‘someone will remember us/I say/even in another time’: Playfulness and a queer genealogy in Sarah Waters’ lesbian historical fiction
By Olivia Aarons
Olivia Aarons recently completed her BA in English Language & Literature at Balliol College, Oxford and hopes to pursue postgraduate study in the field of modern literature. Her undergraduate dissertation focused on queer temporality and ‘playfulness’, particularly between past and present, in Sarah Waters’ historical fiction. In this blog post, Olivia considers how Sarah Waters chooses to use historical fiction to write lesbians into history, and identifies how these narratives offer the possibility of a happy lesbian past.
lesbians, Sarah Waters, historical fiction, queer theory, queer genealogy
Sappho, the ‘original’ lesbian, promises in her Fragment 147, ‘someone will remember us/I say/even in another time’ but the crucial question is how will this past lesbian ‘us’ be remembered?[i]
Lee Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz in No Future and Cruising Utopia, respectively, present two relatively oppositional ideas about queer genealogy and the queer past. Edelman declares ‘we choose, instead, not to choose the Child, as disciplinary image of the Imaginary past or as site of a projective identification with an always impossible future’.[ii] If the past is ‘imaginary’ and the future is ‘always impossible’ then it follows that the only real, actualized time is the present. For Edelman queerness, therefore, means hedonistically embodying the present rather than continuing this repetitive deferral of time that centres around the Child. His argument is flawed in its address to the ‘future-negating queer’ as it ignores the fact that there will always be a future queer person to whom Edelman is speaking.[iii] Muñoz, responding to Edelman, takes the opposite stance by focusing on the ‘future queer’, arguing that queerness is primarily about futurity and hope and declaring that ‘the future is queerness’s domain’.[iv] Unlike Edelman who entirely rejects genealogy and a relationship with the past, Muñoz’s argument is more complicated – but still does not go far enough in its engagement with the past – because he advocates taking glimmers of the past in order to inform the queer future he envisages.
The queer genealogy that Sarah Waters presents in her lesbian historical fiction – with a focus particularly on Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watch, and The Paying Guests – does two things. Firstly, it creates a lesbian genealogy; defying Edelman’s rejection of the possibility of queer inheritance and demonstrating that the past can be ‘queerness’s domain’ too. Secondly, it indicates the potential for this genealogy-seeking to be a playful act; rejecting the pessimism that Edelman invests in his narratives of genealogy and introducing the possibility of finding joy and vibrancy in a lesbian past.
The Apparitional Lesbian and the Historical Author’s Intervention
Tracing a specifically lesbian genealogy across time is a difficult and fragmentary project for historians because they must deal with a combination of history erasing women and history erasing homosexuality. Sarah Waters and historian Laura Doan note that men can look back ‘confidently and nostalgically to [classical and Renaissance] homophile communities’ whilst the search for ‘lesbian originals’ still centres around Sappho.[v] 2017 signalled 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 prompting celebrations of queer history. Tate Britain’s Queer British Art exhibition – declared ‘the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art’ – was a major feature in these celebrations.[vi] Whilst the exhibition is admirable for a starting a dialogue about queer history an absence of specifically lesbian history is noticeable. Visitors’ comments were left on pieces of paper at the end of the exhibition, two are especially pertinent in the context of the exhibition’s lack of lesbian history. The first reads, ‘I didn’t know Lesbians existed back then??? Wow!’ and the second, ‘this exhibition is like my life…/…Too Many Men, not enough women’. The latter comment critiques the exhibition for its overlooking of the lesbian part of queer history, the former articulates the result of this overlooking: the historical lesbian becomes invisible.
In The Apparitional Lesbian, Terry Castle proposes that that the lesbian has always been fully integrated in cultural life and the world more widely but, at the same time, has paradoxically been rendered invisible. Thus, Castle advocates a bolder approach to lesbian history, calling for a ‘focus on presence instead of absence, plenitude instead of scarcity’.[vii] Waters focuses on presence and plenitude by inventing and populating her representations of history with lesbians. Lesbian historical fiction’s relationship with ‘completely factual’ history exists on a spectrum. Emma Donoghue distinguishes between authors who ‘make it all up’ and those who research ‘desirous of some historical reality’, suggesting it is best to use facts to ‘spur’ rather than ‘fetter’ the author.[viii] There is a burden of proof placed on the lesbian historian – proof that will not necessarily ever be recovered – which is further complicated by a reluctance to identify historical women as lesbian for fear of being accused of anachronism. Lesbian historians have made efforts to address these issues, but lesbian historical authors occupy the somewhat privileged position of being able to avoid these issues altogether.[ix] As Waters succinctly puts it,
lesbian historians might agonize over whether women in the past had sex with each other but if I want my lesbians in the 1860s to have sex, then they just do.[x]
Waters draws attention to her invention, rather than citation, of these historical lesbians as she declares them ‘my lesbians’; the simplicity and liberation of Waters’ logic allows her to write lesbians into history and depict them living fulfilling and vibrant lives.
This is not to say that Waters’ historical novels are works of unsubstantiated invention. The paratext in the three novels mentioned indicates a thoroughness in her historical research. For example, in the acknowledgements of both The Night Watch and The Paying Guests Waters cites a variety of texts, local archives and individuals she is particularly indebted to. Waters does decide to explicitly clarify that The Paying Guests is ‘a work of fiction’ (597); this is not a clarification she makes in either Tipping the Velvet or The Night Watch but this sense of using historical research as a ‘starting-point’ (The Paying Guests, 597) is evident in these novels too. Tipping the Velvet lacks citation of specific research but Waters has explicitly discussed how her interest in writing lesbian historical fiction grew out of her PhD research on the representation of lesbian and gay pasts.[xi] For Waters the process of writing historical fiction invariably involves a long research period, followed by a process of turning the research into ‘something else, something that’s mine’.[xii] This emphasis on ‘something that’s mine’ indicates not only how Waters weaves ‘truth’ into narratives of her own invention, preventing a neat separation of truth and fiction, but also how she emotionally engages with a lesbian past, it becomes something that is ‘hers’.
Waters playfully highlights this relationship that her novels have to history and historiographical methods. In The Paying Guests Frances declares to Lilian,
When we talk, we talk nonsense. Of flying carpets. Of gipsy queens. You mean more to me than that. I don’t want a make-believe life with you. I want – I don’t know what I want. I almost wish I were a man. I’ve never wished it before. But if I were a man I could take you dancing, take you to supper – (269)
Frances articulates the need for her and Lilian’s romantic relationship to be externally acknowledged; without being publicly acknowledged or seen their relationship takes on an unreal quality, confined to the realm of ‘nonsense…flying carpets…[and] gipsy queens’. Whilst Waters’ novels offer a platform through which historical lesbian relationships can be seen and acknowledged as real by her present-day readers, Frances’ statement that ‘I don’t want a make-believe life with you’ highlights the tension in Waters’ work. Frances, Lilian and their relationship are not real in the sense that they are ultimately Waters’ ‘make-believe’ creation; their relationship is real, though, within the historical narratives Waters constructs and is validated as real by the reader’s awareness of their relationship’s true nature.
‘Pockets of love and desire and contact and affinity’
Waters takes fragments – fragments of historical truth and material fragments – and creates a fleshed-out community from them. There is never just one ‘token’ lesbian character in isolation but always an established, wider lesbian community. Sara Ahmed, in her discussion of queer phenomenology, states that sensory details can trigger memories which lead us ‘away from the present, to another place and another time’.[xiii] Waters uses material fragments to establish connections across time and to ground otherwise intangible relationships in material evidence. An example of this is in The Night Watch when, in the 1947 period, Helen touches ‘the cotton of Julia’s nightshirt’, triggering the memory of ‘satin pyjamas…the most beautiful pyjamas, it seemed to her now’ (158). A moment in the 1944 period reveals the pyjamas to be an indulgent birthday present from Kay, described in sensory terms as ‘slippery’ and ‘heavy’ (312-313). These material fragments create a connection across time and between Helen’s feeling of discontent in two different lesbian relationships. This connection enacted by the material also illustrates the network of lesbian relationships Waters creates; Helen is allowed her own personal lesbian history and point of reference for relationships with women.
Waters establishes a sense of lesbian community, of lesbian presence, by also carving out real spaces of queer domesticity, in her words, ‘pockets of love and desire and contact and affinity’.[xiv] There’s Ralph and Flo’s house in Tipping the Velvet, a hub for socialist ‘toms’; Helen and Julia’s apartment and Helen and Kay’s room in The Night Watch; Christine and Stevie’s Bloomsbury flat in The Paying Guests. Nan initially speaks about her integration into Ralph and Flo’s house in heteronormative terms, for lack of any other terms to use. For example, she offers to look after the house and Cyril by saying, ‘It’s natural, ain’t it? If I was your wife – or Ralph’s wife, I mean – I should certainly do [the house chores] then (371).’ The slippage Nan makes between imagining herself as Flo’s wife before correcting this to ‘Ralph’s wife, I mean’ indicates how Waters will go onto queer this domestic set-up. In The Paying Guests there is a similar clarification between straight and queer domesticity, where heteronormative family terms become re-appropriated for queer purposes. Christina, Frances’ friend and ex-lover, warns Frances about her relationship with Lilian saying, ‘just be careful. A married woman, Frances! Properly married, not just like Stevie and me’ (254). The clarification that they are not ‘properly married’ implies that their relationship is still, in a sense, a marriage even if it is not legitimised as a ‘proper’ one. In these small slippages and moments of distinction from straight domesticity Waters acknowledges the ways in which historical lesbians carved out their own means of living and celebrating their relationships.
Frances recurrently views Christina and Stevie’s life as the life that ‘was meant to be mine’ (179); they represent an alternative lesbian life which is not ‘make-believe’ but real and potentially achievable. It is notable that Frances visits Christina immediately prior to the novel’s turning point – the abortion and the murder – and observes, ‘But before she left she looked around the room, that was so full of Christina and Stevie. She and Lilian would have a room like it, once this horrible thing was done’ (313). Frances’ reassurance that a future for her and Lilian is possible is anchored around the physical evidence of Christina and Stevie’s room. It is possible for a lesbian couple to establish a happy space and life together and, for Frances, Christina and Stevie’s life is an example of both precedent and a missed opportunity.
Waters’ investment in the potential for historical lesbians to find joy in their lives is most obviously evident in the fact that she does not kill off any of her lesbian characters.[xv] A fairly bare-minimum request but one that the colloquially named ‘bury your gays’ trope suggests might still be too much to ask.[xvi] Waters teases the idea of Frances committing suicide but only briefly and not seriously so, as a self-aware Frances notes, ‘but now she was being like a bad actress again’ (593). The fact that Waters even suggests the idea with only two pages of the novel remaining feels like a wink and then a quick denial to this perception of how a lesbian narrative ‘should’ end. Instead, she allows her characters happier endings and the melodrama and clichés of a love affair. For example, there is a joy to be found in the camp-ness and melodrama of the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of Tipping the Velvet with its jarring use of music, romantic close-ups and nostalgic use of flashbacks, a novel that despite Nan’s tumultuous journey ends with her happily settled with Flo. There is a deliciousness in the excessiveness of Frances’ feeling that ‘nakedness somehow wasn’t enough anymore’ (267) and Lilian’s declaration to Frances that, ‘you feel like wine. My hand feels drunk’ (244). To hear two women profess their love and desire for each other so explicitly, from a time when private professions such as these are primarily lost to the present is Waters’ gift to her lesbian readership.
Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)
Armitt, Lucie, ‘Interview with Sarah Waters (CWWN Conference, University of Wales, Bangor, 22nd April 2006), Feminist Review, 85 (2007), 116-127
Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)
Doan, Laura, and Sarah Waters, ‘Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history’, in Territories of Desire in Queer Culture: Refiguring Contemporary Boundaries, ed. by David Alderson and Linda Anderson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 12-28
Edelman, Lee, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (London: Duke University Press, 2004)
Garber, Linda, ‘Claiming Lesbian History: The Romance Between Fact and Fiction’, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 19:1 (2015), 129-149
Mitchell, Kaye, Sarah Waters: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)
Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009)
Traies, Jane, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (Machynlleth: Tollington Press, 2018)
[i]Sappho, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, trans. by Anne Carson (London: Virago, 2014), p. 297
[iv]José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 1.
[v]Laura Doan and Sarah Waters, ‘Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history’, in Territories of Desire in Queer Culture: Refiguring Contemporary Boundaries, ed. by David Alderson and Linda Anderson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 12-28 (p. 13).
[vi]Clare Barlow, Presenting the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art (n.d.) <http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/queer-british-art-1861-1967> [accessed 15January 2018].
[viii]Emma Donoghue, in Linda Garber, ‘Claiming Lesbian History: The Romance Between Fact and Fiction’, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 19:1 (2015), 129-149 (131).
[ix]Terry Castle cites the use of earlier words such as ‘tribade’ and ‘sapphist’ as self-identifiers and evidence that historical women did conceptualise a lesbian identity for themselves. Judith Bennett offers the deliberately tentative but useful term ‘lesbian-like’.
[x]Sarah Waters, in Kaye Mitchell, Sarah Waters: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 129.
[xi]Lucie Armitt, ‘Interview with Sarah Waters (CWWN Conference, University of Wales, Bangor, 22nd April 2006), Feminist Review, 85 (2007), 116-127 (120).
[xiii]Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 10.
[xv]This is perhaps especially impressive in TNW considering the characters are living in London during World War 2.
[xvi]This continues to be significant at a time when lesbian characters are frequently being killed on television. For a discussion of this trope see: Riese, ‘All 194 Dead Lesbians and Bisexual Characters on TV, And How They Died’, Autostraddle (11th March 2016) <https://www.autostraddle.com/all-65-dead-lesbian-and-bisexual-characters-on-tv-and-how-they-died-312315/> [accessed 16th October 2017].
[xvii]Jane Traies, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (Machynlleth: Tollington Press, 2018), p. 46.
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Still of Nan and Kitty, from the BBC’s adaptation of Tipping the Velvet (2002)
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Still of Helen and Kay, from the BBC’s adaptation of The Night Watch (2011)
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Feedback comment from Tate Britain’s Queer British Art exhibition (taken by author)
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Sarah Waters in the Divinity School, Bodleian Library