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LHMP #112i Castle 2003 The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall Part 9: 19th Century (fourth quarter)

Full citation: 

Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0

Publication summary: 


This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.

Part 9: 19th Century (fourth quarter)

Today you get the last of my coverage of Terry Castle's The Literature of Lesbianism, but there's still quite a bit of the book to go. 60% of the page count covers the 20th century, which is outside the scope of my project, so if you're interested in the development of the image of lesbians in literature in the last 100 years, you should definitely pick up a copy for yourself.

I say "pick up a copy for yourself" as if it were a trivial matter. (Remember that I stumbled across this volume at a local Half-Price Books store.) It may not be trivial, but how about "relatively easy"? I've sometimes bemoaned the way that the online used book market has meant that actual stores are less likely to have the terrific random discoveries of my youth. But on the flip side, that market--and especially the aggregation sites such as Amazon, or Abebooks for the more unusual/collectible titles--makes it easy and relatively cheap to pick up out of print titles…once you know they exist and that you want them.

Right now, you can get a used copy of Castle's book on Amazon starting at $14. That's the same price as my copy (although you aren't likely to get an inscription from the author). The LHMP isn't meant to provide extensive content from the books and articles I cover, simply to let you know what exists and whether it might be relevant to your interests. If any of the covered works piques your interest, take a look at the online used book sites. You never know.


This reminder is on my mind at the moment, because when I was working through my want list for future entries (largely in order to plan a raid on the U.C. Berkeley library for periodicals), I started plugging some of the book titles into Amazon and ended up buying 8 books, in some cases for less than $5 (not including shipping). Given my circumstances, I don't even wince at the thought of picking up new academic books at list prices (which tend to start around $50 and go up from there). But for books that are no longer easily available new, I'm more than happy to give a gently-used volume a good home at a much lower price!

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The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning). The female authors create neutral or positive portrayals of female same-sex desire, but where the desire is usually sublimated or obscured.

Constance Fenimore Woolson “Felipa” (1876) -- A tale of tangled passions, some of them lesbian, involving a painter, the female object of her obsession, that object’s (male) lover, and an exoticized Minorcan girl who loves several of them.

Émile Zola from Nana (1880) -- (Translated?) An episode from the novel involving courtesans and prostitutes at a lesbian bar. The depiction of late 19th century lesbian butch-femme culture is probably fairly accurate.

Guy de Maupassant “Paul’s Mistress” (1881) -- (Translated) Another story in the “decadent lesbians” genre, in which a man is driven mad when his mistress abandons him for another woman.

“Walter” from My Secret Life (1882-1894) -- Erotic scenes involving the male protagonist, his mistress, and another (female) prostitute.

Amy Levy (1861-1889) “Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia)”, “To Lallie”, “Borderland”, “At a Dinner Party” -- A selection of poems expressing desire (in varying degrees of explicitness) by the author for other women.

Catulle Mendès from Lila and Colette (1885) -- (Translated) The author was part of a circle of writers and painters who frequently depicted female homoeroticism. This is a piece in a pseudo-Hellenic style depicting classical Greek lesbianism.

Henry James from The Bostonians (1886) -- A non-pornographic depiction of lesbian desire, but solidly in the “tragic lesbian” genre, depicting the struggle between a man and a woman for the love of the same woman.

“Michael Field” (pen name of co-authors Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper) “Erinna, Thou Art Ever Fair”, “Atthis, My Darling”, Maids, Not to You”, “Power in Silence”, “Daybreak”, “My Lady Has a Lovely Rite” (1889) -- The authors were a romantic couple, living together starting when Cooper (Bradley’s niece) was a child and Bradley came to look after her invalid mother. They co-wrote poetry, plays, and books together under the pen name “Michael Field”. Their work, even apart from their living situation, attests to their romantic (and probably sexual) bond. This is a selection of their poetry, including several works inspired by the poems of Sappho.

Pierre Louÿs from The Songs of Bilitis (1894) -- (Translated) A collection of poems, fictionally purporting to be by a member of Sappho’s community of women, which unambiguously express sexual desire between women.

August Strindberg from A Madman’s Manifesto (1895) -- (Translated) A stridently misogynistic and semi-biographical novel concerning the author’s first wife, whom he accused of being a lesbian.

Marcel Proust “Before Dark” (1896), from Cities of the Plain (1921) -- (Translated) An excerpt from part of Proust’s monumental Remembrance of Things Past concerning the protagonist’s frustrated passion for a lesbian.

Willa Cather “Tommy, the Unsentimental” (1896) -- Cather herself had multiple close emotional relationships with women and is generally understood to have been a lesbian. This story is an affectionate portrait of an androgynous “tomboy” character.

Aleister Crowley “The Lesbian Hell” (1898) -- A poem solidly in the genre of decadent/erotic lesbianism.

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