In fact, though a later passage shows her to be severely critical of the derivative masculinity of the women of her sect, who she believes imitate poorly a man’s stride, it is never suggested that La Chevalière imitates, rather than simply embodies, a man. This passage exhales a sigh of admiration for La Chevalière’s undeniably successful, non-derivative manhood, described as lacking nothing in comparison with that of any other aristocratic gentleman.

The second means of setting La Chevalière apart has more ambivalent effects. Whereas the narrator portrays the members of La Chevalière’s clique as unapologetic in their pronounced taste for, and success with, women, she takes care to elevate La Chevalière above such worldly successes:

I am not referring here to La Chevalière, who by character as well as physique was above them. Restless and uncertain in her pursuit of love, she searched with her anxious eyes, so dark they were almost black beneath a low, white forehead, for what she never found: a settled and sentimental attachment. For more than forty years, this woman with the bearing of a handsome boy endured the pride and punishment of never being able to establish a real and lasting affair with a [End Page 123] woman. It was not for lack of trying, because she asked nothing better or worse. But the salacious expectations of women shocked her very natural platonic tendencies, which resembled more the suppressed excitement, the diffuse emotion of an adolescent [un adolescent], than a woman’s explicit need.


La Chevalière is apparently beyond earthly love as well as an adult woman’s fleshly pleasures. This “beyond” is also a “before,” as she is continually pre-adult, with the non-localized, undirected, and ungendered sexuality of un adolescent; and both the “beyond” and “before” are portrayed vertically, as signs of distinction—La Chevalière is “above” the more successful lovers in her sect. This is, in fact, the beginning of a movement of extraction, where La Chevalière, initially the center of a historically-specific erotic culture, is removed from that culture, from history, and from the flesh itself to a position of combined exile and elevation, marked by a noticeably poetic tone.

This movement of extraction is completed by the stunning abstraction of La Chevalière into the quasi-mythical figure of the seductive, yet sexless and doomed androgyne:

The seduction emanating from a person of uncertain or dissimulated sex is powerful. Those who have never experienced it liken it to the banal attraction of the love that evicts the male element. This is a gross misconception. Anxious and veiled, never exposed to the light of day, the androgyne wanders, wonders, and implores in a whisper... Its half equal, man, is soon scared and flees. There remains its half equal, a woman. There especially remains for the androgyne the right, even the obligation, never to be happy. If jovial, the androgyne is a monster. But it trails irrevocably among us its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears. It goes from tender inclination to maternal adoption... As I write this, I am thinking of La Chevalière. It was she who most often bruised herself in a collision with a woman—a woman, that whispering guide, presumptuous, strangely explicit, who took her by the hand and said, “Come, I will help you find yourself...” “I am neither that nor anything else, alas,” said La Chevalière, dropping the impure little hand. What I lack cannot be found by searching for it.

(80, translation modified)

This passage achieves an elevated tone of ‘seraphic suffering’ that we might term the transgender tragic. In it, La Chevalière, like all those “of uncertain or dissimulated sex,” bears the curse of the mythic androgyne, who wanders, searching for what cannot be found. Strikingly, Colette here refuses to fix the person of uncertain or dissimilated sex as either male or female and therefore refutes as a “gross misconception” the notion that this person’s pairing with a woman could be in any way likened to that Sapphic love “which evicts the male element.” This means, however, the androgyne is fated to be doomed in love, for when hir’s female lovers extend either the mirror of gendered similitude or the contrast of binary gender difference, ze can only respond, “I am neither that nor anything else, alas.” The transgender tragic names the curse [End Page 124] of Colette’s androgyne, who, in a binary gendered social world, is always elsewhere, out of place and out of time, searching for something not yet or no longer present. If she is to embody the androgyne and shoulder this curse, however, La Chevalière must first be improbably extracted from the social milieu, the historical subculture, and the series of cross-dressing emulators that she shaped and inspired: “Around her, beneath her, a quarrelsome and timid life gravitated. She served as the ideal, as the target, and ignored the fact” (81). From being introduced as the epitome and the proudest product of this subculture, she is transformed, by the chapter’s end, into its inimitable ideal—the authentic androgyne—unaware of the tides of fashion and gendered history taking shape about and below her. Tragically albeit nobly placeless, lacking a historical culture and a vocabulary that could welcome and recognize her, La Chevalière floats above and beyond the historical present of social life, projecting her only consolation into the future anterior, “I must not complain, I shall have been a mirage” (81).

The elevated tone of the transgender tragic, whose purpose is to purify La Chevalière and to render her an object of literary pity and beauty, is achieved by a process of ghosting. La Chevalière, while still living, must be rendered immaterial, evanescent, her ties to her historical period and queer erotic culture severed. On the one hand, Colette’s image of the androgyne as mirage is a haunting figure for the untimeliness of transitive genders during a historical period that lacked a public language for naming and understanding them.12 Insofar as it serves the conservative purpose of rehabilitating La Chevalière by denying her the possibilities of happiness, sexual pleasure, and queer subcultural belonging, however, this ghosting must be understood simultaneously as a form of textual violence, which consigns La Chevalière to a form of living death—a transgender exile from the historical, social, and fleshly world—the better to canonize and exalt her. As the text at several points makes clear, the other face of the tragic transgender ghost—the fully sexual, carnal being who dares to be happy—is nothing less than a “monster,” deserving of the most scathing condemnation (80). By poetically according the androgyne “the right, even the obligation, never to be happy,” Colette founds the possibility of admiring and pitying gender-variant figures on their capacity to perform the “transgender tragic”—the sacrificial duty of figuring the impossibility of transgender being in a binary gendered world. In her sacrificial vaporization, moreover, La Chevalière rejoins two other, less valorized and more forgettable transgender ghosts, those of Boubole and Vercingétorix, two working class men who quietly commit suicide when their cross-dressing provokes disgust among the narrator’s coterie of homosexual men. If, as the [End Page 125] narrator-Colette repeatedly insists, unlike “the ladies in men’s clothes,” homosexual men are “pure” in their ability blissfully to forget women and femininity, then why must she twice invoke cross-dressing men as figures of homosexual repugnance and disdain, only to have them take their own lives in “a suicide that disturbed no one” (147, 162)?

Conclusion: Mathilde/Max de Morny and the ethics of transgender historiography

In reading such a text, the ethical obligation of the transgender historiographer is neither to seek to fix the authentic transgender identities of La Lucienne, La Chevalière, Mathilde/Max de Morney, Boubole or Vercingétorix nor to claim them as figures for a transgender history. As this essay has shown, the narrator is too unreliable and too enamored of the project of separating gender-transitive people into “the pure” (anorgasmic, tragic, neither male nor female, exiled from culture and history) and the “impure” (monstrous libertines, women in men’s clothing, slavishly imitating the gender-crossing fads of modernity) to portray ethically the subjectivities of gender-variant people during this historical moment in France. Nor is what we know of the historical record of much help. Recent historians have claimed Max de Morny as a transsexual, based on a single, unverified, and never-duplicated claim by Simone Wiel, who, moreover, was not one of de Morny’s intimates. It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that someone as notorious and as subject to gossip as de Morny could have had her ovaries and breast tissue surgically removed, as Wiel claims, without anyone else having taken note. The propensity to repeat this claim without remarking the tenuous evidence on which it rests results from the recent thirst to legitimate contemporary transsexual identity by finding transsexuality in history combined with ordinary scholarly irresponsibility.13

The unresolved historical question of Mathilde/Max de Morny’s gender identification, in the absence of Mathilde/Max’s own testimony, however, does illustrate some of the insoluble questions of transgender historiography. Was Mathilde/Max a masculine woman who sought to inhabit a masculine social role without surgically altering her body, attempting to pass as male for any significant amount of time, or denying that she was a woman? Was Max a pre-transsexual figure, who easily obtained an ovariectomy, which was popularly prescribed for all manner of ‘female’ ailments at the time, and who used his socially and economically privileged position to obtain a double-mastectomy, an operation that gender variant people were sometimes able to convince European surgeons to perform as early as the 1900s, before transsexuality [End Page 126] existed as either an identity or a coherent set of medical interventions (Meyerowitz 16–29)? Could Max more accurately be described as a transgender man who, unlike others during his time period, did not choose to disappear as a woman in order to begin a new life as a man, since this would have cost him his title and his family fortune, but who, in his old age, gradually and seamlessly slipped into a passing existence as “Monsieur de Morny,” allowing only very old friends such as Colette to continue to refer to him as “Missy” and “she”? These three narratives, however, do not even begin to exhaust the field of possibilities. What if Mathilde/Max identified as female and had ‘transsexual’ surgeries performed to enhance the masculinity of her body without seeing herself as either a man or male? Or what if, regardless of whether or not s/he had any surgeries, we take the historical evidence at face value and allow that Mathilde/Max may have experienced hir gender contextually, becoming Monsieur le Marquis with servants and staff, Missy with long-standing intimates, Oncle Max with more recent, younger friends, and Mathilde de Morny in the press and with high society?14 Perhaps, before the invention of elaborate taxonomies, vocabularies, and narratives around trans-gender and transsexual identity, it was easiest for Mathilde/Max to live as a labile figure whose sense of hir gender varied according to social and interpersonal context, and who, regardless, may or may not have desired or undergone the surgeries we now identify as ‘transsexual.’

The ethical obligation of the transgender historiographer is not to claim an identity, however politically or academically desirable, for a historical figure of indeterminate gender, but rather to expand, as much as possible, hir horizon of gendered possibilities. It is in this sense that we may repurpose La Chevalière’s projection, “I will have been a mirage” as a model for transgender historiography. La Chevalière’s use of the future anterior here projects a future in which she will have become historical, while ambivalently figuring her historical being through the multivalent image of the mirage. On the one hand, as in the common illusion of shimmering water on a blazing day, a mirage is an atmospheric effect that reflects the viewer’s desire rather than any empirical essence. In this sense, we may read La Chevalière/de Morny as predicting the vulnerability and the promiscuous availability of hir historical personage to a series of desiring appropriations—as a lesbian, a cross-dressing woman, a masculine woman, a butch, a transgender man, a transsexual man, and so on—the ‘truth’ of which remains unverifiable according to the criteria of historical evidence. As an atmospheric effect, however, the mirage also hints at the importance of that which must be ignored so that it may be reshaped in the image of the viewer’s desire—that is, context, historical, [End Page 127] social, geographical, and material. In its materiality, in fact, the mirage may be said to be nothing if not its atmospheric context. It is precisely this context from which Colette must sever La Chevalière in order to lift her into a tragic transgender purity through the process of ghosting, the third connotation of the mirage. Gayle Salamon has termed “phantom transsexual” the invocation of transsexuals to figure the ghostly borders of a text’s gendered imaginary.15 The Pure and the Impure is similarly haunted by the series of transgender apparitions invoked when the text has reached the limit of what it can imagine or comprehend—La Chevalière’s vaporization into a mirage, La Lucienne’s monstrous desire to do pipi against a wall, Lady Eleanor’s horrifying amputation of her breasts in the 1930s, Boubole’s and Vércingetorix’s polite suicides… But what if, instead of continuing, appeased by such ghostings, we dwelt on them, allowing them to haunt us with the contradictions, in its understanding of gender, that the text can symptomatize but cannot digest?

Dwelling on ghosts means attending to the ways the text’s transgender figures remain haunted by the ‘impurities’ of modernity, historicity, and sociality. As La Chevalière demonstrates, and as the counterexample of the Ladies of Llangollen proves, queer figures in The Pure and the Impure can be redeemed only if they can be severed from historicity and sociality. Otherwise, like La Lucienne, they must be condemned for their inauthentic, derivative, and faddish gender drag. By attending to the atmospheric effects of the mirage and to the text’s ghosts, violently severed from their social context, we might detect beneath The Pure and the Impure’s rejection of time an acute anxiety about the historicity of gender transitivity. Colette’s claim that, had Lady Eleanor she lived in the 1930s, she would have had her breasts amputated indexes a phobic awareness that the way people embody, understand, and express queer genders and sexualities depends on the social, discursive, and technological resources available within their historical contexts. However, to imagine, following Fernande Gontier, that had s/he lived today, Mathilde/Max de Morny would have been a transsexual man with male identification papers, suffocates alternative possibilities in the present while retrospectively installing ‘transsexual man’ as the inner truth of de Morny’s identity.16 Instead of disavowing historicity by reading the categories of the present as the ‘truth’ of the past or by phobically concluding that any attachment to history, fashion or subculture is proof of inauthenticity, we must attend to the spaces, socialities, and times haunted by transgender ghosts. If the historicity of transitive genders and queer sexualities is what The Pure and the Impure must reject, sublimate or demean, then what would it mean resolutely to admit the extreme permeability of non-normative genders to history, [End Page 128] context, and time without invalidating them? I want to close by suggesting that transgender historiography inquire into both the conditions that allow certain non-normative genders to acquire visibility and legibility at certain times and the ways the relative historical invisibility and misinterpretation of certain gendered behaviors may have paradoxically enabled particular highly desired and libidinally-invested gender-transitive practices. In other words, rather than pity historical figures for the compromises they had to make because of the unavailability of contemporary identities, what if we noted the extent to which indefinition and incomprehension may have served people like Mathilde/Max de Morny, allowing them to practice genders and sexualities instead of claiming identities?


1. Le Pur et l’impur names the definitive version of the text published in 1941. In 1932, a prior version was partially published in serialized form as Ces plaisirs… before being discontinued due to its controversial subject matter.

2.  Lynne Huffer argues that the text should be studied not as a historical document, but as a textual reflection on the figurality and epistemology of gender and sexuality. My reading seeks to use an attention to textuality as a method of historiographic inquiry. Lynne Huffer, “Gendered Figures of Sexual Performance: The Pure and the Impure,” Another Colette: The Question of Gendered Writing (Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1992), 71–102.

3. The Pure and the Impure’s refusal to offer a general theory of sexuality, its disinterest in approximating the objectivity of ‘expert’ discourses on sexuality, and its studied avoidance of ‘inversion,’ the major sexological trope for classifying and understanding homosexuality as gender transitivity, set it apart from texts such as Marcel Proust’s Sodome et Gommorrhe (1921–22), André Gide’s Corydon (1924), and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928).

4.  For accounts of how medicalized transsexuality in the 1950s, the gay liberation movement beginning in 1969, and the coining and rapid institutionalization of the term “transgender” in the 1990s reorganized understandings of gender and sexuality, see Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2002), and David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham: Duke U P, 2007).

5.  This trend began with Elaine Marks’s important essay “Lesbian Intertextuality,” in Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts, Critical Texts, Elaine Marks and George Stambolian, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1979), 353–77.

6.  Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke U P, 1998).

7.  Colette, The Pure and the Impure, Herma Briffault, trans. (New York: New York Review Books, 1995), 115. For the original French, see Colette, Le Pur et l’impur, in Œuvres de Colette, vol. 3 (Paris: Flammarion, 1960), 299–378.

8.  On this representation of French lesbianism in the 1930s, see Carolyn Dean, “The Making of Lesbian Sexuality,” in The Frail Social Body: Pornography, Homosexuality, and Other Fantasies in Interwar France (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000), 173–215.

9.  Elisabeth Ladenson, “Colette for Export Only,” Yale French Studies, 90 (1996): 37.

10.  Laura Doan has documented how, in interwar England, masculine styles of hair and clothing for women were associated with a chic modernity in the 1920s and with lesbianism after [End Page 129] the famous trial of Radclyffe Hall in the 1930s. Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia U P, 2001).

11.  On backward currents within queer modernist texts, see Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2007).

12.  In eschewing medical discourse, Colette at once abandons inversion as a widely-recognized way of making gender transitivity legible and anticipates the conceptual purging of trans-gender from homosexuality that takes shape in later decades.

13.  Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier cite Wiel’s assertion that de Morny had her ovaries and breasts surgically removed in Mathilde de Morny, la scandaleuse marquise et son temps (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 2000). In a later publication, however, Gontier claims de Morny as a transsexual and reports on her surgeries as an established fact without citing any evidence whatsoever. Fernande Gontier, Homme ou femme? la confusion des sexes (Paris: Perrin, 2006). Maxime Foerster cites Gontier’s text when he reports on de Morny’s two surgeries as if they were established facts in his Histoire des transsexuels en France (Beziers: H&O, 2006), 18.

14.  See Francis and Gontier, Mathilde de Morny.

15.  Gayle Salamon, “Sexual Indifference and the Problem of the Limit,” Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (New York: Columbia U P, 2010), 145–70.

16.  Gontier, Homme ou femme? [End Page 130]