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.
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. 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.’ 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, 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.
 Ellis, Havelock (1927), Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume II: Sexual Inversion. 3rd Ed. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13611/13611-h/13611-h.htm#2_CHAPTER_I [accessed 20 February 17].
 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.
 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).
 ‘pretty’, adj., 2.a, OED Online (2017). Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/151023?rskey=B5ZQ8d&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid [accessed 16 Feb. 17].