Monday, November 16, 2009

Heyer 2009: Sarah Annes Brown: ‘Lady of Quality and Homosexual Panic’

Sarah Annes Brown tends to teach Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and Tragedy. Her Devoted Sisters: Representations of the Sister Relationship in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature, however, "draws on recent psychoanalytical and anthropological research to illuminate nineteenth-century depictions of the sister relationship. Building on the work of Girard and Kosofsky Sedgwick, Brown concludes her study with an exploration of the Deceased Wife's Sister Act and the 'lesbian incest effect'." (Ashgate). Unfortunately for Sarah, she was still recuperating from a bad cold during the colloquium, but this did not prevent her either from introducing the other speakers or from giving her own paper. Ironically, the subject of her paper, Miss Annis Wychwood, was also convalescing at the end of the novel in which she finds herself, though from the flu rather than from a cold. [LV comment: clearly Annis's companion, Miss Farlow's, garrulousness and propensity to digress have affected me! I hope you will all excuse any further instances of "bibble-babble" for I, too, am "desperately anxious to please," although perhaps not quite as desperately anxious as Miss Farlow because as she once said ....]

In ‘Lady of Quality and Homosexual Panic’ Brown was once again drawing on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, this time to explore the idea of "homosexual panic." This was a term used by Sedgwick to describe how men felt in a period when male homosocial contact was encouraged but homosexual activity was illegal and taboo. [LV comment: Ron Becker has written that "homosexual panic," in the sense in which it is used by Kosofsky Sedgwick, occurred when "the line that separated acceptable homosociality from unacceptable homosexuality was unstable" (20) and "bespeaks a wider social anxiety - specifically that stirred up by the unstable boundary between categories of sexual identity" (21). More on Kosofsky Sedgwick's ideas about "homosexual panic" can be found in her "Toward the Gothic: Terrorism and Homosexual Panic," a chapter in her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, particularly pages 89 (final paragraph)-90 and in Epistemology of the Closet (see pages 19-21) she elaborated on the differences between her usage of the term and the way it has been used as a legal defence in court cases.]

Brown wishes to explore "homosexual panic" in this paper largely with reference to the female characters. In the novel we see women mixing with women, being chaperoned by women, living with a person of their own sex and having female friends. If a woman was not married, it was not socially acceptable for her to live with a man or alone. Brown is not suggesting that Heyer's female characters are depicted as experiencing "homosexual panic," but she would like to raise the possibility that at least some of Heyer's readers might feel (or have felt) it on their behalf.

So, is there anxiety about being or becoming lesbian in the background of Lady of Quality? Annis, the heroine, is 29 and an "old maid" who lives with Miss Farlow, a poor relation of hers. It would have been more conventional for Annis to have continued to live with her brother. There is nothing sexual between Annis and Miss Farlow but Amabel, Annis's sister-in-law, and Annis once had the following conversation about Annis's living arrangements and her relationship with her brother, Geoffrey:
'[...] The only time when we have been in perfect agreement was when he assured me that I should love his wife!
'Oh, Annis!' protested Lady Wychwood, blushing, and turning away her head. 'You shouldn't say such things! Besides, I can't believe you mean it, when you won't continue living with me!'
'What a rapper!' commented Annis, the laughter still dancing in her eyes. 'I could live happily with you for the rest of my days, as well you know! It's my very worthy, starched-up, and consequential brother with whom I can't and won't live. Yes, isn't it unnatural of me?'
The discussion between the pair moves on to a review of Annis's suitors:
'Stop, stop!' begged Annis laughingly. 'I found nothing to dislike in any of them, but I couldn't discover in myself the smallest wish to marry any of them either. Indeed, I haven't any wish to marry anyone at all.'
'But, Annis, every woman must wish to be married!' cried Lady Wychwood, quite shocked.
'Now that provides the answer to what people will think when they see me living in my own house instead of at Twynham!' exclaimed Annis. 'They will think me an Eccentric! Ten to one, I shall become one of the Sights of Bath [...] I shall be pointed out as -'
Amabel interrupts her at this point, so we do not discover precisely what Annis thinks she will be "pointed out as." The thought is left hanging, with readers left to fill in the blank. Under the influence of "homosexual panic" what could be thought of an "unnatural," "Eccentric" and shocking woman who feels no desire to marry a man but admits to loving her sister-in-law and who states that she "could live happily with" that sister-in-law "for the rest of my days"?

The reader learns all of this via a flashback and the main action of the novel begins when, en route to Bath, Annis encounters Lucilla Carleton, a very young, and a very pretty girl" who hopes to become a lady's companion [LV comment: Lucilla, like Annis, is avoiding marriage]. Annis suggests that if she is "set on being a companion, come and be a companion to me!" Miss Farlow's feelings are "wounded by the imputation that her own companionship did not suffice Miss Wychwood." Having arrived in Bath, Annis changes out of her travelling clothes and checks up on Lucilla:
she went to tap on the door of the Pink bedchamber, and upon being bidden to come in, found her protégée charmingly attired in sprig muslin [...] and with her dusky curls brushed free of tangles. They clustered about her head, in the artless style known as the Sappho
This reference to Sappho, the famous lesbian poet, in the context of a visit by one women to another's bedchamber, can hardly serve to calm any existing "homosexual panic" and we soon learn that Lucilla's father had a close personal relationship with another man:
Papa [...] was killed at Corunna, and Lord Iverley - well, he wasn't Lord Iverley then, but Mr William Elmore [...] has never been the same same man since Papa died. They were bosom-bows, you see, from the time when they were both at Harrow, and even joined the same regiment, and were never parted until Papa was killed!
Lucilla's paternal uncle, Oliver Carleton, comments on his brother's relationship with William Elmore that
At Harrow, he formed a close, and, to my mind, a pretty mawkish friendship with young Elmore. They were both army-mad, and joined the same regiment when they left Harrow. [...] I knew, of course, when he bought Chartley Manor [close to Elmore's home] that the bosom-bow friendship between him and Elmore was as strong as ever, and I suppose I should have guessed that such a pair of air-dreamers would have hatched a scheme to achieve a closer relationship by marrying Elmore's heir to Charles's daughter.
Brown commented that Sedgwick would no doubt have pounced on this plan to marry Lucilla Carleton to Ninian Elmore because she wrote about the various ways in which women were used as conduits to strengthen bonds between men. [LV comment: For example, in Devoted Sisters Brown mentioned
the male pairs described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men. Here she argues that men who woo the same woman use her as a conduit to strengthen their own relationship. Such a process might appear specifically patriarchal, dependent upon a society characterised by 'the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men,' (Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1985, 25-6). (Brown 147)]
Annis and Oliver Carleton do consider the possibility that the marriage between Lucilla to Ninian was proposed, or at least continued to be promoted, for mercenary motives:
'Well, that is what I suspect,' nodded Miss Wychwood, 'but it is only right that I should tell you that Ninian says it is no such thing. He says his father has never had a mercenary thought in his head.'
'On the whole,' said Mr Carleton, with considerable acerbity, 'I should think the better of him if his motive had been mercenary! This mawkish reason for trying to marry Lucilla to his son merely because he and my brother were as thick as inkle-weavers fairly turns my stomach!
Clearly Oliver Carleton has a strong dislike of what he's choosing to term "mawkish" behaviour.

Strong suspicions might also be raised by Annis's own behaviour, for as her brother points out, "To all intents and purposes you [Annis] have kidnapped the girl [Lucilla]!" and when Oliver Carleton appears in Bath to investigate the situation he reveals that Lord Iverley had informed him
'[...] that if I wished to rescue my ward from the clutches of what he feared was a designing female, calling herself Miss Wychwood, I must leave for Bath immediately.'
'Well, if that is not the outside of enough!' she said wrathfully. 'Calling myself Miss Wychwood, indeed! And in what way am I supposed to have designs on Lucilla, pray?'
'That he didn't disclose.'
The possible designs remain undisclosed, which again leaves hanging a possibility which could be supplied by the brain of a reader suffering from 'homosexual panic.'

Interestingly, after this meeting between Annis and Oliver, any panic in the text is firmly focused on their relationship because of Oliver's dubious reputation. From this point onwards, references which could be interpreted as implying lesbian activity or desires vanish from the novel. It makes sense that "lesbian panic" should vanish precisely at the moment that Annis begins a heterosexual relationship.

[LV comment: Jennifer Kloester mentioned in her presentation that it is possible Heyer suppressed The Great Roxhythe (1922), which she described as "this immature, ill-fated work," at least in part because it might be deemed to have a homosexual slant. She also noted that there are lesbian characters in Penhallow. Lisa Fletcher has observed in her “‘Mere Costumery’? Georgette Heyer’s Cross-Dressing Novels,” in Masquerades: Disguise in English Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, Eds. Pilar Sánchez Calle and Jesús López-Paláez Casellas, (Gdansk: University of Gdansk Press, 2004). 196-212, that in The Masqueraders
Sir Anthony does not guess Peter's secret immediately. Instead, it is precisely his growing "interest" in a young man which rouses his suspicions: "I believe [...] I have an odd liking for you, little man. One of these strange twists in one's affections for which there is no accounting" (99-100). The romantic hero will always see through false costume. If, like Sir Anthony, the hero does not expressly guess the cross-dressed heroine's secret immediately, when he does finally realise or learn the truth, he also realises that he has in fact known inarticulately or subconsciously all along. (208)
Fletcher concludes that in such novels "Homosexual desire is both abnormal ("strange," "odd") and always already heterosexual (the boy is really a girl)" (209).]


  1. Another thought-provoking instance is the apparent relationship between the page 'Leon' and the Duke of Avon in the early chapters of These Old Shades. While Avon's friend Hugh Davenant remonstrates with him for taking as a page a 'boy' whom he suspects to be 'of gentle birth', his anxiety apparently does not extend to the 'boy's' obvious and passionate emotional attachment to Avon, nor of the latter's indulgent attitude towards that affection.

    In the 18th century, male homosexual behaviour was considered not merely an immoral social solecism: it was a very serious criminal offence. Homosexual sodomy attracted the death penalty. John Cleland's views on the subject are very clear in the words of his heroine, Fanny Hill (1749). Even at the time Heyer was writing These Old Shades, both public opinion and the law still took the very gravest exception to male homosexuality.

    Is it possible that Heyer herself, still in her early 20s when she wrote These Old Shades, and even the majority of her readers were simply too innocent to read anything into those scenes? (Although the astute first-time reader will guess that Leonie is female quite early on, it is made very clear that only Avon himself realises it in the fictional context). Or that she might have tried to suppress that novel later as well, had it not been such a popular success?

  2. K. Elizabeth Spillman's paper deals with Heyer's cross-dressing novels, so I didn't want to put too much about them in my final comment on Sarah Annes Brown's paper but since you've mentioned These Old Shades, and since Spillman didn't discuss the cross-dressing in the context of homosexual undertones, I might as well quote some of what Lisa Fletcher had to say about it, too.

    Lisa Fletcher (2004 - citation details given in the post) doesn't think Heyer was being innocent, in fact, she thinks there are deliberate double entendres:

    This chapter repeats the image of Leon, "unfledged innocence" (10), in (the Duke's) bed: Avon twice directs his lackey to put Léon to bed, and the chapter concludes with him remarking to Hugh that Léon is surely asleep, leaving the room and himself going "slowly up to bed" (14).The thinly veiled inference that what Avon might next do with Léon is "put him to bed" pictures, however briefly or fleetingly, a sexual relationship between a man and a boy. Hugh complains of Avon's "importunate" behaviour and states grimly that "[i]t would be very distressing if that innocence left him -because of you" (12). In reply to Hugh's question, "Why do you want him?" Avon remarks that "Titian hair has ever been one of - my ruling -passions" (12). (203-204)

    That last line in particular really does make it very easy to see Avon as someone who's deliberately trying to incite a bit of "homosexual panic" in Hugh who, of course, is Avon's very close male friend, and who therefore presumably would have rather a strong interest in ensuring that no hint of homosexual scandal could attach itself to Avon and, by association, to himself.

    I had the impression that Hugh was depicted as showing concern solely for Léon, and solely because he was concerned that Avon's generally immoral tendencies would corrupt Léon. But Avon can certainly be read as amusing himself with both (a) the knowledge that Léon is female, so he could take her "innocence" by conventional, heterosexual methods and (b) hinting that he might, just possibly, have a homosexual interest in a boy whose hair is the colour of Avon's "ruling passion."

    It would be rather like Avon to try to subtly insinuate he's even more wicked than he really is. He's not telling lies, but he certainly seems to me to be getting a rather malicious amusement out of taunting Hugh.

  3. Thanks for your summary Laura - I wish I'd thought to send you my paper to save you retyping all the quotes! All those extra comments and references were very helpful and interesting - and I like the idea of a bit of (male) homosexual panic in These Old Shades!

  4. "It would be rather like Avon to try to subtly insinuate he's even more wicked than he really is."

    Yes, that would make sense.

    I am still not wholly convinced, however, that the homosexual undertones were completely conscious and deliberate on Heyer's part. There are many aspects of These Old Shades that betray, reasonably enough, the hand of a writer who was barely adult herself, and had certainly not yet entered into her full powers. Leonie's age must surely have been adjusted upwards (to 19) to avoid giving offence to 20th-century readers who would have jibbed at the thought of a happy ending between a mature man and a girl in her mid-teens, something that would probably not have constituted such a problem in the mid-18thC setting of the story; yet we are expected to believe that the homosexual hints would not have been taken too seriously by 20thC readers who were as horrified by male same-sex relationships as their forebears were 150 years earlier.

  5. There is quite a bit of slash fiction based on Heyer's novels, as modern readers pick up on the same-sex hints whether intended or conscious or not.

    Here's link to a LiveJournal page that lists a few titles, including some based on These Old Shades, featuring a relationship between Avon and Hugh Davenant.

    And yes, it's true that many of today's readers find the age discrepancy btween teenage girls and adult men far more uncomfortable than any delightful hints of same-sex sex. I notice it in Jane Austen, too, the way it was accepted that a girl of 16 might end up in a marriaage to a man of 35 or older. While this wasn't seen as exactly romantic or desirable, it was viewed as normal.

    I'm very much of the modern view: I adore the references to same-sex desire, and while I know how taboo it was in the past I can still enjoy reading works these novels and thinking "What if..." But I can't help feeling troubled by the ease with which such young girls were considered fully mature and ready to become sexually active and responsible married women.

  6. I agree with your comments Ann - I think Gilly/Gideon (from The Foundling just in case anyone doesn't know!) is the most obvious Heyer slash pairing, personally. Yes, age difference troubles today, and same sex relationships don't, generally. Thus in the film Clueless (update of Emma) the Knightley character becomes a student who is about four years or so older than Cher/Emma - because making him a mature man in his late 30s would be edgy. But Frank Churchill (in an adjustment to the original which works beautifully) turns out to be an unsuitable husband for the heroine, although he really likes her and she assumes he's interested as in the original, not because he is engaged but because he is - gay.

  7. The anxiety about a wide age difference between a couple is rather more typical of North America than Europe, I think, although I agree that it is generally more of an issue now than it was even 50 years ago.

    I assume that it is, in part at least, based on the feeling that there should not be a major power imbalance between the two people in an intimate relationship. Formerly, when the power difference was inherent in the very fact that men normally had much greater social and financial power than women, adding a generational difference (as long of the female was the younger) didn't make all that much difference. Today we tend to value a measure of equality, and this is undermined if one partner is a generation older than the other.

    The 'equal' pairing is really very modern. Even clandestine gay relationships often aped the pattern of standard heterosexual relationships in the past, with a 'male' (older, more powerful) and 'female' (younger, more dependent) partner: think of those amazing 1920s lesbians, the butch partner smoking cigars and wearing a monocle and tailored suits, and the femme girlishly decked out with flowery hats...

  8. Gilly/Gideon -- Heyer's most obvious slash pairing: again reaching for some context/definitions. That means what? Could someone share a link? Thanks!

  9. Janet, there's a definition of slash here. It's basically fan fiction, but it takes two characters from a book/film/series who aren't romantically involved in the original, and pairs them up. This usually means that it's what's called "m/m" (i.e. slash fiction about two male characters). A "Gilly/Gideon" slash pairing would be about a sexual relationship between Gilly and Gideon from The Foundling.

    Here's the link to the list of Heyer slash that Ann was referring to.

    I don't really like the ones where the slashing leads a male character or characters to cheat on the female character(s) they were originally paired with. For example, in this one Robin and Sir Anthony from The Masqueraders become sexually involved with each other, still plan to marry Letty and Prudence but, according to Sir Anthony will still have "room in our lives for each other." That seems to me to threaten the happy ending of the original novel.

    On the other hand, this one doesn't pair up Aubrey from Venetia in a way that would change the relationship between Venetia and Damerel, so I found it more intriguing. I don't know if that means it wouldn't strictly speaking count as "slash."

  10. Laura - I have been richly enjoying these posts despite not commenting on them all.

    When I re-read The Corinthian quite recently, it struck me that the hero was perhaps a subtle depiction of a homosexual man, or one who prefers men at any rate. From recollection, the hero, Richard is explicitly stated not to be a 'ladies' man' and generally eschews female company. Even the title evokes a character who is soley interested in manly pursuits.
    He gets his 'man' in the form of Pen, a woman with a somewhat masculine outlook, who is contrasted with the other 'girly' female character.

    I do see quite a distinct difference between this later Heyer book (which you quote in your next post on cross-dressing) and the much earlier These Old Shades which seems less 'knowing' to me in dealing with these story elements. (Naturally I will commenting on that post also...)

  11. "I have been richly enjoying these posts despite not commenting on them all"

    I'm glad if they've been able to convey some of the liveliness of the conference to those of you who weren't able to be there. I'd have felt a bit selfish if I'd hoarded the details of the papers and tried to keep them to myself. Not that I could have done, of course, since other people have written excellent summaries, but all the same, if I hadn't written up my notes I feel I'd have been behaving a bit like a dragon, sitting on its treasure. [And yet again I demonstrate why I should never, ever, try to write fiction. I'm far too fond of bizarre metaphors ;-) In this case, though, it's probably your use of the word "richly" that set me off.]

    "When I re-read The Corinthian quite recently, it struck me that the hero was perhaps a subtle depiction of a homosexual man, or one who prefers men at any rate."

    I hadn't ever thought of that. I think that something that comes across quite clearly in the first few chapters is that Richard's pretty cynical because he knows he's a good, wealthy catch. He's wary, thinking that women will mostly be interested in him because of his money, whereas I imagine that among other rich men, or other sporting men, they have something in common and he knows he's valued for his abilities rather than his wealth.

    I'm not sure he avoids women completely. There's some suggestion in the following statement that he's had at least one mistress/relationship with a woman:

    "[..] I wouldn't," said George positively. "I wouldn't marry Melissa Brandon for fifty sisters! I'd find a cosier armful, 'pon my soul I would!"
    "The cosiest armful of my acquaintance was never so cosy as when she wanted to see my purse string untied," said Sir Richard cynically.
    George shook his head. "Bad, very bad! I must say, it's enough to sour any man [...]

    Later Richard says this to Melissa:

    "I am so romantic that I indulge my fancy with the thought of some woman - doubtless mythical - who might desire to marry me, not because I am a very rich man, but because - you will have to forgive the vulgarity - because she loved me!"

    Pen and Richard have something in common right from the start, because Pen, too, is "cursed with a large fortune!"

    "He gets his 'man' in the form of Pen, a woman with a somewhat masculine outlook, who is contrasted with the other 'girly' female character."

    One of the things that was mentioned in the conference was that Heyer said that she preferred the company of men, so perhaps in this respect she was a bit like her mannish heroines. There was some discussion about the lack of depiction of female friendships in Heyer's novels, whereas there are quite a lot of heroes with close male friends/relatives. It was suggested that this might be because she wasn't close to her mother, she had two brothers and no sisters, and she didn't have many female friends.

  12. "The anxiety about a wide age difference between a couple is rather more typical of North America than Europe, I think, although I agree that it is generally more of an issue now than it was even 50 years ago."

    I just came across something in Sally Macnamara's "Georgette Heyer: the historical romance and the consumption of the erotic, 1918-1939." in All the world and her husband: women in twentieth-century consumer culture, (London: Cassell, 2000): 82-96, which seemed relevant. She writes that

    that men will be sexually active is taken for granted in the texts, with references to previous mistresses, children born 'the wrong side of the blanket', and other euphemisms. These are areas acknowledged by the heroines in the texts - whilst their actual sexual (virginal) innocence is assured, their knowledge and awareness are also made explicit. The desire is for a sexually experienced man - there is often a younger, inexperienced suitor who is rejected - as the women in the novels, many in their teens, marry men much older than them, men with a past. Sexologists in the period were arguing the need for men to have the skills to initiate women into sexual responsiveness, for example, Van de Velde (1928) thought it up to the man to 'woo' his wife into sexual responsiveness [...]. Evidently it is the man with a past who has the prerequisite skills. (90-91)

  13. Thanks for the illuminating comments about Pen and Richard: I had no idea -- or at least, not such an idea -- of how similar they were.

    Agree on not appreciating Slash fiction that shifts from the HEA the author intended. Gilly loved Harriet -- sincerely -- in fact, that mutual discovery was one of the sweetest threads in "The Foundling". I'm not that knowledgeable about fan fiction (slash fiction being a subset of?) but I assumed it continued from where the original book ended. Not that it went back and altered the original author's plot. But, as I said, it's nothing I'm an expert on.

  14. I must admit, though, that there are some endings I do want someone to change. Unhappy endings for one thing, where bad things happen to characters I like. I also rather enjoyed Rebecca and Rowena, which is William Makepeace Thackeray's satirical fanfiction on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. He does rewrite the ending, but as I'd never liked Rowena I didn't have any complaints to make about that.

  15. Has anyone else read Heyer's less well known modern novels? In "Helen", for example, she actually has an explicitly homosexual character (he's not very attractive--more like the lunatic Tarquin from "Cousin Kate"... another interesting sideline).

  16. That's really interesting, Katherine. I haven't read them, though I'm sure Jennifer Kloester has. They don't seem to be very easy to get hold of. Helen was published in 1928, wasn't it, when Heyer would have been 26, and it's the same year that The Masqueraders was published.

  17. Well, Heyer deliberately suppressed the four early contemporaries, so there were no reprints.

    The character of Charmian in Penhallow is explicitly lesbian (she is depicted in the 1920s/30s fashion as a butch lesbian, who lives with a very girly girl, described by someone in the book as a 'pink fondant'). Her brother Aubrey is probably intended to be gay, too, but not as unequivocally as the ballet-loving and lachrymose youth, whose name now escapes me, in Duplicate Death. Aubrey in Penhallow is merely very camp and exquisite in a rather Oscar Wilde-ish way, but he is a strong character, and no more repellent than any other character in the book.