With my new book, Gay Pride & Prejudice, due to release at the end of this week (March 31), I thought I would take a few minutes to offer up some of the reasons I decided to co-opt and alter one of the most beloved novels in the history of English literature. Here goes:
- I love Austen, and P&P is one of my favorite (or favourite, as Jane would have written) novels of all time. Like other self-professed Janeites, I love immersing myself in the world of P&P—the well-drawn characters, the witty dialogue, the brilliant satire, the simultaneous undermining (Elizabeth and Darcy) and reification (Jane and Bingley) of the notion of love at first sight, and the understated critique of marriage and the social status of women in Regency England.
- I am also exceedingly tired of reading the classics of English literature and finding only straight people and straight relationships seemingly portrayed. I say seemingly because many a queer reading exists of literature penned by non-straight authors—Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Of Human Bondage, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and so on and so forth. But you typically have to read between the lines to uncover gay and lesbian representations pre-twentieth century. Positively portrayed queers remain elusive in the Western literary canon, even in more recent works by self-professed queer writers. The Well of Loneliness, for example, the 1920s lesbian literary classic by Radclyffe Hall, is one of the most depressing novels I have ever read. Not exactly in the vein of “It gets better,” by any means.
- If zombies and vampires can be rewritten into the classics, thanks to the current trendiness of literary mashups, then why not homosexuals? There is in fact a plethora of factual evidence of our existence—after all, our likeness can be captured on film, unlike some of the monsters finding their way into the formerly human literary canon.
- While we’re on the topic of the presence of queer people in or out of the literary canon, let me just say right now that I fully support the notion that homosexuals have existed since time immemorial, despite assertions to the contrary from the mainstream academic community. Why, if we accept that Sappho was the first known woman-loving woman in Ancient Greece, and that her male contemporaries engaged in homosexual relationships, would we believe the nay-sayers who claim that it is “arrogant” to presume that queer people existed in the pre-modern era? Personally, I believe that it is “homophobic” to assert that we may not have. What else could convince someone to suggest that gay folks existed for a few centuries, ceased existing for a couple of thousand years, and then suddenly re-emerged in the late eighteenth century when a prescient German writer invented the term “homosexual”? The invention of the signifier (“homosexual”), in my opinion, does not preclude the prior existence of the signified (“gay people”). After all, laws and scriptures against sodomy and other homosexual behavior have been on the books continuously in the West since ancient times, and they could hardly have been enacted if queer people hadn’t already existed, could they? Modern queer life is, obviously, different from earlier incarnations. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t women who loved women, and men who loved men. They may not have conceived of themselves the way modern queers do; but then again, they might have.
- Similarly, I am a bit tired of the insistence that “romantic friendships” between women of bygone eras cannot be proven to be sexual in nature. That may be true in many cases, but it is equally true that these relationships cannot be proven to be asexual in nature, either. And yet that is the prevailing norm, despite the existence of compelling evidence to the contrary: Anne Lister, an upper-class Englishwoman and a contemporary of Jane Austen’s, who left behind coded journals describing her sexual relationships with a number of women. Jane English, who wrote the script for the BBC film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, noted in a recent Ms. magazine interview that her imagination was captured by one of the diary entries that described Anne’s 1819 meeting with her married female lover at a hotel in Manchester. English says she read this journal entry and “thought: ‘Hang on. These two women are meeting for illicit sex in a hotel—and this is the era of Jane Austen!’… We’re so used to the genteel world represented in Jane Austen… [but] this projects a very different image of women at the time, as being sexually voracious—or just as having a sexual appetite!” Here, here. The supposed dearth of historical evidence of women’s sexual activity, homo or hetero, does not indicate that women of the past were not, in fact, sexual beings.
- And finally, you’ve likely heard the saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” For writers, the corresponding adage is, “Write what you want to read.” I wanted to read the queer version of P&P—as close to the original as possible, somewhat faithful to the era, without a whole lot of smut—so I decided to write Gay P&P. Now, whether or not I succeeded in creating an even somewhat tolerable variation on Austen’s brilliant original is for you, fair reader, to decide…
Hi Kate, I have just checked Amazon Germany, and they will have the book available, so looking forward to reading it.
I will be interested to see how, as Helena Whitbread interpreted in decoding the Anne Lister diaries her sexual encounters as kisses, you describe such scenes..Anne Lister is one of my hero’s!
I really hope this is a tremendous success, I know an exciting reading weekend lies ahead for me.
Thanks, Eileen. The book is now available in paperback and ebook, so I hope you enjoy! I find Anne Lister to be incredibly cool, too. So glad her journals survived, and that Helena Whitbread finally published the lesbian parts of the diaries that earlier researchers chose to omit from their own work…
What a fantastic idea for a book. P&P is still possibly my all-time favourite novel. Typically, I don’t find heterosexual romances as interesting or affecting as lesbian romances, but I do in P&P. The lack of smut probably does help, but I still feel overwhelmingly happy for (most of) the couples in P&P. Good luck with the release of the book. I don’t think I will be able to resist reading it for long.
Hi Clare. Thanks for commenting. I just finished your novel, “Pennance,” and really enjoyed it. Great work! I’m looking forward to reading more from you. After perusing your blog, too, I see that we both have toddlers and partners who enjoy reading about true crime just before falling asleep. Too funny… Happy reading and writing- Kate
Kate; just want to say a giant thank you for your Sapphic take on P&P; I hope you tackle all of Jane Austen, as for sure I’d buy every volume. Actually there is plenty of good academic literature on female-female love in Western Lit. In the 18th century ‘Sapphic’ was the preferred term, ‘lesbian’ was coined in the Middle Ages, but became popular in our time.
Read Emma Donoghue’s “Inseparable” & this “Same sex love and desire among women in the Middle Ages” / edited by Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn
Sapphistries : a global history of love between women / Leila J. Rupp.
Intimate friends : women who loved women, 1778-1928 / Martha Vicinus.
The lesbian premodern / edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt.
Thanks for the comment, Rory. I’m so glad you enjoyed my take on P&P! It felt like a bit of a gamble, but so far the people I wrote it for–lesbian Jane Austen fans like you and me–seem pleased with the result. Thanks also for the book suggestions. I was actually referring to mainstream academic responses particularly from the beginning of the establishment of Queer Studies in the U.S. Fine GLBT academic historical work is indeed available, as you note, particularly as practiced by out queer academics. But the straight academic community often looks the other way when it comes to queer history, as was the case with Anne Lister, Jane Austen’s infamous lesbian ladykiller contemporary. Lister’s diaries were translated in the 1930s, but the lesbian content was kept hidden for half a century until an open-minded (straight) researcher, Helena Whitbread, published the homoerotic content in the 1980s. This is not the only case of the suppression of gay and lesbian history by disinterested or disapproving heterosexual historians, just one that ends happily, from my perspective. As an undergraduate women’s history major and later an English master’s student, I encountered this frustrating academic homophobia both in person and in textbooks too frequently to believe the slightings I observed were random or unusual. Thankfully, academics like Lillian Faderman, Martha Vicinus, and Leila J. Rupp persevered in the face of such institutionalized bigotry. Hear, hear to them and others like them!
Thanks again for the note. I’ll let you know if I tackle Austen’s other novels. Emma seems to me almost too obviously lesbian to resist…
Sorry I misunderstood your point; back in the day all my lesbian material was ‘The Well of Loneliness” & a biography of Natalie Clifford Barney & then seemingly there were 0 lesbians until you went back to Sappho. So much is changing. But we still need to make our own icons, which is why what you did, to my mind is so important.I think it’s a deadly combo of homophobia/androcentrism. I heard a gay male Classics grad student say recently ‘there weren’t any female philsophers in ancient Greece and Rome.’ I was appalled, but he simply wasn’t interested in the doings of women.
Oh Emma, a big favourite of mine, I would love that!
I hated the “Well of Loneliness” when I read it in college. I couldn’t believe such a depressing tome was the first book that sprang to mind when people mentioned lesbian fiction. As you say, so much has changed, which is undoubtedly a good thing.
Emma is another favorite of mine, too. Perhaps next year, when my projects list opens up again! Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂
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