• E. M. Delafield's lesbian sideshow

    Tanya Izzard (see profile)
    Feminism, Twentieth century, English literature, Gay culture in literature, Women in literature
    Item Type:
    Conference paper
    Conf. Title:
    The Popular and The Middlebrow: Women’s Writing 1880–1940
    Conf. Org.:
    University of Newcastle
    Conf. Loc.:
    Newcastle, UK
    Conf. Date:
    12 April 2019
    middlebrow, Early 20th-century feminism, Gay and lesbian literature
    Permanent URL:
    My paper focuses on Delafield’s 1931 novel, Challenge to Clarissa and investigates one of the ways in which middlebrow writing accommodated the category of the lesbian in the wake of the publication and prosecution for obscenity of The Well of Loneliness. As Humble has argued, it was possible for readers of middlebrow fiction to “simultaneously know and not know” that characters were lesbian, because such characterisations were implicit and established through allusion and intertextual reference. This allowed novelists to establish protagonists who can be both read and not read as lesbian; the characterisation is in part dependent on the reader’s willingness to interpret coded references. After the scandal of the Well, as Doan suggests, lesbian meanings became explicit and automatically associated with women who lived with other women, or who possessed physical or psychological attributes deemed to be masculine. In Challenge to Clarissa, Delafield deals with a protagonist who can be read as masculine – and therefore lesbian – by establishing what I have termed a lesbian sideshow: two minor characters who carry the lesbian meaning within the text and distract from the possibility that the eponymous Clarissa is lesbian. I argue that this sideshow element allows the novel to respect the norms of middlebrow fiction by avoiding the development of overt political argument. However, I also demonstrate how Delafield works flexibly within the middlebrow category to suggest that a lesbian relationship can be positive and equal in significance to heterosexual marriage, and thus to imply that such relationships merit social approval. My reading of Delafield’s novel contributes to the definition of the middlebrow category, showing how it accommodates political meaning that is both deeply traditional and conservative and potentially radical.
    Last Updated:
    5 years ago
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