- Lesbian Modernism: Censorship, Sexuality and Genre Fiction by Elizabeth English
The highly-publicized 1928 obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness molded into recognizable form the figure of the lesbian. The image of the female invert, whose presence had gone largely unremarked by all but the most observant—stoking the paranoia of men like Marcel Proust’s narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu, who feared the influence of “Gomorrah” to be lurking among any crowd of women—lodged itself into pop-cultural consciousness following the trial. A masculine soul in a female body, the lesbian was not simply a woman who loved other women but was detectable by the apparent manliness of her gait, gestures, and dress. With her tailored suits and neckties, The Well of Loneliness’s Stephen Gordon, along with Hall herself, was elevated as a lesbian icon, equally reviled and revered.
Elizabeth English examines the literary aftermath of the trial and subsequent banning of Hall’s novel in Lesbian Modernism, which argues that, once the lesbian became an identifiable and objectionable figure, writers turned to genre fiction to more freely express and explore lesbian desire. English notes that one of the distinguishing features of the realist novel The Well of Loneliness is, arguably, the quality of its writing. In fact, defenders of the book declared that it should be saved based solely on its literary merits. In his judgment, however, Magistrate Sir Chartres Biron points to these very merits as the reason behind its censorship: “It must appear to everyone of intelligence that the better an obscene book is written, the greater is the public to whom it is likely to appeal. The more palatable the poison, the more insidious it is.” Since the esteemed designation of “literature” failed to save Hall—as it had previously failed James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence—from the moral outrage of the court, other writers sought refuge in genre fiction, which offered them the “maneuverability and freedom to explore dangerous topics” (16). [End Page 837]
English’s book is divided into three parts, each dedicated to exploring a particular genre—fantasy, history, crime—in order to argue that genre fiction provided a space and a language for “writing the lesbian” and for “navigating” the socio-cultural landscape of the modernist era. English often uses metaphors of navigation and exploration to illustrate how genre fiction maps out a course for writers to follow—or deviate from—in a manner that provides its readers with the comfort of predictability while arousing them with tales of dangerous or spectral lesbians. Examining canonical modernist authors, including Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, alongside non-canonical or mainstream women writers—including Katharine Burdekin, Natalie Clifford Barney, Margaret Goldsmith, Mary Gordon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gladys Mitchell, and Josephine Tey—English argues for straining the autonomy of “modernism” as simply designating a style of formalist experimentation. Instead, she pushes us to consider modernist content as that which questions and undermines heteronormative kinship practices and could be voiced as strongly by a crime novel as it could by an avant-garde tract.
Part 1, “Fantasy,” begins by studying the utopian works of Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963), a British fantasy writer who wrote under the pseudonym Murray Constantine. English turns to her unpublished writing and letters, including correspondence with British psychoanalyst Havelock Ellis, to explore how, in The Rebel Passion (1929), Proud Man (1934), and The End of This Day’s Business (1989), the discourse of sexology and its construction of the sexual invert informs Burdekin’s vision of utopian identities. Hailing from more enlightened futures, Burdekin’s hero(in)es suggest the mannish women of Ellis’s writings on inversion and are consequently “elevated above the throng of (heterosexual) humanity by his or her heterodox nature” (49). Just as Burdekin uses the utopian genre and its positing of a future to make sense of the present, the fantastic text of Natalie Clifford Barney, The One Who Is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife, uses the conventions of the supernatural genre and...