On Emma Donoghue’s queer histories
‘Stories are a different kind of true,’ Ma tells five year-old Jack, in Emma Donoghue’s award-winning Room.
This urban contemporary thriller was a global bestseller, won numerous awards, and was adapted by Donoghue into a 2015 film for which Brie Larson won an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actress.
Reading Room is a masterclass in voice, dramatic irony, and point of view. The entire novel is narrated by Jack, in a pitch-perfect child’s voice, and as a protagonist who has no idea what is really happening in the story, set in a room in a backyard, somewhere in modern North America.
It is also dramatically different from most of Donoghue’s other novels. From Slammerkin (2000) to her most recent, The Wonder (2017), this Irish-Canadian novelist and scriptwriter has been largely concerned with re-examining past lives, and particularly queer lives – something that apparently came as a shock to some fans of Room.
She is also a literary historian of note, with a PhD from Cambridge (her thesis was on friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction), and several books bridging the academic and popular cultural and literary history markets: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), the biography We Are Michael Field (1998), and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010).
In Inseparable, Donoghue traces the strands of overt and subtextual portrayals of lesbians, in particular, in literature throughout history and argues that they have become important and recognisable archetypes lasting into the twenty-first century. She categorised these portrayals as:
• the Cross-dresser (often as a Female Bridegroom)
• the Amazon
• the Passionate friends
• the Rival (to the hero)
• the Desperate lover/suicide
• the Monster
• the Devil-may-care lesbian
• the Icon (Donoghue 2010).
Several of these character types arise from ancient portrayals of Sappho, in particular, or of warrior women of antiquity. Donoghue argues that classical and early modern literature firmly embedded characters such as the Female Bridegroom and the Amazon in literature and, by extension, in the popular imagination, making queer women, masculine women, and women dressed in men’s clothes, familiar and even beloved. The Female Bridegroom story is one in which a woman wanderer (or picara), dressed as a man, is accidentally betrothed to or attractive to another woman – like Iphis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Oronce in Amadis de Gaule, or Viola in Twelfth Night. The Amazon story positioned the cross-dresser as a noble warrior woman, usually defending either her people or her family. Both appear repeatedly in literature and especially on stage throughout the centuries, providing an opportunity for public depictions of cross-dressing and same-sex attraction (and showing off women’s legs).
Donoghue’s analysis was incredibly important to my own work on historical representations of crossdressing women in my PhD thesis and post-doctoral writing about literary history. To those groupings of depictions, I added another two: Folly, and the Androgyne, both representatives of subversion, parody and masquerade – although Folly is also a fairground figure of laughter.
This also informs my creative work, as it clearly has for Donoghue. My novel Goddess, based on the life of the crossdressing, sword-wielding opera star, Mademoiselle de Maupin (also known as Julie d’Aubigny), makes a conscious reference to each of these archetypes, and also to the picaresque works in which they often appear; partly because earlier depictions of La Maupin’s life story inevitably categorise her as an Amazon or a Sappho. I reasoned that the real La Maupin might have read many of those key texts, such as Metamorphoses. I also wanted to recognise that legendary women like her helped along the development of those archetypes in literature, the arts, and the public imagination – through to her portrayal as a kick-ass babe in comics and popular culture today. I’m sure nobody noticed, but it’s there, embedded in the text.
Clearly, for women like La Maupin, all or any of those archetypes might apply to various stages of her life, and in the different versions of her character created by others over time. The Female Bridegroom, for example, was doubled and doubled again, in Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). These are forceful, sometimes unconscious, tropes that surface in depictions of many women, but particularly what is now called ‘the strong female protagonist’ (annoyingly, as if other female protagonists aren’t strong).
It’s no surprise, then, that these ideas crop up in Donoghue’s own historical fiction, particularly her 2014 novel, Frog Music, based on the lives of real women involved in an 1876 murder in wild old San Francisco. Jenny Bonnet is a frog-catcher, an enigma in death and in life, and in some ways the embodiment of the female wanderer, even down to the trousers she wears in spite of constantly being arrested for crossdressing. She runs down her destiny in the street – riding her bicycle right into Blanche’s swirling skirts:
But the voice – not a man’s, Blanche realises. Not a boy’s even. This is a girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of those eccentrics on whom the City prides itself. (p13)
Blanche is an erotic dancer who is thrown into the role of amateur sleuth, although she’s not very good at it. She is driven to solve the twin mysteries of (spoiler!) Jenny’s death and her son’s disappearance, but ends up chasing red herrings through to the final pages. ‘The case,’ she decides at one point, ‘is goddamn unsolvable’ (2014, p 318). She is, like many young women, vulnerable and seemingly ruled by the men in her life, until she meets Jenny, who both implodes and explains her unstable life. Blanche remains as slippery as a frog, and poor Jenny, well:
‘Jenny should always have strolled, loose-limbed, up- and downhill, taking the whole City for her stage.’ (p 294)
What reads as a compelling Neo-Victorian novel is distilled through years of research and analysis in archives, and in ancient, early modern, and Victorian texts. The fiction wears this mantle very lightly. Jenny, the charming, cross-dressing frog-catcher embodies the spirit of the early modern Amazon who wandered the countryside, and the pages of the picaresque novels: a figure of pity, reverence, and fun, and always an outsider. She, like many of the characters that populate Donoghue’s historical fiction, is based on a real person from the past, and her story fuses Donoghue’s critical, historical and creative interests.
Fiction, after all, is a different kind of true.
Dr Kelly Gardiner is a novelist and a lecturer in creative writing at La Trobe University. Her books include 1917: Australia’s Great War, Goddess, and the young adult novels Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. She is the co-host of Unladylike, a podcast on women and writing.