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Ghosts, Apparitions, and Lesbians in 19th c Literature

Monday, July 4, 2022 - 07:00

All in all, this was the least satisfying of the four chapters of this book that I summarized in detail, from the viewpoint of providing a survey of the field. While the other three chapters were written by scholars with extensive work in the topic they took up, Thomas (based on some cursory googling) seems to be more a specialist in Victorian English culture, with queer history being only one of a number of specialized topics she has written on within that field. This probably accounts for the relatively narrow focus of the chapter, which makes it far less useful as an introduction to lesbian literature in the 19th century than the overall program of the Cambridge Companion would seem to call for. It omits the substantial body of sentimental homoerotic poetry, the rise of "school stories" with strong homoerotic themes, and -- as I note in the body of the summary -- a large part of the decadent movement that engaged strongly with lesbian imagery. If you are looking for a guide to 19th century lesbian literature, I would advise going farther afield. (Terry Castle's anthology has good coverage for this era, along with other sources.)

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Full citation: 

Thomas, Kate. 2015. “Lesbian Postmortem at the Fin de Siècle” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Thomas, Kate. Lesbian Postmortem at the Fin de Siècle.

This chapter begins with a tour through the complex inter-connectedness of lesbian writers in the late 19th century. As a community they were not only aware of each others’ works and themes, but promoted each other, wrote about and to each other, and often loved each other, whether requited or not.

The chapter's discussion focuses (perhaps oddly) on the gothic fascination with death that is so often associated with Victorian sensibility in general. There is a discussion of how lesbian identity in literature of the era is most often elusive "apparitional” to use the term Terry Castle applies – tying this analysis back to the fascination with death.

Overall, this chapter focuses on a narrow range of writers, and on a narrow range of subject matter, and on a thematic exploration of that filtered selection, rather than being a study guide to the full range of “lesbian literature” at the turn of the 20th century.

Since the previous chapter focused on the “long 18th century” and this one picks up only at the very end of the 19th, there is a gap in coverage that, for example, excludes the majority of the French decadent movement, the Parisian Sapphic revival, and any of the Victorian writers who were not fascinated by themes of death.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

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