Desire Between Women in Literature
By Emma Donoghue
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307270948, 288pp.)
Publication Date: May 25, 2010
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From a writer of astonishing versatility and erudition, the much-admired literary critic, novelist, short-story writer, and scholar (“Dazzling”—The Washington Post; “One of those rare writers who seems to be able to work on any register, any time, any atmosphere, and make it her own” —The Observer), a book that explores the little-known literary tradition of love between women in Western literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Agatha Christie, and many more.
Emma Donoghue brings to bear all her knowledge and grasp to examine how desire between women in English literature has been portrayed, from schoolgirls and vampires to runaway wives, from cross-dressing knights to contemporary murder stories. Donoghue looks at the work of those writers who have addressed the “unspeakable subject,” examining whether such desire between women is freakish or omnipresent, holy or evil, heartwarming or ridiculous as she excavates a long-obscured tradition of (inseparable) friendship between women, one that is surprisingly central to our cultural history.
Donoghue writes about the half-dozen contrasting girl-girl plots that have been told and retold over the centuries, metamorphosing from generation to generation. What interests the author are the twists and turns of the plots themselves and how these stories have changed—or haven’t—over the centuries, rather than how they reflect their time and society.
Donoghue explores the writing of Sade, Diderot, Balzac, Thomas Hardy, H. Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Bowen, and others and the ways in which the woman who desires women has been cast as not quite human, as ghost or vampire.
She writes about the ever-present triangle, found in novels and plays from the last three centuries, in which a woman and man compete for the heroine’s love . . . about how—and why—same-sex attraction is surprisingly ubiquitous in crime fiction, from the work of Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers to P. D. James.
Finally, Donoghue looks at the plotline that has dominated writings about desire between women since the late nineteenth century: how a woman’s life is turned upside down by the realization that she desires another woman, whether she comes to terms with this discovery privately, “comes out of the closet,” or is publicly “outed.”
She shows how this narrative pattern has remained popular and how it has taken many forms, in the works of George Moore, Radclyffe Hall, Patricia Highsmith, and Rita Mae Brown, from case-history-style stories and dramas, in and out of the courtroom, to schoolgirl love stories and rebellious picaresques.
A revelation of a centuries-old literary tradition—brilliant, amusing, and until now, deliberately overlooked.
Emma Donoghue is the author of sixteen books, including the best-selling novels Slammerkin, Life Mask, and Room. Donoghue’s reputation as a literary historian has grown with the publication of two anthologies: Poems Between Women (1997) and The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1999). Donoghue has lectured at universities in Ireland, Britain, and the United States on Irish studies and eighteenth-century gay/lesbian history. She lives in London, Ontario.
“Were an intelligent, determined scholar to set herself the task of sifting through the last thousand years of Western culture’s literary output, would she be able to discern a “historical moment when something changed in the way women’s love was experienced and interpreted”? The short answer is no, not really. The longer answer is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, by the novelist, playwright and literary critic Emma Donoghue. . . Donoghue’s adroit commentary, along with her chronologically organized bibliography, makes Inseparable necessary for scholars and enlightening and often amusing for anyone else.”
—Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
“[Inseparable is a] thorough, scholarly, and consistently entertaining tour through Western literature . . . a fresh interpretive literary investigation of lesbian love stories. . .”
“Indispensable work. . .”
“‘The past is a wild party; check your preconceptions at the door,’ warns British literary historian and novelist Donoghue . . . With her excellent reading list, readers can test for themselves the “unexpected continuity” Donoghue finds in the presence of passion between women in Western literature.”