‘Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature’ by Emma Donoghue

Lambda Literary Award Finalist

How were women’s relationships depicted in plays, dramas, poetry, and novels before the 21st Century? In Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Knopf), Emma Donoghue reveals that authors have shown “desire between women” as accidental, mildly erotic, predatory, thoughtful, and, of course, lusty and lesbian.

Both male and female authors of diverse sexual orientations have acknowledged these desires, making the attraction between women an identifiable plot point for the last 1000 years.

Donoghue’s well researched book defines six plot motifs and then uses a wide variety of works to demonstrate her categories. She uses well-known authors (Shakespeare, Charlotte Brontë, D. H. Lawerence, and Virginia Woolf); less well read but identifiable authors (Chaucer, Ovid in translation, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope), and some obscure authors (you’ll have your own list of authors to research) to round out her categories.

I liked this book because it was scholarly but made its arguments with non-academic prose, but I recognize that Inseparable is not an easy read and, because of its breadth of knowledge, can sometimes seem to wander.

Emma Donoghue was born in Ireland, educated in Ireland and England, and now lives in Canada. She is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, and literary historian. Among her many novels are the popular Slammerkin (which takes places in the mid-1700’s), the well reviewed The Sealed Letter (which takes place in the 1860’s), and the contemporary novel Room, which was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and is currently a best seller.

Her historical analysis Inseparable was published last year before Room exploded into popular consciousness.

After a short introduction, the six main chapters of Inseparable describe and offer examples of different types of desire between women.

Chapter One, “Travesties,” shows examples of cross-dressing that result in unintentional same-sex desire. When women cross-dress, she calls the effect “The Female Bridegroom” (think Yentl). When men cross dress, the result is “The Male Amazon” (think Tootsie). Because much of this chapter relies on her earliest sources, such as translations of Ovid, much of the discussion requires lengthy plot descriptions that can obscure some of the most interesting information.

Chapter Two, “Inseparables,” portrays the situation when two passionate friends must struggle to stay together. She begins with an eye-opening analysis of the Biblical story of Ruth. A major topic of this chapter centers on jealousies, including cases when two close women are turned into rivals and one woman allows the other to join a man in marriage.

Chapter Three, “Rivals,” covers the situation when both a man and a woman compete for a woman’s heart. This investigation includes Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and Henry James’ The Bostonians.

Chapter Four, “Monsters,” describes relationships in which a wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent woman, including sex fiends and unknown enemies. This discussion also includes ghosts and Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, who turns out to be a vampire.

Chapter Five, “Detection,” includes examples of female detectives and cases when the discovery of a crime turns out to be a same-sex desire. The authors presented in this chapter include Agatha Christie and Sarah Waters (with whom Donoghue shares a number of interesting characteristics, as they are both British and often write heavily researched historical novels with lesbian themes).

Chapter Six, “Out,” outlines plots in which a woman’s life is changed when she realizes that she loves her own sex. Unlike some of the earlier chapters, most of these stories are (out of historical necessity) modern. This chapter includes enlightening discussions of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

Each chapter includes several interesting illustrations, taken from books and book jackets, that add to the textual examples and offer pleasant fuel to keep the academic tone at bay.

For general readers, I highly recommend Donoghue’s historical lesbian-themed novels Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter, as well as her imaginative new novel Room.

For readers looking for an interesting but slightly academic history of women’s desires in literature, Inseparable offers a clear view to which you can add your own examples. After you’ve read it, you’ll pull Inseparable off the shelf, either physically or mentally, to identify the previously unrecognized varieties of women’s relationships and passions that continue to appear in novels, movies, and TV shows today.
Desire Between Women in Literature
by Emma Donoghue
Hardcover, 9780307270948, 271p
June 2010