Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tactful and Inexplicit?

I hadn't heard of Kate O'Brien's As Music and Splendour until a couple of months ago, though it is a story of love between two women published in 1958.  I thought I knew most of the significant twentieth-century lesbian novels at least by reputation, so I was surprised when Emma Donoghue mentioned this one in her introduction to a 2005 reprint* of Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah.

As Music and Splendour was originally published in the UK in 1958.  It's the story of two poor Irish teenagers who are sent to Paris, and from there to Rome, to study singing in the 1880s.  Having distinguished themselves by their talent in Eire, they are granted extended loans by an institution called The Committee, effectively mortgaging their futures for years.  Away from their hometowns for the first time, they turn to one another for company and become fast friends.  Both achieve success at high levels in the opera and are able to repay the patrons who paid for their training, though Rose becomes more of a star.  Clare, though more reserved, does quite well too, on her own terms.  The novel recounts their training in some detail.  The girls' teachers are depicted compassionately but without illusion; this is a very adult book in the best sense of the word.  I've never been an opera queen, so I have no idea how accurately O'Brien describes their milieu and its politics, but the details are interesting anyway.  Both draw numerous male admirers, but manage to avoid ruin, and not just because they're heavily chaperoned.  Rose eventually selects a young French tenor as her first lover, but Clare falls in love with the Spanish Luisa.  Yet As Music and Splendour isn't a romance, it's a Bildungsroman about two young women growing up to be artists.  Love is part of their lives, along with everything else that they encounter along the way, but music is the most important part.

Donoghue wrote that, in contrast to Patience and Sarah, such earlier historical novels like As Music and Splendour and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show "have a tactful and inexplicit quality; neither puts a female couple center stage and neither is written from and for an emerging lesbian community the way Patience and Sarah so clearly was" (page 16).  It's true that Patience and Sarah, one of my all-time favorite books, puts its female couple center stage.  As Music and Splendour doesn't, but as I recall, Summer Will Show does, though against the backdrop of mid-nineteenth century political revolution in Europe.  It's true that Summer Will Show is "inexplicit" about the nature of the relationship between the two women, but it was originally published in 1936, just a few years after the scandal and court battles surrounding Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness: it must have taken a fair amount of courage to publish even an inexplicit novel about lesbians that didn't demonize them.  (Indeed, O'Brien's 1941 novel The Land of Spices was banned in Ireland for a passing reference to homosexuality.) As Terry Castle wrote, if the relationship in Summer Will Show had been between a man and a woman, no one would have objected that you couldn't be sure it was an erotic one: heterosexuality is assumed, homosexuality must shout itself from the rooftops or it will be ignored -- and then heterosexuals will complain about the Love That Won't Shut Up.

As Music and Splendour, however, is explicit, depending on what is meant by "explicit."  There are no sex scenes, but O'Brien makes it clear that Clare and Luisa are not just good friends but lovers.  (I'm actually glad that Donoghue got that wrong, so I could be pleasantly surprised when I read the book.)  Most of a chapter of the novel is devoted to Clare's defense of her love for Luisa against the accusations of Thomas, a young Welsh singer, conductor, and composer who's in love with Clare.  It's a fascinating exchange, because Clare gets the best of the debate -- which is hardly a debate, since Thomas hardly bothers to make an argument, just indulges in name-calling.
‘I can’t understand that split in you.’

‘Split?  How do you mean, Thomas?’

‘I mean, pet – sit down, don’t look so furious – I mean, this unlucky schwärm you have for Luisa -- ’


‘Don’t get cross.  Wait.  Schwärm is a good German word – Schwärmerei – for the manias girls get for each other or for their teachers – in school age. Your development has been delayed, and you are having a schwärm now for Luisa -- ’

‘Oh Thomas, stop!  Please stop.  How dare you?  Because I told you truly that I love Luisa you must not bring your clever talk against something you know nothing about.’

‘No clever talk.  Sit down.’

‘Here I sit down.  What now?’

‘I know plenty about love, Clare.’

‘In some ways you may, Thomas.  And I have observed you, and I know your actions – but I appreciate your good manners.  Still – I think you are amoral.’

‘Amoral?  But you, Clare?  I take you to be serious and grown-up, in your own conception, when you say you are in love with Luisa?’

‘Yes – Thomas.’

‘Then – you are totally amoral.’

‘No.  I am, I suppose, a sinner – certainly I am a sinner in the eyes of my Church.  But so I would be if I were your lover.  So is Rose a sinner – and she knows it – in reference to our education and faith.  You, who come out of Baptist chapels, don’t know how clear our instruction is.  Rose and I know perfectly well what we’re doing.  We are so well instructed that we can decide for ourselves.  There’s no vagueness in Catholic instruction.’

‘But there’s lots of disturbance.’

‘That sounds witty.  What disturbance have you encountered?’

‘Well, love – the disturbance you create.’

Clare stood up.  Standing, she looked down on the weary, dusty young man whom she liked greatly, and to whose vivid intelligence and friendship she owed so much.

‘Thomas, I’ve learned fast – so has Rose – in two years of Italian life.  You can argue as you like against my loving Luisa.  But I can argue back all your unbridled sins.  We all know the Christian rule – and every indulgence of the flesh which does not conform to it is wrong.  All right.  We are all sinners.  You and I and Rose and Tonio and René and Mariana – and all our friends’ [207-8] 
Now, Clare is hardly taking a militant, pro-gay position here; she concedes that in the eyes of her Church (Roman Catholic, Irish division) her love for Luisa is a sin.  But not more sinful, she insists, than the heterosexual fornication that her friends and colleagues indulge in without a second thought.  And I ask the reader to remember again that the relationship between Clare and Luisa isn't depicted as an ambiguous romantic friendship which might or might not involve copulation.  Clare is explicit that she and Luisa are lovers in the same sense as Rose is with René, or Thomas with his numerous paramours.  Thomas, the all-too-typical male heterosexual supremacist, tries to dismiss her love for Luisa as a mere schoolgirl crush, but Clare rightly will have none of it.  She doesn't allow him to condescend to her, though that doesn't keep him from trying.  She demands that he give reasons, and he has to concede that he has none.

And again, a few pages later:
‘What is love, then?  Two silly girls kissing each other?  Is that love?’

‘Maybe.  I find it to be love.’

‘Oh Clare – how all this torture heaps up love!  What are we to do?  Where am I to bury you, you unnatural, appalling one?’

‘You can’t bury me until I’m dead.  But why am I unnatural or appalling?  Consider your own career.’

‘Darling, I’m a man.’

‘I didn’t think you’d be so stupid as to say that.’

‘Nor did I.  See how you degrade me!  Stop striding!’

Clare leant against the window.

‘Easily I might have loved you,’ she said.  ‘But – she caught my heart before I knew what was happening, Thomas.  And I think she’s lovely, and I love her.  I can’t help it.  It’s true.’

‘She isn’t even faithful to you.’

‘I know.’

‘If you were a man you couldn’t endure that.’

‘No.  Men, as you call them, don’t seem to be able to endure things.  I don’t know what sex you suppose me to belong to, but I can endure Luisa’s life.  I love her,  you see.’

‘She’s promiscuous.  She’s a whore.’

‘Maybe.  It may be for that alarming honesty that I love her.’

‘Then you know more than I do about love.’

‘You’ve never been in love, Thomas -- ’

‘I’m in love with you -- ’

‘Only since you discovered you can’t get me -- ’ [212]
Amusingly, Thomas at one point invokes love's "texts – Plato, Ovid, Stendhal" as authorities for Clare, which he retracts right away as "no good" (209), though not, as far as I can tell, because he remembers that in Plato's philosophy "love" meant primarily erotic (if sublimated) love between males.

I've had some exchanges like this with heterosexuals who objected to the supposed immorality of erotic love between people of the same sex, while ignoring or brushing aside their own heterosexual immorality, which was often extensive.  Thomas, of course, is mainly miffed because Clare won't let him have sex with her.  But I've also met homosexuals who accepted that view.

It's also a common move to dismiss homosexuality as adolescent dabbling, as though heterosexual adolescents didn't dabble with one another too.  When I remember that As Music and Splendor was published in 1958, I'm impressed by the position O'Brien let Clare take.  Reading it also took me back to the mindset that was common among queers as well as among straights before and often after Stonewall, in which same-sex love was not to be taken seriously, just a kind of dirty play.  For all that, there were plenty of committed, long-term same-sex relationships between males or between females, but I've met many gay men and lesbians of my parents' generation who, though they were in such relationships themselves, saw them as a kind of second-best making-do.

I had a curious conversation in the mid-1970s with one such man, who was indignant when a drunken wife at a faculty party said that it was no secret that he and his partner were a couple.  Everyone at the party was shocked too, because while it was no secret, you weren't supposed to talk about it.  My friend asked rhetorically if they'd talk about each other's adulteries (which they probably would).  I asked, very seriously, if he considered his fifteen-year relationship with his partner to be morally equivalent to adultery.  He thought a moment, then allowed that he didn't.  But I think that on some level he did.

Kate O'Brien, who was old enough to be that man's mother, managed not to bring his attitude to As Music and Splendour.  Given the informal censorship of the 1950s, which required apologetic shame for homosexual characters if not a violent death at story's end, it's a remarkable novel, and I hope to find time to read it again someday.  And though I disagree with her account of it, I thank Emma Donoghue for bringing it to my attention.

*By Little Sister's Classics, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, British Columbia.