Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Well of Allusion: Charlotte likes Chloe and Olivia

What did I find in the library? Oh my! 

I recently went to the launch of a friend’s photography exhibit held in a local library. I was particularly proud of my outfit, which I was hoping made me look like a bohemian intellectual at, well, an art opening, so I dragged Beau back into the stacks to take some photos.
Brooch: vintage. Classy decolletage? All my own.
I happened to stop in front of the anthology, Chloe Plus Olivia. If you want to know why this caused me to look so delightedly sly and make kissy faces at the book, read on.
Copper earrings and ring: vintage; Rosebud earring: bought at Barefoot Contessa
In the fall of 1928, Virginia Woolf was giving a lecture on “women and literature” when she stopped in mid-sentence, saying, “I’m sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read [in the imaginary book] were these – ‘Chloe liked Olivia…’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”

What on earth was she talking about? Only this.

A kissy face for my brave forebears, Fadderman, Hall, Woolf, et al.
In 1928, Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness, a novel about an English lesbian who eventually finds self-acceptance, love, and community in Paris. It was brought to court on charges of obscenity. The man officiating over the obscenity trial was Sir Chartres Biron.

The trial drew a great deal of attention and many literary luminaries of the time, including some who were themselves closeted homosexuals and bisexuals (Virginia Woolf among them), defended the novel. 

The Well of Loneliness is, admittedly, a dreadful novel and Woolf knew it. The prose is painful, especially near the end when Hall begins to write sentences that would make Yoda proud. Femmes will find their toes curling with anger at Hall’s inflation of butchness with lesbianism, thus relegating all femmes to some kind of odd form of heterosexual homosexuality (i.e. femmes are the "girls" and butches are the lesbians/"men") that only barely makes sense, and only if you squint. I would only recommend reading it as a socio-historical document. 

Yet the luminaries were right to defend it. A lesbian novel with a (somewhat) happy ending? That was something worth defending.

Biron upheld the obscenity charges. He did not do this because of the lesbianism in the novel, but, instead, because, in the book “not one word which suggests that anyone with the horrible tendencies described is in the least degree blameworthy. All the characters are presented as attractive people and put forward with admiration; and those who object to these vices are sneered at in the book as prejudiced, foolish, and cruel.” In other words, the lesbians did not suffer for their “sins” and those who thought they should be were “the bad guys.” Lesbians were neither punished nor taught a lesson and it is this that made the book obscene.

You bet I look sly. There's a proud tradition of slyness in this tale.

So, when my sly pal Virginia Woolf, in her prescient lecture series, which later became the book A Room of One’s Own, asked if Chartres Biron were hiding behind the curtains, she knew, and the audience knew, that she was not just talking about literature. When she said that “Chloe liked Olivia,” she was talking about lesbian love. And she was talking about the fact that women’s stories, all women’s stories, need to be reflected in literature, something that could not be done if women were not given more space (“a room of one’s own”), time, and money to write.

Cane or no cane, there's power in knowledge and a good mind used well.

Years later, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Woolf’s arguments were revived by a new generation of queer women, feminists, and literary scholars. In 1995, Lilian Fadderman edited an anthology of lesbian writing which she entitled Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the 17th Century to the Present. The title was an allusion to allusion to an allusion. I love that kind of thing!

Standing tall, metaphorically, at least. Dress: vintage; Cane: Life; Boots: Ecco.
And I love to know my history of women fighting for what is right.
That’s why I’m kissing the book.

(Source for Biron's statement: Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness, by Laura L. Doan, and Jay Prosser)

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