The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Ignorance of My Youth

by Tricia Dower

Colin was reading a list of upcoming public lectures offered by UVic. “What do you know about Swinburne?” he asked.

“A poet,” I said. “Victorian period. Boring.”

I dug out my old text, Victorian Poetry and Poetics by Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Strange, and looked for Algernon Charles Swinburne. I was surprised to find him described as an “outspoken poetic rebel” whose “cry for freedom seemed to open new vistas of unrestrained delight.”

Rebel? Unrestrained delight? That didn’t match my recollection. I turned to Faustine, a poem Swinburne describes in a footnote as “the reverie of a man gazing on the bitter and vicious loveliness of a face as common and cheap as the morality of reviewers and dreaming of past lives in which this fair face may have held a nobler or fitter station.” Say what? About two-thirds of the way through, I came across a marginal note in the airy script of my younger self: “lesbianism.” I had written it next to: The shameless nameless love that makes Hell’s iron gin/Shut on you like a trap that breaks/The soul, Faustine.

I can’t imagine the starched Dr. Geyer initiating a discussion of lesbianism in our Victorian literature class. I can’t imagine a discussion of it anywhere else, either, when I was twenty. Well, okay, there was that gossip about two girls in my dorm. So, why am I surprised I wrote the word — because it was the Sixties? In Mary McCarthy’s popular 1963 novel The Group, one of her characters is a lesbian. (Anyone see Candice Bergen in that role?) And, what about Wonder Woman? I was a huge fan of those comics when I was a kid, well before Linda Carter channeled her on TV. What did I think transpired on that male-free Amazon isle from whence she came?

I’m guessing I had no framework in which to accept lesbianism back then. Homosexuality was for men — like D. H. Lawrence and that heartbreaker, Montgomery Clift. It was normal for unmarried women to live together in those days; they rarely earned enough to live alone. I didn’t look askance at women holding hands. I never imagined them being up to anything more.

I passed my girlhood in a self-consciously straight world while, in a parallel universe, lesbian pulp fiction was thriving — with some of the stories set in Greenwich Village, a short train ride from my home. Could I have discovered and studied this genre, later, with a little effort? Probably. But I was a lazy scholar, too focused on the goal of graduating to expend effort on anything I didn’t have to. Lesbian-flavoured books and plays such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude Stein), The Children’s Hour (Lillian Hellman) and The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith, writing as Claire Morgan), were not required reading for my English literature degree. In fact, except for passing nods at Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather (whose lesbianism was never mentioned), Katherine Anne Porter, Marianne Moore, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, not much by women was offered in my texts. I was too steeped in patriarchal culture to question it. Can I send my outrage back in time?

It’s me I’m really annoyed with. What other notes did I make in margins, understanding little of their meaning? So much was wasted on me — as is still, alas, the ‘unrestrained delight’ of Swinburne. The UVic lecture is Mythopoetic Deification: Swinburne’s Apollonian Biography. I’ll give it a miss.

Illustration: The cover of the 1957 best-selling paperback, Odd Girl Out, by ‘the queen of lesbian pulp,’ Ann Bannon (real name Ann Thayer), who went on to get her doctorate in linguistics and teach at Sacramento State University, California.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

"Can I send my outrage back in time?"

According to Captain Kirk, I don't think you can. Besides, you wouldn't be the gutsy broad you are today, had you fought all your battles in your youth.

Tue Jan 16, 09:03:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Retro Lesbian Pulp Fiction is hot right now!

I loved this post. Thanks.

Tue Jan 16, 09:35:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tue Jan 16, 12:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

tamara said...
That line, "Can I send my outrage back in time?", is perfect.

Alberto Manguel has written somewhere that so often the real insights of our readings are in the words we jot down in the margins. Living in the margins, like so many other subculture genres, is what made LPF so sexy.

That course title would inspire me to give the Swinburne a pass, too.

(Not sure if Smaro Kamboureli is teaching at UVic still, but if she is, I highly recommend taking a class with her.)

Tue Jan 16, 12:35:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

(That was my deleted comment, btw. Trying to fix my spelling, and I've created a mess ;) Giving me another opportunity here to say, "Great post."

Tue Jan 16, 12:37:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, thanks for reading Tony, Andrew, Tamara. So, the old is new again -- Retro Lesbian Pulp Fiction. Who'd a thunk it!

Tue Jan 16, 04:46:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

I came across a marginal note in the airy script of my younger self, I love this line, wonderful post Tricia.xo

Fri Jan 19, 06:44:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Larry said...

The present provides sufficient target for outrage.

Tricia, another great post! I remember, in High School, the women in my class who would now use the term 'lesbian' used to exchange coded/knowing glances with me as we passed one another in the halls. It was a preverbal way of communicating to one another that we were stuck in something we were not quite part of.

Mon Jan 22, 04:48:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thank you, Patricia. Thank you, Larry. I had a good friend in high school, Larry, a guy. He was gay, I can see that now, but he never said and I never asked. I think things are more open now. I hope.

Mon Jan 22, 09:29:00 pm GMT-5  

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