Lesbians in Literature | Dapper Sappho

Lesbians in Literature | Dapper Sappho


[“Autumn”, Vivaldi] Oh, hi! I didn’t see you there. It’s me.
The Professor. Welcome to my home. Oh! I love the Fall. The crisp air, the colorful
leaves, bonfires, and apple cider, and the perfect weather for curling up in an oversized sweater
with pumpkin spiced latte and a good book. This one’s my favorite. “Sing You Home” by
Jodi Picoult. You know? I think my favorite thing about it is Zoe and Vanessa’s friendship. They’re
just so close! So close in fact that, well, spoiler alert, they get married! Isn’t
that exciting? Being married to your best friend? Now, most of my students say
this book actually is about lesbians. And I try and not to look at things through a modern
lense, but granted. The word lesbian is mentioned quite a
lot. And, sure, Vanessa and Zoe do kiss a lot and, sure, they do sleep in the same bed together
and, sure, they do go on a lot of trips together and, sure, as I’ve said they do get married but they’re just doing it as friends! It’s just gals being pals. Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice
without blood [“Autumn”, Vivaldi] Hey, girls. Let’s talk about vampires. So, look, it’s October, which means a lot of people are back in school. Probably sitting in English lit, talking about Virginia Woolf, and your professor is completely
ignoring the fact that she had a girlfriend. Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s not the most interesting
thing about her, but, to be honest, I’d pay to be in class that just solely talk her and
Vita Sackville-West. But instead, we talked about “Mark on the Wall” and stream-of-consciousness writing, and that is pretty
interesting. But I was more inclined to text my girlfriend at the time, all, “KEEP
SENDING ME THOSE PICS AND YOU JUST WAIT UNTIL I COME BACK TO NORTH
CAROLINA, YOU NAUGHTY LITTLE–” What can I say? I’m a horrible person. But
even when the personal lives of famous gay authors are mentioned, their sexuality is
somehow swept under the rug. I first heard about Emily Dickinson when I was in middle
school. She was described as a recluse spinster who was more inclined to write her poetry
in the privacy of her own home. Said poetry was discovered by her brother and his wife,
who were also her next door neighbors, and published by them post-mortem. And I kept hearing this
narrative all throughout high school. This is even the go-to story in the biopic A Quiet
Passion. However, well…I think you see where I’m going with this. “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday
and be my own again and kiss me as you used to? I hope for you so much and feel so eager
for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that to see your face again makes me feel hot and
feverish and my heart beats so fast.” That was to her brother’s wife, her next-door
neighbor, Susan Gilbert. This habit of being hesitant to speculate
about a person’s sexuality isn’t exactly new and any queer student can attest to that.
The excuse is always, “Well, it was a different time. Gay people weren’t a big thing, so
we can’t know for sure.” Despite the fact that there are letters that straight up say: “Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make
you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — but oh my dear, I can’t
be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly.” We can even find poems from ancient times
that say: Just gals being pals, I guess. Right? Right?!
Look, I’ll be fair. Friendships between feminine-aligned people tend to be a lot more
affectionate. There is a lot of hugging and kissing and we’re not inclined to shout
“no homo” even when we so much as say, “I love you.” This need to brush off F/F
relationships as just being friends resurfaces again and again. In just the last decade alone,
we saw this when Korra and Asami become canon in Legend of Korra. Many fans were outraged
because this implication of their feelings for each other seemed to have come out of nowhere. Since I had never watched
the show, I invite you to watch this video by Johnny 2 Cellos to learn all about
it. But in the video, Johnny says, “If this scene showed Mako comforting Korra in the same way that Assami did, There is no way people would write it off as simple friendship.” Let’s apply that to what we’re talking about here. What if these quotes I provided
were about a guy? Would the narrative be different? Well, probably. In Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s
video about Emily Dickinson, she points out how Emily is thought to have been obsessed
with mysterious men. Was she? Or is there a chance that she wrote her poems about women,
or maybe just about Susan, and just switched up the pronouns? Because gay poets and pronouns,
amirite, ladies? Or maybe that wasn’t even the case. Austin Dickinson had a mistress,
Mabel Loomis Todd, who single-handedly removed any positive mentions of Susan from her poetry. Probably out of sheer jealousy because, well, she was Susan’s romantic rival. But not only that, she removed any notion that Emily was actually really fun and outgoing. Which…okay…
And if you’re still raising an eyebrow about Virginia and Vita, well, imagine if Vita said
this about her husband. You might think this was a fairytale romance blossoming at best.
At worst, you’d think Vita was over-obsessed. [Jessica Kellgren-Fozard:] “Lesbians! We’re really intense.” Unfortunately, because of the times, these weren’t exactly the fairytale romances we
expect from intense starts like this. At least that’s what I think. We can only speculate
what would’ve become of Virginia and Vita’s relationship had they lived during a more
accepting time period. Would they still have husbands? Would they divorce their husbands?
Would Virginia have lived longer than 59, and not meet her maker at the bottom of the River Ouse? And maybe Dickinson’s poems would’ve been
a lot more obvious and there’d be no infidelity in the Dickinson family. And maybe her Wikipedia
page wouldn’t say speculative horse shit like, “Some scholars question the poet’s
sexuality”. Emily was never married and we have letters to her sister-in-law that
straight up say, “Babe, come over. I’m h*rny.” Case closed. With that in mind, suffice it to say, it wasn’t
as though the lives of gay people weren’t present in literature. They were. Oh, how they were… You are mine. You shall be mine. You and
I are one, forever. One of the earliest instances of the lesbian vampire trope comes from Carmilla by Joseph
Sheridan Le Fanu. The story goes that Laura and her father witness a carriage wreck outside
of their home, finding a woman and her daughter in the midst of the disaster. While the woman
goes to seek help, the girl, who appears to be around the same age as Laura, is placed
in the care of her family. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious illness going around, which
slowly sucks the life out of its victims, mostly girls. The symptoms being pale skin,
strange behavior, and disturbing nightmares. Laura herself begins to exhibit these symptoms,
but brushes them off when Carmilla admits that she’s been having similarly disturbing
nightmares as well. “Last night, I dreamt I was trapped under a bed.” “You dreamt you were under a bed?” “Yeah. Above me, someone was crying. Little girl in a white night dress. And then it rained blood down the edges of the bed until I drowned!” “How creepily specific.” This story inspired many folklores about the
blood-thirsty vampire, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adapted into the 1931 film of the
same name and then its 1936 sequel, Dracula’s Daughter, which also exhibits some lesbian
subtexts. From then on, it became the go-to way for
authors to write about lesbians. If you must do it, they have to be blood-sucking monsters. (Well, gee, I wonder why when it was stories about female homosexuals, they used a monster that consumes
blood.) Carmilla and other vampire-themed lore was
written as a warning against lesbians. Keep the daughters and wife away. Don’t let them
be seduced by these sexy, overpowerful creatures. They’re only out to recruit and corrupt
and groom. The only way to stop them is to cut off their heads or drive a wooden stick
through their heart. And you wouldn’t want to have to do that to your poor, innocent
daughter, would you? Be afraid of this creature of the night. Be very afraid. “I have never been in love and never shall
unless it should be with you.” Another go-to formula for stories about lesbians, and gay people in general, was to write them
as hedonistic in some way and giving them a tragic ending. Maybe they drank alcohol,
did drugs, maybe they had some kind of undignifying occupation. Even when they weren’t hedonists,
authors still had to make it sad so that their work would not be considered obscene. The
author, Lee Lynch says, “The characters were more miserable than Sartre’s, and despised
as well.” That was until the 1950s and ‘60s, when a new sub-genre of lesbian fiction emerged: lesbian pulp fiction. Hey, you’ve heard of pulp fiction,
right? Well, now get ready for GAY SH*T! Still,
it wasn’t without its limits. Most authors who wrote these novels went by pen names.
One of the most popular stories of this genre, The Price of Salt, was at first rejected by
Patricia Highsmith’s publishers, Harper & Brothers. It was then published by Coward-McCann,
but only under her pen name, Claire Morgan. The Price of Salt was the first
lesbian love story that didn’t end with one or both women having a mental breakdown,
dying tragically — usually by suicide, or having one or both of the women converting back to heterosexuality. It wrote
lesbian romance the way it was meant to be written. But also — can I gush about this scene in Carol for just a minute? Okay, so you know how meticulous the cinematography
of this scene is? This tells me that whoever filmed this read the f*cking book because look at this. Pause this
video and look at this excerpt from the book. Look at how f*cking poetic that is! This is art. Carol. Is. ART! Okay, I’m done. Even still, in the end, Carol was forced to
choose between her daughter and her relationship with Therese. Now, since the book has been
out for 67 years, spoiler alert, she chooses Therese. Still, that’s pretty tame in comparison
to what everyone else was watching around the same time. In 1961, Audrey Hepburn
and Shirley MacLaine starred in the film adaptation of The Children’s Hour. And, in this story,
it was a bratty child’s lie that gave it its tragic turn
of events. That was what the general, heteronormative society was seeing. These pieces that gave
them the message that, “If you’re a homosexual, things will go bad.” Meanwhile, lesbian
pulp fictions provided a glimmer of optimism to these girls. Ann Bannon, the author
of Odd Girl Out, recounts a time when a fan-turned-friend of hers was headed to a nearby bridge, intending to jump off it, when she saw a copy of Odd Girl Out in the drugstore window.
She bought the book, read the whole thing, then went home. These stories were something
of a Pandora’s box these girls. Their lives were sad, they felt pathetic and disgusted
with themselves. These stories said: “There is a way for you to have a happy ending in a way that everyone wins. Everyone.” Darling, darling! I live in you and you would die for me. I love you so. First and foremost, I want to say that I am not in any way, shape, or form equating feminism
with lesbians. It just so happens that a lot of lesbians tend to be feminists. And that’s
fine. I think everyone should believe in equality, that’s….kinda the point? In any case,
a movement that called for the uplifting and empowerment of women, for the most part, can bring with
it the free space for women who are attracted to women make their voices heard.
One particular story I’d like to discuss here is The Color Purple by Alice Walker,
especially since it kind of had a moment this month. The Color
Purple has all kinds of representation. The main characters are all people of color, all
of them very poor, and it’s theme consists of female relationships, mostly through the
sisters, Celie and Nettie. But also, we got bisexuals. Aw yeah! Kind of in direct contrast
to what Jill Johnston was proposing. I’ll get to her and all the other trans-excluding,
man-hating radfems another day. Side note: I don’t know if the title is a reference
to the violets thing, but I’m gonna pretend it is…because it’s fun. To top it all
off, Alice Walker became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her work.
So, cisgender lesbians were having a moment during the second-wave feminist movement. One such faction I’d like to point out was the sex-positive feminist movement which brought us the On Our
Backs magazine. Playboy for queer girls! The title itself is actually a reference to Off
Our Backs, which was a sex-negative feminist publication.
Meanwhile, there was also Naiad Press, a former Missouri-based publishing company founded
in 1973 which focused on queer women’s literature. Or maybe just cis lesbians? Ya never know
with second-wave feminists. In any case, in addition to original materials, they are responsible
for the republishing of the lesbian pulp fictions we know today. Including The Price of Salt, republished in 1990 under the new name: Carol. And under Patricia Highsmith’s actual name. Naiad shut down in 2003, selling its stock to Bella Books. And by then, lesbian representation
was very much gaining traction in the mainstream media.
All of which I will discuss in the near future because, to be honest, I actually had a lot
of fun with this. It’s not every day I get to dress as the 19th-century gothic blood-sucking
vampire I truly am deep down inside. Anyway, good luck in school. Happy Halloween. And
I hope you read a lot of GAY SHIT! Okay. I cave. Maybe looking at things through
a modern lense is for the best. Maybe it gives us a more accurate interpretation of
the things we read. I don’t know! I don’t what gay relationships are like! I mean, how am I supposed to know that when someone says “girlfriend”, they mean that they’re just good friends or that they’re actually intimate with each other? And what am I supposed to make of an author saying, “she kissed her” whether it means on the face? On the lips? And what does it mean when it’s on the lips?! Either way… Maybe I should be a little less harsh on my students for seeing things differently. [joyful end credits music]

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