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literature

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English Literature: Twentieth-Century  
 
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Dorothy Richardson and Sylvia Townsend Warner

Among other later flowerings of the lesbian writings and inspirations of the 1920s the most notable are Dawn's Left Hand (1931) by Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), and the novels and poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978).

In Dawn's Left Hand (the tenth segment of Richardson's roman fleuve Pilgrimage), a shifting continuum between intense female friendships and homoerotic passion forms the intimacy between the novel's heroine Miriam and her suffragette and socialist friend Amabel. Just as Miriam is becoming the mistress of a married man--hence "the other woman" in a marital triangle--another other woman, Amabel, appears in her life.

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Taking the form of a mirror-image to whom Miriam is more passionately attached than to her male lover, Amabel repeats Carpenter's suggestion that heterosexual love is an immature or stunting development: The path of Miriam's growth lies through Amabel, not through the man.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel (and the first ever Book-of-the-Month Club selection) Lolly Willowes (1926) features a spinster heroine who becomes a witch and a companion to Satan in the name of feminism. The spinster-witch, as Carpenter had pointed out, is a lesbian prototype.

Warner's next novel, Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927), shows a missionary in the South Pacific lose his religion because of a baffled erotic attachment to a male islander.

In 1931, Warner herself underwent a conversion to lesbianism, when she fell in love with the poet Valentine Ackland (d. 1969). In 1933, Warner and Ackland published a collaborative volume of poems, Whether a Dove or Seagull, and Warner's Summer Will Show (1936), a historical novel about love between two women caught up in the French revolution of 1848, is modeled on Warner's self-proclaimed marriage with Ackland.

In later years, Warner's seventh novel, The Flint Anchor (1954), includes a study of the accepted practice of homosexuality by Dorset fishermen during the Regency period.

Warner's biography in 1967 of T. H. White (1906-1964), the gay author whose revival of Arthurian romance in The Sword and the Stone (1939) and other books renews Carpenter's idea of male-male love as a benefit to the state, instances a convergence of lesbian biographer and gay male subject, whose shared ground in erotic and aesthetic realms is the borderland between realism and romance.

Wyndham Lewis

Among heterosexual fictions and literary essays about homosexuality originating in the 1920s, those by the artist-novelist-critic Wyndham Lewis (1886-1957) are most remarkable. They argue that homosexuality is not only "natural," but that it changes over time, varies according to its cultural milieu, and is of crucial political importance.

In The Lion and the Fox (1926), a book-length critical study of Shakespeare, Lewis presents the dramatist as a homosexual whose sexuality gave his poetic vision a peculiar advantage: creative skeptical distance from the Machiavellian agency that mesmerized Renaissance political practices.

In effect transmuting T. E. Lawrence's pathic ethics into pathic aesthetics, Lewis argues that Shakespearean poetry owes part of its brilliance to transvestite inspirations: Shakespeare projects himself as Cleopatra to make love to his own Antony; Falstaff is a woman in drag. These inspirations, Lewis argues, valuably attack and undermine, even as they caress, masculine agency and function.

Much as Lewis celebrates his gay Shakespeare, however, his attitudes toward homosexuality are self-divided. He fears that contemporary homosexuality will be fetishized and made into another form of class snobbery; he dislikes the alliance of feminism and homosexual rights movements.

Yet Lewis, himself antipatriarchal, reluctantly admits sympathy with the alliance. In The Art of Being Ruled (1926), a book of cultural criticism, Lewis draws a political lesson from modern homosexuality, in a way that ties itself to The Lion and the Fox: He sees homosexual political aspirations bound to a form of spectatorship, both by virtue of homosexuals' rebelliousness and by the force of their exclusion from the "norm."

The spectatorship is advantageous, however, Lewis argues; its distance from political action reveals the incoherence of democratic dogma and practice, and also teaches the public how spectatorial detachment can become the vengeance of the ruled over their repressive rulers. A passive politics, in Lewis's sight, can creatively counterbalance the heroic agency of men like Carpenter's shamans and warriors or women like Hall's Stephen.

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