Monsieur and Me: A Reflection on the Historical Novels of Sarah Waters
Many moons ago I worked voluntarily at an excellent (sadly now closed) lesbian lifestyle magazine called Velvet. I did marketing and PR, and one of my more beloved roles was to do book and film reviews. It was through this that I first became aware of the novelist, Sarah Waters, whose titles Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity have all been adapted for television or film. Tipping the Velvet, her first novel, blew my mind, because it was both a very well researched historical novel and a narrative that spoke powerfully and eloquently about the love between two women. The deep, all-encompassing and life-changing passion that Nan feels for Kitty echoed my own feelings, experiences and desires, and perhaps it was that familiarity which endeared it to so many other readers.
Historical fiction is a very popular genre and yet it was not one I usually read. But Waters had me hooked from almost the first line. Her detailed, seamless literary style combined with such a wealth of contextual, historical detail that it seemed to me that she brought the Victorian world to life. And for the first time, it made me think about the LGBT* people who lived and loved and worked, and struggled and starved, and succeeded, in some cases, at that time. It made it seem entirely normal, and reasonable, that there were women dressing as men and loving each other. That Waters published her book as a mainstream book, not as lesbian genre fiction, was another significant dimension of my reading experience and her ongoing success.
And then there was Monsieur. The novels I had read outside of the lesbian fiction genre did not deal with lesbian sex in any real way. It was alluded to, it was cleverly circumvented so that there was a sex-shaped hole in many stories (even those mainstream thrillers written by the wonderful Val McDermid), but it seemed that Sarah Waters transgressed the final taboo. Monsieur, made of leather, not only featured uncompromisingly in her book, but also in the Andrew Davies/BBC three part adaptation. Yet another aspect of lesbian identity and behaviour made manifest in the ‘normal’ world. How wonderful. How disturbing. How strange.
Although the subsequent novels take a darker turn, exploring more psychological, supernatural and psychic dimensions of the lives of women, and are less sexually explicit, there is an ongoing allusion to the nature of lesbian sexuality which, for the queer reader, evokes a sense of familiarity. Here at last are the books that speak to us on an intimate level. They whisper “you see, I know you!”
What struck me, and still does, when reading these three different, and so cleverly crafted books, is not only her representation of the times and culture in which they took place, but Waters’ willingness to explore the ambiguities of lesbian identity and sexuality alongside a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that women are not always very nice to each other. I had read other Victorian fiction and yet here was an insight from a different perspective. A woman’s perspective but not just any woman. These women were different. They challenged me. And I love to be challenged.
Researching further, I found a link to her PhD Thesis: Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present. Reading this opened my eyes to the nature of queer fiction throughout history, more so than my rudimentary understanding of Sappho, Wilde, Hall and others. What she has done, in this thesis and in her published fiction, is to open up a window into historical life viewed differently from the ‘malestream’ disciplines of both history and fiction, whilst adhering brilliantly to the conventional forms of the novel (and of the thesis, I might add). To see an academic, and a novelist, creating a niche for her work and achieving wide acclaim (just check her Widipedia entry to see how many awards she has won) whilst celebrating the history of queer people is both reassuring and pleasurable. As a novelist myself, I am in awe of her skill and craft, and as an avid and avowed bibliophile, I can only hope she continues to thrill us with more books in the future.
As for monsieur… if you don’t already know, then read the book! I could never describe him in any way that would come close to Sarah Waters.
Check out her work at http://www.sarahwaters.com/
By Dr Alys Einion,
Co-Chair, Swansea University Staff Network.
This blog series is coordinated by Dr Alys Einion of Swansea University and celebrates LGBT History Month 2017.
Alys Einion February 3rd, 2017
Posted In: Uncategorized
Reflections on Jane Austen, Intersectionality, and the Global Reader,
I’ve been passionately in love with Elizabeth Bennett for decades. As the primary character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice she seemed to epitomise so many things that I found admirable, including a good helping of disrespect for certain social norms and the ability to reply with a witty comeback when someone disrespects her. But as with all of Austen’s books, I also struggle with the deeply ingrained heterosexuality and gender normativity of her work. I forgive her, and the books, because they are products of their time, but I still struggle with only seeing snapshots of myself, and my queer peers, within these pages. Not that I don’t recognise some classic characters and find it easy to transpose them onto ‘lesbians I have known (and loved)’. I have known quite a few Ms Darcys, whose arrogance at their position in life, manifested in their perfect adherence to ‘dyke’ haircuts and fashion make them walk into the room like a Shane thinking they own it and every woman there. I have known a few Ms Wickhams too, and, in my turn, been burned by them.
But I, like many of my generation, I suspect, still struggle with the strictures of heterosexual culture which are so powerfully reproduced in these books, even though Jane Austen gives a clear message about the wrongness of limiting a woman’s prospects by her fortune, connections and marriageability. About 10 years ago, I read Maria Edgworth’s Belinda for the first time, and found in this a much stronger cultural critique, particularly of the ways in which women are expected to behave. Edgeworth presents us with characters who not only challenge gender norms in behaviour, but in dress, and has women dressing as men and engaging in masculine pursuits including duels, riding, shooting and flirtations with other women. This made me realise that many women of that time period were indeed fighting against the dominant cultural tropes which relegated them to decorative additions to the salon, defined them by their dowries and their ‘accomplishments’ and basically chained them to the home once they were married and had started producing children. Not only was Mary Wollstencraft advocating for women’s autonomy, liberation and respect, but writers like Edgeworth were arguing that women had equality in every aspect of life. Belinda, her main character, evidences the intellectual capacity of a philosopher, a thinker, someone with high intelligence and insight, at a time when the dominant culture proposed that women’s brains were smaller and their limitation to the home sphere was for their own good, based on their physical and cognitive limitations.
Despite being madly in love with Elizabeth Bennett, and you know love is blind, I did, in my 20s and 30s, finally realise the limitations to these books that I know and love so well. They are products not only of their time but of a classist and ethnocentric system which totally overlooks and disenfranchises any woman not of a particular social class or racial background. Austen perhaps cannot be blamed for her limitations. But her representation of lower classes, of ‘gypsies’ and of anyone other than the families of ‘gentlemen’ is at best negligent. As my understanding not only of white privilege but of the vast complexity of our intersectional world, my love affair with Austen faded somewhat. I realised that the books and literature represented most in school, in University, and in adaptations for film and television repeated these biased tropes. Despite how much I love these stories, they have to be viewed as what they are, a very limited and restricted sample of life for a very small number of people at a particular point in time. Far from just failing to represent women, lesbians or gender in sufficient complexity, they fail to represent the bulk of social life.
What can we learn from this, for considering our LGBT history? Perhaps the main lesson is to develop our awareness, to deliberately step aside and consider things from different perspectives. To reach and to read outside our comfort zones. To look for literature that represents a variety of experiences and points of view. To deliberately challenge our own position and to search for and read things that go beyond our own perspectives. To engage in intersectionality in our reading, and in our consumption of films and television. To see ourselves as what we are, singular citizens of a tiny country (I speak from a UK perspective here) whose view on the world may be skewed by our lack of perspective and our lack of exposure. And to lobby for better recognition of the vast body of literature and art that represents the true diversity of the world. This year, finally, women (and men) of colour are finally being better represented in the vastly inflated world of the film industry, and works are emerging which set out to redress the balance in many ways. Over time, I have seen wider diversity in the books winning the huge literary prizes. But we should not be just looking at prizewinners. We should be looking beyond, to seek out representations of life, sexuality, gender, personhood, which show us as global citizens and to find, consume, and if necessary, produce, those books and stories which represent our past and our present so that others can learn too. If history has failed us, we can take back our history and make visible all that has been overlooked. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.
By Dr Alys Einion,
Co-Chair, Swansea University Staff Network.
This blog series is coordinated by Dr Alys Einion of Swansea University and celebrates LGBT History Month 2017. To contribute, please email email@example.com
Alys Einion February 2nd, 2017
Posted In: Uncategorized
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