Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Franker and More Celebratory

In my earlier post on Kate O'Brien's 1958 novel As Music and Splendour, I noticed that Emma Donoghue wrote in 2010 that it had "a tactful and inexplicit quality" and doesn't put "a female couple center stage and neither is written from and for an emerging lesbian community the way Patience and Sarah so clearly was."  As I wrote in that post, when I read As Music and Splendour (thanks to Donoghue's reference to it) I found it surprisingly blunt and forthright, and its female couple shared center stage with the other main character's heterosexual relationships.

Then I stumbled on a reference to an earlier essay by Donoghue on O'Brien's work, which appeared in 1993 in Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien, edited by Eibhear Walshe and published by Cork University Press.  Donoghue's take on As Music and Splendour was quite different in that piece, much closer to mine.
What I find so satisfying about working on Kate O’Brien rather than on other lesbian novelists, quite apart from the quality of her writing, is her honesty.  She is explicit – not about sex (concerning which she has little to say) but about moral issues, decisions, hard words.  Reading the works of her contemporaries, even those as apparently “out” as Gertrude Stein, we have to struggle through euphemisms and code-words, layers of innuendo and ambiguity, all designed to protect the writers from embarrassing accusations.  Romantic friendships, especially in the girls’-school literary subgenre (a powerful example is Dorothy Strachey Bussy’s Olivia (1949), are often given a degree of intense eroticism that can only be called lesbian – yet nothing can be proved.  Whereas Kate O’Brien, on the two occasions when she writes about passion between adult women, calls it exactly that; no coyness veils her analysis of lesbian relationships.  She knows, and she makes her heroines acknowledge, that this is not romantic friendship but a quite different thing: something equivalent to marital love, though outside its social ‘order’; something punishable and costly, but often worth the price [48].
As Music and Splendour (1958) is like Mary Lavelle in that the story unfolds far away from Ireland, but is much franker and more celebratory in its account of a relationship between two women.  Instead of playing a supporting role, the lesbian is one of the two heroines, whose stories are presented equally and in parallel.  Set at a safe distance in place (Paris and Rome) and time (the 1880s), As Music and Splendour nonetheless manages to create a modern Irish lesbian and give her a startling voice [50].
Much better.  I just realized that this essay was published in the same year as Donoghue's excellent historical study Passion Between Women.  Since then she has published a study of the poet(s) Michael Field, which I haven't yet read, and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, which I have.  I just looked again at Inseparable, which covers a lot of 20th century lesbian fiction as well as much older works, and I see that though Donoghue mentioned O'Brien and As Music and Splendour in it, she again got it wrong, lumping it in with The Well of Loneliness and The Friendly Young Ladies as a novel where the "generous" lesbian gives up her girlfriend to a man. Maybe it had been too long since she'd read either the novel or her earlier discussion of it.  With this 1993 essay, "'Out of Order': Kate O'Brien's Lesbian Fictions," to guide me, I'll be working through the rest of Kate O'Brien's novels.