Representation, Expression and Censorship: Same-sex Desire in ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Well of Loneliness’

By 1928 – the year The Well of Loneliness[1] and Orlando[2] were published – there was an increasing social awareness of female same-sex desire in Britain.[3] Whilst The Well engages in religious and contemporaneous sexological discourse in order to legitimise and justify ‘sexual inversion’; Orlando adopts metaphorical language and narrative strategies to deconstruct and expose conventional heterosexuality, exploiting the possibility for same-sex desire.[4]

The masculinised protagonist of The Well – Stephen Gordon – can be identified, with the help of Newton, as ‘The Mythic Mannish Lesbian’.[5] This view of female homosexuality echoes throughout the novel, and is primarily drawn from the work of contemporary sexologist’s such as; Havelock Ellis[6], Edward Carpenter[7], Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Karl Ulrich, whose theories of ‘congenital sexual inversion’ Hall embraced.[8] To these theorists ‘sexual inversion’ is seen as misaligned gender identity[9]; in other words, female homosexuality is characterised by a masculine soul trapped in a female body.[10] Stephen is directly associated with masculinity: her masculine tastes and accomplishments, her cropped hair and her men’s ties, combined with an aversion to female domesticity and passivity, identifies her as the quintessential ‘invert’.[11] For Stephen – and Hall – ‘lesbianism is a congenital form of lust caused by and manifested in gender reversal’[12] but this use of sexological distinctions between ‘true inverts’[13] and the women who love them, sets up a hierarchy of inversion weighed down by contradictions about same-sex desire.

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Degrading the Feminine: Reading Misogyny in E. E. Cummings & T. S Eliot

There is a degraded and misogynistic representation of the feminine in E. E. Cummings [1] poetry: a victimised and openly disdained object Cummings invites us to judge.

E. E. Cummings: 1894 - 1962
E. E. Cummings: 1894 – 1962

Criticism of The Waste Land [2], on the other hand, has come to a general conclusion that it is, in short, ‘about a sexual failure which signifies a modern spiritual failure’ [3]. And while, here too, women are victims of a failed Western civilisation, Eliot’s portrayal of the degradation of both sexes depicts a shared failure of human relationships in Western societies. There are many characters – male and female – presented through various voices, but it is the expression of a single protagonist, ‘various facets of whose character are represented by the different men and women in the poem.’ [4] 

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A Queer Reading of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’

‘But in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place-that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply. She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror-but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something … divine to happen … that she knew must happen … infallibly.’

Several critics have identified Bertha’s intense feeling of bliss as a symbol of her awakened desire for Harry, and/or Pearl. Although it is not explicitly evident, at first, exactly what is fuelling this ‘shower of sparks’ in her bosom the extensive use of the ‘fire’ and heat metaphors can be described as being synonymous with sexual passion and desire. It begins with the description of her bliss as ‘though you’d suddenly swallowed a piece of that bright afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom… little shower of sparks’, and continues ‘… passionately, passionately… the fire in her bosom.’

Interestingly, this passionate heat is contrasted against its polar coolness; ‘It was dusky in the dining room, and quite chilly… the cold air fell on her arms’, there is also a ‘cold mirror’ that reflects back a smiling, radiant woman in a frenzy of passion. This moment of the cold mirror image reflecting the radiant, smiling self may be particularly reflective of her duality, or more specifically the duality of her desire. The coldness comes back again whilst Bertha is describing her physical, and presumably sexual, relationship with Harry, ‘It had worried her dreadfully at first to find that she was so cold.’ When Pearl arrives however, the whole feeling returns more powerfully than before, it is the touch of her ‘cool arm that could fan-fan-start blazing-blazing-’ – and then culminate in – ‘the fire of bliss.’ These contrasting images of heat and cold seem to demonstrate the source of Bertha’s real ‘feeling of bliss’; Bertha considers herself ‘cold’ in her heterosexual experiences with Harry, she becomes frigid, but her homosexual desires for Pearl ignite in her the authentic heat of passion.

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Eighteenth Century Masquerade

Georgian Masquerade
Georgian Masquerade

‘I love a masquerade […] because a female can never enjoy the same liberty any where else’; Exploring the Relationship between Gender and Disguise in Eighteenth-century fiction  

Public masquerades were a popular, and controversial, form of urban entertainment in England during most of the eighteenth century. Some of the controversy, and subsequent criticism, that surrounded the culture of the masquerades relate to the belief that they would encourage female sexual freedom, and possibly even female emancipation.[1]

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