Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Inversion and Sexology: The Figuration of Gender Relationships in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’

 Havelock Ellis’s 1897 work, Sexual Inversion, was one of the earliest comprehensive studies of Sexology in English. It argued a theory of homosexuality as a gender inversion; that is, a “masculinity complex” in homosexual women, and a “femininity complex” in homosexual men. Essentially, sexual inversion was believed to be an inborn reversal of gender traits. Havelock Ellis regards the innateness of homosexuality:

It requires a very strong impetus to go against this compact social force which, on every side, constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love. That impetus […] can only be supplied by a fundamental—usually, it is probable, inborn—perversion of the sexual instinct, rendering the individual organically abnormal. It is with this fundamental abnormality, usually called sexual inversion, that we shall here be concerned.[1]

Katherine Mansfield articulates the traditionalist theory of sexual inversion in her short story, ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’. Written early in 1918, it was first published in a small, privately printed edition; Mansfield’s publisher insisted that the full text be expurgated before it would be included in her 1920 collection, Bliss and Other Stories.[2] The story centres on the experiences of the male narrator, Raoul Duquette, who first introduces himself as a ‘Parisian, a true Parisian.’(p. 125). We soon find out he is also a ‘gigolo, literary dilettante, homosexual, and liar.’[3] He later asserts that he is ‘[a] little paid guide to the night pleasures of Paris.’ (p. 132). Mansfield’s figuration of gender relationships subscribes to the popular late-nineteenth century view of homosexuality as an inversion in her short story, through the representation of androgyny, inverted gendered behaviours and explicitly homosexual relationships.

Raoul’s original description of himself challenges gender norms through his distinctly androgynous appearance. He describes himself as:

[L]ittle and light with an olive skin, black eyes with long lashes, black silky hair cut short, tiny square teeth that show when I smile. My hands are supple and small… I confess, without my clothes I am rather charming. Plump, almost like a girl, with smooth shoulders, and I wear a thin gold bracelet above my left elbow. (p. 128)

His appearance is overwhelmingly characterised by smallness, daintiness, and femininity. The ‘long lashes’, ‘silky hair’, small and supple hands and ‘smooth shoulders’ are all suggestively female traits, and conventionally attractive ones at that. He lists the things he is given by women: ‘silk underwear’, ‘gloves and powder boxes and a manicure set, perfumes, very good soap’ (p. 127) – all particularly female-gendered items. Yet Raoul is never coy about his own identity as a male. He expresses:

‘I am a young man who has his own flat. I write for two newspapers. I am going in for serious literature. I am starting a serious career.’ (p. 127)

The resulting androgyny draws attention to a complex representation of gender, but also to the conventional ideology of the homosexual as having an excess of femininity, as being a woman inside a man’s body. Raoul is overwhelmingly effeminate– further exemplified in his role as a prostitute.

The representation of Raoul as paid gigolo, as an objectified, sexualised, individual, brings complexities to the figuration of gender relationships.  Raoul boasts that he has ‘never yet made the first advances to any woman’, that he is ‘rich, rich’, and that yet ‘nothing is paid for’ (p. 127). Mansfield articulates a world in which women are dominant, women own the wealth, and women have the agency to hire a man for his sexual services. Raoul lists the range of women who have approached him for sex:

[F]rom little prostitutes and kept women and elderly widows and shop girls and wives of respectable men, and even advanced modern literary ladies at the most select dinners and soirées… I’ve met invariably with not only the same readiness, but with the same positive invitation. (p. 127)

Sinisterly, Raoul asserts that if he ever finds himself in need of ‘right-down cash – well, there’s always an African laundress and an outhouse, and I am very frank and bon enfant about plenty of sugar on the little fried cake afterwards.’ (127). He refers to his sexual abuse by a woman as a young child and its impact on his current state of prostituting himself. Gender relationships are darkly inverted; where traditionally the victim of rape is female, and the aggressor is male, in Mansfield’s short story, the woman becomes the dangerous sexual aggressor and Raoul as a male child becomes the victim of sexual abuse. Mansfield challenges gender stereotypes, but only to an extent – the female character who is guilty of sexually abusing the young Raoul is also ‘African’, asserting that this sort of behaviour is not carried out by women in general, but by the dark, dangerous ‘other’ woman. Raoul’s role as desired object places him as a female-gendered character, as Mansfield inverts traditional gender relationships. This further highlights the underlying representation of Raoul as the sexual invert.

In ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’, Raoul is in love with another man, Dick Harmon. The heavily homoerotic language in the text depicts a male-to-male homosexual relationship. Nevertheless, Raoul’s relationship with Dick is highly resonant of a heterosexual relationship, with Raoul again taking on the role of sexual invert, of a woman within a man’s body. Dick maintains the masculine position of authority and dominance, whilst Raoul is subservient, a ‘little perfumed fox-terrier’ (p. 131), unconditionally subservient to his master. Raoul is flirty and coquettish around Dick; he is described as ‘making a pretty mouth at him’ (p. 129). The word ‘pretty’ invokes images of femininity, delicacy and diminution,[4] and this palpably feminine language is seen throughout the short story. Most notably, when Dick informs Raoul that he will be leaving Paris the following day, Raoul draws direct parallels with his own experience and that of a woman: ‘I felt hurt. I felt as a woman must feel when a man takes out his watch and remembers an appointment that cannot possibly concern her, except that its claim is the stronger.’ (p. 131) The language positions Raoul’s identity with that of a woman’s, and articulates a strongly-gendered scenario in which the man absently disregards the feminine who has lesser claim upon him, verbalising a world of business and appointments in which women have no place.  

Katherine Mansfield presents a heteronormative world in her short story, ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’. Whilst for her time she explores and challenges ground-breaking and radical issues, including female sexuality, androgyny and homosexuality, for a twenty-first century readership, her representation of homosexuality as sexual inversion is somewhat conservative. The figuration of gender relationships in her work do much to push social and cultural boundaries, but her traditionalist representation of homosexuality firmly grounds her in her time.

Blog post by Holly Anderson, MA English Literature student at Cardiff University.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’ in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan (New York; London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006), p. 121, n. †. All further references are to this edition.
[3] Sarah Henstra, ‘Looking the Part: Performative Narration in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Katherine Mansfield’s “Je Ne Parle Pas Français”’, Twentieth-Century Literature, 46.2 (2000), 125-149 (p. 127).
[4] ‘pretty’, adj., 2.a, OED Online (2017). Available at:  [accessed 16 Feb. 17].

Thursday, 23 February 2017

'Spots of Colour': Impressionism and Woolf's Kew Gardens

In this post, I am going to trace the influence of Impressionism in one of Virginia Woolf's most famous short stories, Kew Gardens. However, before I begin examining the text, I would like to provide a brief introduction to Impressionism. 

The Impressionist movement rejected the conventional tendency to document the precise details of a moment in time, and instead sought to capture its general essence, or pervading emotion.[1]  

Impressionists were interested in finding new ways to represent light and movement, and often spurned studio-based composition, in favour of painting en plein air – in the open air.[2]

It was Claude Monet, perhaps the most well-known Impressionist, who gave the movement its name, with his painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872), depicting a hazy morning in the harbour at Le Havre – the artist’s hometown.[3] 

Impressionism was hugely influential, prompting artists the world over to imitate its style. The painter Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, exhibited substantial influence of the movement in her work.

Woolf was inspired by her sister’s paintings, in which the depiction of light featured heavily and people’s faces were often indistinct – yet the work still conveyed so much emotion and meaning.

Woolf began to wonder whether the same could be done with literature. In Modern Fiction, she seeks to distance herself from the Materialist style of writers like Arnold Bennett, who were obsessed with representing life exactly as it was. 

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.[4]

This much-quoted passage is perhaps a good segue into discussing Woolf’s Kew Gardens, and its unique exploration of time, characterisation and place.

The opening paragraph is replete with Impressionist influence. Woolf notices the ‘spots of colour’[5] on the surrounding flower petals, gesturing to the techniques of Monet and his contemporaries.

This noticeable influence continues with the sustained treatment of natural light, as Woolf artfully describes its delicate movement across the lush summer foliage in the following passage.

[…] the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart shaped and tongue shaped leaves.[6]

As the narrative continues, people are introduced, but Woolf chooses not to dwell on providing accurate physical descriptions of each character, preferring instead to focus on their relation to space.

The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed.[7]

The writer’s interest in painting is evident in her description of one of the first characters, Eleanor, who recalls an evocative memory with her husband. Here, Woolf alludes to Impressionism, and specifically Monet.

Imagine six little girls sitting before their easels twenty years ago, down by the side of the lake, painting the water-lilies, the first red water-lilies I’d ever seen.[8]

As Eleanor, along with her husband Simon and their two children, walk on and out of sight, Woolf presents an image of the family as if one were gazing directly at an Impressionist painting.

They walked on past the flower-bed, now walking four abreast, and soon diminished in size among the trees and looked half transparent as the sunlight and shade swam over their backs in large trembling irregular patches.[9]

As Woolf moves around Kew Gardens, flitting from person to person, fecund descriptions of the vegetation, and animal (snail) life, punctuate the moments spent with the different characters.

Firstly, we meet a married couple with children, then two men, followed by two elderly women and finally, a young couple. We catch snippets of their conversations – some are trivial; some are inane – but this of little importance. 

Woolf’s aim is to present a series of fragmented moments, or impressions, that when brought together, reveal a sense of what one’s experience of life might actually be like, in direct contrast to her Materialist forebears.

This is Woolf, the writer, using the philosophy and the techniques of the Impressionist artists to present an image of life at its most vivid, where everything is symbiotically linked, as described in the closing lines:

[…] all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another, the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.[10]

Seth Armstrong-Twigg. 

[1] Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. xiv.
[2] Jessica Gunderson, Impressionism (Mankato: Creative Education, 2009), p. 21.
[3] Ibid, p. 15.
[4] Virginia Woolf, Modern Fiction, ed. by Andrew McNeille, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols (London: The Hogarth Press, 1984), v4, p. 160.
[5] Virginia Woolf, Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 46.
[6] Ibid, p. 46.
[7] Ibid, p. 46.
[8] Ibid, p. 47.
[9] Ibid, p. 48.
[10] Ibid, p. 52. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Windows of Loneliness: domestic and public spheres in The Well of Loneliness

Windows act as the threshold between the private sphere of the home and the public sphere. Patriarchal society encodes gender into these spaces: the domestic sphere as supposedly the realm of women and the public sphere as that of men. Thus arbitrarily coding spaces however relies upon the acceptance of a gender binary. A character such as Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness, whose gender identity disrupts the gender binary, then disrupts the gendered coding of these spaces. Furthermore, the window gains yet greater significance in its liminality because of this disruption.

During Stephen's childhood and adolescence at Morton, Radclyffe Hall often situates Stephen in the public sphere. While her father is alive, Stephen's freedom in activity and behaviour is not so strictly curtailed as it might be - that is to say that her father dilutes attempts of social conditioning on the basis of the sex assigned her at birth - and so Stephen has greater access to spaces that are dominated by men. Hall uses Stephen's relative freedom to subvert the positioning of women at the window, gazing outwards into a sphere in which their movements would be severely restricted - as Virginia Woolf exemplifies in A Room of One's Own. Instead, Stephen in her youth sees the windows of Morton as beckoning her home, as if the house itself is a character of ‘most compassionate kindness’ (p.109) and acceptance: ‘she fancied that Morton was thinking about her, for its windows seemed to be beckoning, inviting: “Come home, come home, come inside quickly, Stephen!”’ (ibid.). While Stephen sees Morton as part of her identity throughout the novel, looking upon the windows from the outside, beckoning her in, suggests that the home is Other to Stephen, more analogous to the way in which one might identify with a relative: sharing a common background, sharing a sense of connection and belonging somewhat but still distinctly separate. Moreover, Stephen’s understanding of Morton as home is not confined to the physical building but encompasses its grounds, as well as the surrounding environment as far as Stephen may see. In this way, Stephen's place in the domestic sphere and the public sphere is blurred: she both identifies strongly with her home, but her sense of home permeates beyond what we may conventionally consider as the domestic sphere, by absorbing in from the public sphere.

When Stephen's mother is made explicitly aware of Stephen's sexual orientation, Stephen's forced exile complicates her positioning within domestic and public spheres. Stephen cannot remain at home in Morton and, upon visiting, she feels disconnected: ‘she would feel like a stranger within the gates, an unwanted stranger there only on sufferance. […] its windows no longer beckoned, invited: “Come home, come home, come inside quickly Stephen!”’ (p.230). Her public appearances with her mother however must suggest of no scandal - no change - so Stephen's public persona must become a lie. This isolates Stephen and only by Jonathan Brockett's recognition of Stephen's queer identity can she again have a public life, albeit subcultural and exiled.

Within the circles of the Parisian subculture, Stephen and her partner Mary meet Jamie and Barbara. Frequently Hall aligns the two couples - Mary in particular often notes their similarity - so as to insinuate the parallels that the reader may draw between the couples in terms of character, dynamics and plotline. Hall describes Jamie and Barbara's dwelling in distinctly gloomy terms – ‘the distempered grey walls were a mass of stains, for whenever it hailed or rained or snowed the windows and skylight would always start dripping’ (p.394) -- but with ‘an eye-shaped window that would not open’ (p.395) in one of the rooms. In and of itself this window may have little significance - it is not the site of any significant plot development in the narrative, but as Jamie and Barbara's tragic ending foreshadows Stephen and Mary's own tragedy, we would do well to bear it in mind in the final scenes of The Well of Loneliness.

As the narrative draws to a close, the window at the threshold of the domestic sphere once again becomes of great significance. From the window of Stephen's bedroom that faces on the courtyard, she watches on as her final sacrifice – giving ‘light to those who live in darkness’ (p.482) -- pushes Mary into the relative protection of a relationship that will be read in society as heterosexual and therefore acceptable by the standards of the wider population – no longer an exiled relationship. As Mary and Martin disappear out of sight, the room fills with the spirits of inverts in a great culmination of queer purgatory. The imagery denoting purgatory finally situates Hall's undeniably queer characters in this liminal space from which they may only ever look upon a society which rejects them and infringes upon them – as the rain and snow leak into Jamie and Barbara’s studio -- without the freedom to truly integrate themselves in the public sphere – the eye-shaped window will not open -- while they remain isolated in the relative safety of exile within a queer domestic sphere. Here, Stephen indubitably learns that ‘the loneliest place in this world is the no-man’s land of sex’ (p.79).

- Ruth Tolerton

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

‘Love, the poet has said, is woman’s whole existence’: Orlando as an intertextual space for women, writing and literature.

Orlando acts a text that is a literary space where women and writing as a profession can be discussed. For Woolf, this text and the temporal space it occupies, has closest compositional genesis with her work A Room of One’s Own. Although much of her other work, including her short stories permeate around both texts. Orlando is a text which is also referential in its historical and contemporary literatures. Woolf utilises this to discuss ideas of gender, expectation and profession. This post considers these concerns, exploring Orlando as prism rather than a one dimensional shape.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, establishes the fictional concept of Shakespeare’s sister Judith. Judith’s own creative and critical output is ignored in Elizabethan culture and Woolf determines this predisposition down to her sex and gender. At the beginning of Orlando, the figure of the Elizabethan Orlando is able to achieve literary success in sonnets and plays, because he can, simply by his sex and gender being identified as male. By historicising this dichotomy as a space where this creative and critical output can achieve success simply by the nature of one’s gender, Woolf is using this as a demonstration of the problems women face in terms of their own professional identity. As the figure of Orlando transcends historical periods and gender, the unfinished nature of the work The Oak Tree is constantly interrupted by the difficulties he/she faces by this gender shift. It is only when the novel reaches its conclusion in contemporary 1928, that Orlando feels able to write uninterrupted.

However, this freedom of purpose is not as simple as this. Orlando is still a woman who has the financial and social means to establish her aim of finishing her work. And, the assumption that this attempt is a fleeting and non-serious concern for women still has potent political and social currency in 1928. Towards the end of the novel it is reflected ‘Surely, since she is a woman, and a beautiful woman, and woman in the prime of her life, she will soon give over the pretence of writing and begin to think of a gamekeeper (as long as she thinks of a man, no one objects to a woman thinking’ (p.133). Whilst this is an indirect reference to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it is a further permeation of what the text means in terms of women and writing. Placed at the end of the novel, it is a stoppage where Orlando and her profession can be examined and linked back to the beginning of the novel – and these same problems about gender, and professional purpose can be considered.

‘For masterpieces are not single and solitary births, they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common.’
A Room of One’s Own, p.68.

The literary inheritance that Orlando as text uses and what it seeks to provide to literature is an interesting space too. Woolf, who further establishes this later in AROO, as provided in the quote above makes use of this ‘thinking in common’ to achiever her own subtle aims. The use of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as previously mentioned, also acts as a contextual reference. The novel had recently been banned for its moral and sexual divergence from accepted norms, and Woolf is making sutble use of this and the societal contradictions it offers in the roles of women. Earlier in the novel, the parodic reversal the roles Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre is used when Orlando meets her husband for the first time, when Orlando is found laying upon the moorland. Whilst this is seen as parodic, it acts as another illustration of what the text is seeking to achieve in terms of role reversal and gendered contradiction.  

Whilst the full potential and establishment of women and writing is never fully realised in Orlando, the text makes bold and innovative statements about the problems that surround that debate, one which Woolf would further strengthen and articulate throughout her literary and critical career. The text is an open space, and this has allowed it to interact and influence other texts in terms of gender construction and identity. Woolf ends the novel with ‘And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty-Eight.’ (p.162).  This lasting statement, finishes the novel with an optimistic look towards a future, whilst acknowledging the difficulties of the past and present. Its persistence is all the more prevalent, 1928, being the year of Universal suffrage for women. 

Ieuan Rees is an MA student at Cardiff University. He specialises in Twentieth-Century studies.