- Lesbian Modernism: Censorship, Sexuality and Genre Fiction by Elizabeth English
I am happy that the pairing of “lesbian” and “modernism” continues to be a topic of conversation. Invoking this now familiar conjunction in the title of her book, Lesbian Modernism: Censorship, Sexuality and Genre Fiction, Elizabeth English approaches the subject obliquely by taking up an [End Page 495] often-sidelined category—genre fiction—and plopping it in the middle of the conversation to shake up presiding assumptions while dodging definitional squabbles.
We are accustomed to the story that literary modernism—in the traditional Anglo-American sense—sits high and dry on one side of the cultural “great divide” while popular genre fiction swims below in the murky waters of the “low,” or even worse, the “middle(brow).” Although modernism’s purported aversion to the popular has been vigorously debunked, the designation “lesbian modernism” tends to weld authors’ inaccessible, high literary style of experimentation to the unconventional lesbian content of their writing and/or lives. Encoding desire through unlikely cows and match-lit crocuses, eschewing the phallocentric telos of the heterosexual romance plot in favor of meandering streams of consciousness, fragmenting language with Sapphic flare, or simply mystifying readers with maddening repetitions and impenetrable circumlocution, these clever women simultaneously queered bodies, desires, language, and literary conventions while evading the Victorian obscenity laws that targeted not only male modern-ist innovation (such as the works of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, among others) but also the middlebrow pleading of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). Indeed, lesbian modernism between the wars is often pitched as the avant-garde alternative to Hall’s sentimental realism—obscure enough to evade the censor’s gaze and sophisticated enough to complicate sexological doctrine.
In Lesbian Modernism, English points out that this version of literary history eclipses our ability to see crosscurrents between lesbian modernism and genre fiction. Taking The Well of Loneliness’s obscenity trial as a central event and examining the records of Home Office deliberations over obscenity cases from Britain’s National Archives, English flips the standard logic to suggest that if high-minded modernist obscurity was one strategy for writing lesbianism in a climate of censorship, then another was a turn to popular genres, deemed too frivolous for the law to take seriously. Unlike Hall’s novel, which insisted on the female invert’s right to modern social existence, English proposes that genre fiction cast the lesbian outside of the present real—as a time-traveler from the future, a ghost of the past, or a chimerical violent psychopathic criminal—thereby dodging legal suspicion while exploring gender and sexual issues.
English’s book addresses three broad genres: speculative fiction, historical fiction and biography, and detective fiction. Each section pairs a chapter on middlebrow manifestations of the genre with a chapter on a canonical lesbian modernist who engages with the genre: Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. Predictably, I found the more exciting chapters to be those addressing genre writers largely forgotten by established literary—and lesbian—history. [End Page 496]
The first chapter is a revelation, mining gems from the archive of Katharine Burdekin (who often published under a male pseudonym). Burdekin authored a realist lesbian Bildungsroman similar to The Well of Loneliness that was advertised for publication in 1928 but was withdrawn at the galley proofs stage. Lacking further archival details, English logically assumes it was a casualty of Hall’s legal scandal. Consequently, English argues, Burdekin turned to publishing speculative fiction to critique England’s sex-gender system. Whether visitors from the future or mystics from the past, Burdekin’s sexologically inflected protagonists are utopian figures whose gendered and sexual queerness signals their advanced evolutionary status or revolutionary vision, akin to Edward Carpenter’s idealized “intermediate sex.”1 Add to this connections among Burdekin, H. D., and Havelock Ellis, as well as an unpublished 1940s manuscript for a sequel to The Well of Loneliness—Stephen Gordon fanfiction!—and there is a lot of interest here...