Tuesday, February 05, 2008

B-free LGBT history month

Another month, another theme, and February in the British Isles is LGBT History month. Or, to be more accurate, gay history with a few lesbian events, some trans stuff if you’re lucky, and nothing bisexual whatsoever… month.

Still, as the only bisexual blogger with a strong interest in and a reasonable knowledge of history (probably) I can add my two groats’ worth.
So, to start us off, a bisexual novel of the 1920s: Dusty Answer.

Judith is a lonely child (and later woman) whose (rich, by normal standards of our time and hers) parents don’t take much notice of her. She does, however, live next to a house where a group of cousins come to spend summers. In the years leading up to the first world war, she falls in love with this family - Charlie, Mariella, Julian, Roddy and Martin - finding them entrancing. Charlie and Mariella marry very young during the war, but Charlie is killed, leaving Mariella - a widow at the age of 19 - to bring up their son alone.

Judith – and Roddy and Martin – goes to Oxford, where she falls in love with Jennifer. Their relationship is described in very romantic and sensual terms:
“She roused herself at last as Judith bent to kiss her good night.
‘Good night my-darling-darling,’ she said.
They stared at each other with tragic faces. It was too much, this happiness, this beauty.”
And much in similar vein. Jennifer runs off with another woman, however.

Roddy, who Judith falls in love with later, has a constant companion in the shape of Tony. Tony is an artist who spends much time in Paris…

It all ends sadly, this melancholy tale, but not because they have chosen the wrong gender love objects. Everyone is fated to be unhappy in love, and in life for that matter. Absolutely everyone in this novel is miserable.

But while no one actually has sex with anyone – this was published in 1927 after all – I would certainly argue that this is a bisexual novel. The characters seem to moon after individuals and no character cares or indeed seems to notice whether they are men or women. Of course, they all intend to marry. That’s what people did then. But love existed outside that too.

When I was a student in the late 70s, I read and loved this book. It was recommended to me by Kate Millett (not personally, of course, but in her autobiography Flying where she talks about reading it.) Now that I am back at the university I came from, I got the self-same copy out – now rather more tatty than it was 20 whatever years ago – to read again.
Dusty Answer is a rites of passage novel, something that would have appealed to the young woman I was when I first read it. Now I am more struck by how old-fashioned it seems, how snobbish and privileged the characters are. And how sad – the melancholy seeps from every page. All Rosamond Lehmann’s books (that I have read anyway) have this melancholy.

I think it’s almost certain that Rosamond Lehmann knew that parts of her characters’ lives could be construed as homosexual (she was living in bohemian London, where there was rather a lot of it going on at the time!). But, as I have written quite a lot on this blog, the “dichotomous view of sexuality” – you’re either straight or gay – didn’t have a hold over society in quite the way it does now. She wrote some interesting things about the reactions to her writings here.

A fascinating period piece, but a lot harder to "relate to" than I remembered.


Sue George said...

Oh dear dear dear. Just after I posted this, I discovered that there is an event in Manchester on the 16th Feb. Cue red-faced me.
Still, one event out of ..... And, of course, it's organised by the UK's most active bi group. Here's the link, although I can only find it as a facebook group so far. Perhaps try the main history month site (linked above)

Jen said...

I was going to cough politely. Now I shall just look smug at Sue George calling us the UK's most active bi group :)

Sue George said...

Only speaking the truth there!

Jen said...

Yeah, but we can't be told how much better than the South we are too many times ;o)

Incidentally it's also on www.manchester.bi.org and should by now be on the LGBT HM website.

fresca said...

Oooh--I loved this book when I was twenty (1981)! But I sene that maybe it's best to let it rest in holy memory...
I just discovered your blog, Sue, and I wanted to say thanks for the link to African blogs. I used to work/sometimes work with geography books for teens, and I am always looking for good up-to-the-minute stuff from Africa that is not "I Was a Peace Corps Worker" tale (meaning no disrespect to them). So I passed the link along to the head editor to share with the geography dept.