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literature

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Novel: Lesbian  
 
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Like Nightwood, Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography (1928) also explores gender and sexual identification, but in a text that revolves around the adventures of Orlando, a thinly disguised version of Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West. Orlando transforms from male to female throughout a number of centuries.

Although less phantasmagorical than Orlando, Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) is also a fantastic tale, wherein Stein, under the alias of Toklas, writes the supposed autobiography of her lover, describing her life with Stein.

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These three novels show how modern writers resorted to nonrealistic, often fantastic, story lines in order to make lesbianism a more acceptable subject to discuss.

Lesbian Novels of the 1950s and Early 1960s

By the 1950s, Patricia Highsmith had returned to the realism of Radclyffe Hall. In The Price of Salt, published under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan" in 1952, Highsmith shows lesbians not as mannish women or helpless neurotics--as they were commonly portrayed--but as women who can easily blend into a heterosexual crowd. Therese Belivet, a young artist living in New York City, falls in love with Carol Aird, a wealthy woman separated from her husband and living with her daughter. Throughout the novel, the two women gradually become closer and ultimately begin a sexual relationship, which is fulfilling for both of them.

Their blossoming relationship, however, seems destined to end when the women learn that Carol's former husband has had them followed and threatens to use his information about his ex-wife's new affair to gain custody of their daughter. Faced with the need to choose between her daughter and her new lover, Carol decides to go to her lover--a truly radical decision for the 1950s.

What is even more unusual about The Price of Salt is that insanity and suicide, which were the necessary complements of lesbianism in most 1950s popular fiction, never appear. Indeed, the lesbian relationship in this novel actually appears to be superior to the heterosexual relationships in the text; as Carol comments, "the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman."

Because of Highsmith's sensitivity to lesbianism and her creation of a lesbian novel in which lesbianism is not doomed to failure, her work continues to be read.

In sharp contrast to the portrayal of lesbianism in Highsmith's novel, the hundreds of lesbian pulp novels published in the 1950s and early 1960s, the "Golden Age" of the pulps, typically are chock-full of madness, suicide, adultery, and even incest.

Despite their sensationalistic contents, these novels, sold at bus stops and drugstores and directed largely at a heterosexual audience, also gained wide popularity with lesbians. Bonnie Zimmerman writes, "These pulp paperbacks were crucial to the lesbian culture of the 1950s because they offered proof of lesbian existence." For many lesbians, the pulps were one of the few sources of affirmation.

Although some of the novels read more like a male fantasy of what it means to be a lesbian, the better ones, particularly those written by Ann Bannon, provide a sensitive and tolerant image of the difficulties confronting lesbian women in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Lesbian pulp writers, such as Ann Aldrich, Ann Bannon, Randy Salem, and Valerie Taylor, showed in their fiction that social prejudice against lesbians was morally wrong. They also suggested that lesbians were driven to insanity or death because of the society around them that condemned them as abnormal, not because they were inherently psychologically disturbed. For the period, this was an unusual and refreshing message.

Notable Lesbian Novels in the Mid and Late 1960s

Along with the prevalent pulps, there were also some notable lesbian novels written in the 1960s. Jane Rule published Desert of the Heart in 1964. Critic Gillian Spraggs calls Rule's novel "a book that challenged a wilderness of silence and malice."

Set in Reno, Nevada, the story focuses on the relationship between Evelyn, a professor of English literature, and Ann, a change girl at a Reno casino, who is also a successful cartoonist. Evelyn is just getting a divorce from her husband of many years because of their incompatibility; in this fashion, Rule points out that heterosexual relationships are not always superior to homosexual ones.

Surprisingly enough, at the end of the novel, Evelyn and Ann are still together and planning to establish a life with each other. Rule refuses to accept the commonly held assumption that homosexual relationships are doomed to be fleeting.

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