- Clemence Housman’s The Were-WolfQuerying Transgression, Seeking Trans/Formation
Too expansive to be contained by the limited form of a sole man, it yearned for a new embodiment infinite as the stars.1—clemence housman, The Were-Wolf
In A Very Queer Family Indeed, Simon Goldhill explores how late-Victorian technologies of writing intersected with the discourses of sexuality and religion to shape the queer identities of the wife and children of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury. Goldhill concludes:
The Bensons were a very queer family indeed . . . not because they were sexually, intellectually, and socially transgressive—though there are many ways in which they are so. . . . Rather they are queer because they embody the sheer difficulty of understanding within the overlapping narratives of conversion or change. Queerness is what makes naming, and the difficulty that comes with naming, uncertain. (One should always hear the query in queerness.)(287)
Like the Bensons, the Housmans were a very queer family indeed. At least three of the seven children of Edward Housman and Sarah Jane Williams were, like the Benson siblings, sexually, intellectually, and socially transgressive. Of this trio, it is the “third Housman,” Clemence Annie (1861–1955), less well known than her older brother A.E. (1859–1936) and her younger brother Laurence (1865–1959), who may have been the most gifted storyteller (Reynolds 208).
Clemence Housman remediated her first story, The Were-Wolf (1890), for various audiences over a forty-year career, and I have spent more than two decades of my own career trying to understand its overlapping narratives of conversion and change (Kooistra, Artist 184–96). With the emergence of trans theory I have returned to Housman’s story with a new set of analytical tools. In what follows, I consider how Victorian discourses of sexuality and religion inform The Were-Wolf’s multiple sites of transformation, and argue that Housman’s mythical monster, always transitioning, and always [End Page 55] both woman and animal, is a potent symbol for querying transgression and exploring the possibilities of transformation.
If queerness “is what makes naming, and the difficulty that comes with naming, uncertain,” then Clemence Housman’s given name testifies to the ambiguities and contradictions that contributed to her identity. Born on St. Clement’s Day (23 November), Clemence was aptly named for a male artisanal saint associated with both Christian and pagan rituals. The feast day of St. Clement, patron saint of blacksmiths and metalworkers, coincides with the ancient celebration of the legendary Anglo-Saxon Wayland the Smith and marks the traditional beginning of winter (“Saint Clement’s Day”). Clemence’s name thus embodies the conflicting discourses out of which her life was made. Just as her saint’s day signals seasonal transition by standing on the threshold of winter, its mixed cultural origins testify to the liminalities of her sexual and religious identities. This duality was replicated in Housman’s mixed roles as what the Victorians called a hand-worker and a mind-worker. She earned her living as a wood engraver but also worked as a writer and political activist. In addition to the novella-length Were-Wolf, Housman published two other prose romances, The Unknown Sea (1898) and The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905). As a political activist, Housman provided leadership both in civil disobedience, through the Women’s Tax Resistance League, and in artistic production, through the Suffrage Atelier she co-founded with her brother Laurence in 1909 (Oakley 76). In this artists’ co-operative for producing visual propaganda, she spent years creating and overseeing the making of splendid processional banners for suffragist parades until the disruption brought about by the First World War halted these activities (Oakley 79).
Apart from her novels, engravings, and banners, Clemence Housman left very little in the way of autobiographical artifacts to help in the effort to understand the overlapping strands of her life and work. What is left to piece together comes principally from Laurence’s life-writing, letters, and manuscripts. We learn from Laurence’s memoirs, for example, that when their mother was dying, she entrusted five-year-old Laurence to nine-year-old Clemence’s care...