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Inseparable: Desire Between Women in…

Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature

by Emma Donoghue

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Whether the relationship is sexual or passionately platonic, the bonds between women can be unbreakable. This is a quite good (and a little exhausting) survey of the variety of women's relationships as presented in literature. It's probably a bit too academic for a general audience but a must have for women's or lesbian studies. ( )
  vlcraven | Sep 22, 2010 |
I probably would have given this book four out of five stars had it only been written ten years ago. As it is (and forgive my sighs), this perennial fascination with lesbian archetypes and motifs is getting a little old.

Don't get me wrong, though. As far as this sort of thing goes, Donoghue presents a highly readable and entertaining account of what she considers to be the top six lesbian motifs within western literature. Unlike other other studies (c.f. Terry Castle and Lillian Faderman), Donoghue features a much stronger showing of pre-18th century examples of lesbian experience in literature. (Strangely, though, she also misses some later offerings that every other collection also seems to ignore. What of Woolf's "The Years" or Mallet-Joris' "The Illusionist"?) The problem with all of these books that hone in on lesbian archetypal schemes is that they end up lacking in hardcore literary interpretation. Plot synopses and how literary works generally fit into a storytelling trend aren't cutting it any more for readers who are hungry for interpretation and not just classification. I think that is what makes Patricia Juliana Smith's "Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction" a standout from the rest of the crowd populated books like Donoghue's Inseparable.

That said, this is still a worthy, if less than profound, approach to what is becoming a well-worn topic. ( )
1 vote mambo_taxi | Aug 21, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307270947, Hardcover)

Questions for Emma Donoghue on Inseparable

Q: What inspired you to write Inseparable? Did you feel there was something important missing from the existing scholarly work?
A: Back in the mid-90s I was approached by a university press to write a history of lesbian literature. Although I was attracted to the idea of a book that would have a really long historical and geographical range, I didn’t want it to trawl dutifully and descriptively through the entire body of texts both by and about women-who-loved-women. That deal fell through, so what I ended up writing was much more for my own pleasure: a sort of travel guide that would identify and analyze the handful of underlying plot motifs about desire between women. As I worked on Inseparable for a decade and a half, more and more academic studies were published on specific periods and genres--sometimes on just a couple of texts. While I drew on much of this excellent scholarship, it also confirmed my hunch that both academic specialists and 'common readers' could do with a guide to this literary tradition in all its length, breadth and flavor.

Q: You describe Inseparable as a sort of map and each chapter a new "terrain." What discoveries led you to choose the path you did for the book?
A: Some of the tracks were clear from the start: I always knew there would be at least one chapter on cross-dressing, because it's been perhaps the dominant way for writers over the centuries to tell stories about how same-sex desire might 'accidentally' occur. Others were more of a surprise to me; I knew that lesbian detective fiction as a distinct genre was born in the 1990s, but I found much earlier detection stories (in large numbers from the 1920s on) that hinged on the discovery of desire between women, so that became a chapter of its own.

Q: Most of the writers you cite are men. Did this influence your reading of the texts in any way?
A: I don’t think it affected how I read the texts, but perhaps it shaped my decision, early on, to concentrate on the texts themselves rather than their autobiographical elements. I found it peculiarly liberating to approach each novel, play, or narrative poem without much caring who wrote it--to look at both trash and high literature in terms of story, and discover all sorts of connections between different texts that borrowed and reworked the same stories.

Q: Although you write that conclusions about real life shouldn't necessarily be drawn from these tales, are there any strong connections that you’ve found between the plot motifs you discuss and the cultures they come from?
A: Oh yes, indeed. I could generalize and say that a text published in 1890 will almost always give us a good insight into 1890's prevailing fantasies about love between women (e.g. morbid, neurotic, oversexed, addictive, suicidal). The tone of a text from 1600 (think of Shakespeare's playful cross-dressing heroines and the women who fall for them) will be entirely different. Neither will tell us much about real everyday life, but they certainly make up a cultural history.

Q: How do you feel that gender roles have evolved in today's literature?
A: Oh dear, that's too big a question for a quick answer! I will say that one thing that delights me nowadays is that the lesbians are writing well about whatever they like (including, very often, books that happen to have no lesbians in them) and a wide variety of authors (including straight men) are writing well about lesbians. Let confusion reign!

(Photo © Chris Roulston)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:38 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Explores the little-known literary tradition of love between women in Western literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Agatha Christie, and many more. Donoghue examines how desire between women in English literature has been portrayed, from schoolgirls and vampires to runaway wives, from cross-dressing knights to contemporary murder stories. She writes about the half-dozen contrasting girl-girl plots that have been retold throughout the centuries; explores the writings of Sade, Diderot, Balzac, Thomas Hardy, H. Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Bowen and others and the ways in which the woman who desires women has been cast as not quite human, as ghost or vampire; she writes about the ever-present triangle, in which a woman and a man compete for the heroine's love, and about how and why same-sex attraction is surprisingly ubiquitous in crime fiction, from the work of Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers to that of P.D. James. Finally she examines the plotline that has dominated writings about desire between women since the late nineteenth century: how a woman's life is turned upside down by the realization that she desires another woman, showing how this narrative pattern has remained popular and how it has taken many forms--From publisher description.… (more)

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