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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 488-491
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The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture
Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture by Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. xxii + 284. $16.50 paper.
With this book Laura Doan makes a significant contribution to the study of lesbian identity formation in the early twentieth century. Future studies in the field will need to take account of her interventions. Doan—co-editor of the Columbia volume Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on "The Well of Loneliness"—begins by re-examining the scandal surrounding the 1928 publication and suppression of Radclyffe Hall's novel, typically acknowledged as a foundational moment in the establishment of a self-identified lesbian culture in Britain. Alan Sinfield has recently argued that Wilde's trials in 1895 were significant in establishing new possibilities in sexual identity construction, rather than in exposing an already extant subculture. Applying this premise of a newly constructed identity merging with a public event, as opposed to a newly opened closet, Doan concludes that the suppression of Hall's novel was based less on fear of lesbianism per se than on a more generalized misogynistic paranoia resulting from the extension of the suffrage during the same year. Indeed, Doan marshals persuasive evidence that the novel's critical reception in the British press was generally sympathetic, even among such conservative critics as Arnold Bennett. She attributes the absence of a broad, clearly-defined anti-lesbian discourse in this period to the lack of any publicly identifiable lesbian subculture. Hall's novel—and, to perhaps an even greater degree, Hall's public persona, and her widely-perceived identification with the novel's lesbian protagonist—established a generally legible lesbian identity for the first time in Britain. (Doan is careful not to conflate public identities with private arrangements, however, specifically refuting the assumption that "romantic friendships" among "New Women" in the preceding period were typically asexual.)
Sharply focused in terms of period and locality, this study is sensitive to [End Page 488] contrasts with the differing modalities of lesbian identity formation in other contexts—specifically, the more widely studied lesbian subculture in Modernist Paris. In an attempt to avoid the anachronistic implications of the now-current term "lesbian," Doan defines as "Sapphic modernity" the confluence of the private with the public in various discourses of English modernity, which she systematically sets out in a series of chapters structured around the careers of prominent women in a variety of professions. Having bracketed the term, the author reverts to the word "lesbian" in describing these Sapphic moderns throughout the text. While the Parisian lesbian subculture was closely implicated in the cultural avant-garde, Sapphic modernity in England was more commonly characterized by social and aesthetic conservatism. Nor were the British feminist traditions of the New Woman necessarily adopted by British lesbians in this period.
The 1920s saw two unsuccessful attempts to extend England's legal prohibition of sexual relations between males to include sexual relations between females. The archeology of this failed legislation exposes the connections between legal and sexological discourses in the tentative emergence of a public definition of the lesbian. It is precisely within the area of law enforcement that Doan goes on to discover her most vivid example of initiatory lesbian self-invention and self-presentation. Starting in 1918, two rival, private women's police forces attempted simultaneously to gain recognition as official branches of the London Metropolitan Police. The women who organized these groups were not specifically defined as lesbian, although historians have subsequently categorized several of them as such. They were, however, subjected to intense scrutiny in terms of perceived transgressions of gender-appropriate behaviors and modes of self-presentation. As upper- and upper-middle class women situating a range of female masculinities within the cultural establishment, these figures brought issues of sexual nonconformity under public scrutiny when their cause was debated in a 1920-21 legal dispute. Specifically, advocates of the better-connected force charged their opposite party with a double impersonation—...