Summer Research Seminar Summary (May 2017)

Sexual Modernisms and Sapphic Self-Fashionings

On Wednesday 3rd May 2017, the final Gendered Lives Research Seminar of this academic year took place with papers from Jana Funke (University of Exeter) and Sarah Parker (Loughborough University). Jana began her paper, titled ‘Sexual Modernism, Women’s Writing and Sexual Science: The Case of Bryher and Havelock Ellis’, by outlining her challenge to the existing body of literature linking modernist writing and sexual science. Her paper aimed to foster a new understanding between the two fields by criticising the assumption that sexologists deal only with the deviant and the perverse. Arguing against this, Jana contended that previous work examining the field overlooked the fact that sexologists were also interested in other forms of sexual identity and sexuality such as heterosexuality, motherhood, maternity and marriage. Her paper made the case for more nuanced arguments relating to sexology; it is not simply a monolithic field with a fixed set of norms, instead these norms are far more complicated that one might assume. Jana used the relationship between sexologist Havelock Ellis and literary writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellermann, 1894-1983) to question why modernist women writers turned to sexual science in the first place. Through this primary case study, she emphasised the ways in which modernist women writers troubled and subverted a set of sexual identity categories (homosexual, masochist, sadist etc.) which were brought to the forefront of nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture by the field of sexual science. In particular, Jana’s paper paid close attention to the concept of ‘Sexual Inversion’. Moving through various examples from Bryher’s fiction – including her protagonist Nancy in autobiographical novel Development (1920) – and her letters to Ellis, which were brought to life in Heart of Artemis: A Writer’s Memoir (1962) – Jana challenged the idea that this was a biologically-grounded and fixed form of sexual identity that allowed Bryher to naturalise lesbian or transgender identity. Her paper called for a new story about the relationship between sexual science and modernist women’s writing: one that emphasises shared interests relative to creativity, subjectivity and the imagination.

Sarah’s paper, on the other hand, explored representations of queer women poets through photography by asking the key question: ‘What does it mean to look femme?’ Using various images of women writers (Natalie Barney, Renee Vivien, Olive Custance and Liane de Pougy) as key evidence, Sarah examined the superiority of Sapphism and argued that photographic masquerade was a way for women to illustrate this glorified identity. She paid close attention to a series of photographs featuring the women in order to understand the costumes and personas they adopted and whether these changed over time. Sarah’s paper aimed to ascertain whether the womens’ personas could be linked to their literary works (namely their poetry) and whether the ‘self-fashioning’ presented by them in these photographs suggested a correlation between their lesbian identities and their identities as poets and writers. Sarah highlighted how important femininity was to these women: Renee Vivien would often praise women for their delicacy – their softness, weakness and vulnerability – in her poems. In seeking to continue Sappho’s celebration of virginity and the body of the female adolescent, the women would emphasise the grace, charm and sweetness that comes through in Sappho’s verses by re-embodying this in their photographs. However, Sarah argued that a combination of masculine and feminine qualities in some of the womens’ photographic masquerades conflated the roles of page, prince, knight, lady and princess which complicated this ‘femme identity’. The women would often swap the role of photographer and muse or rework these roles of page and lady for one another which blurred the distinction between them. As she reached her conclusion, Sarah identified several issues with this kind of self-fashioning that she hopes to explore further throughout the chapter she is currently working on. In particular, she argued that there is an ‘overdetermined whiteness’ present: the women masquerade themselves as femmes who are so pale in complexion that they almost can’t be seen at all. Their femme identity is literalised and femmes of colour become doubly invisible which in itself is hugely problematic.