This is a fabulous book full of sharp observations, mordant wit, and a crisp, almost epigrammatic style of writing. Terry Castle is a Virgil in the shadowy underworld of the ‘now you see her now you don’t ‘ lesbian who flits like a revenant in and out of the realm of art and fiction. Castle is a respected academic and a serious scholar of the hidden, disguised and all too often obfuscated presence of the lesbian in literature, as is amply attested in her monumental grand opus Lesbianism in Literature, a book with the rare quality of being just as difficult to pick up as to put down.
Not only can Castle startle and amaze, she can also make her reader’s squirm with vicarious embarrassment and awkwardness. Elsewhere (The Professor and Other Stories and Boss Ladies Watch Out) we are familiar with her total lack of sentimentality, and take-no-prisoners honesty in exposing her zany and sometimes bizarre gaffes, which frequently conjure an Egon Schiele image out of something that might otherwise have seemed to be as bland as an Andy Warhol. So we find here, the evocative and almost dreamy reminiscence of ‘First Ed’, the account of Castle’s almost amphibious and yet tensely formative entry into the realm of her lesbian awareness. I loved it for its brilliant balancing act of self-revelation which was both touching and edgy. I could almost see the action unfolding and almost feel the echo of the world she lightly but strongly evoked, of the atmosphere of California in the ‘sixties….
The torchy tribute to Brigitte Fassbaender was brilliant, and sent me directly to Youtube for a glimpse of the fascinating ‘Prince’ Orlofsky’ in a ‘trouser role; which displayed to the finest advantage Fassbender’s gloriously dykely beauty. I then immediately resorted to Amazon for Fassbaender’s CD Winterreiser and her DVD Hansel and Gretel – with Fassbaender again delivering the dyke hiding in plain sight as the most charmingly boyish Hansel one could ever imagine. Fassbaender was only the first of the many remarkable women selected by Castle as her literary subjects. Maureen Duffy was another one, but for me the gem of gems was Sylvia Townsend Warner. Warner’s lush lesbian poetry to her lanky 6′ gloomy, catholic and dipsomaniacal muse are sensuous, immediate, and painfully touching. Her fiction – the two works featured here by Castle are Summer Will Show and Lolly Willows are quite unlike each other in both form and content, but are clearly feminist in their sympathies in revealing the utter internal strangeness of women and the thoughts, feelings, impulses and aspirations for freedom which compel them to shatter the external roles which have rooted them in stultifying convention.
I can’t adequately express the sense of mental stimulation and sheer joy afforded by this book. I felt as if I was being shown a previously dusty old world in a new and brilliant light – with the benefit of an insider’s information to point out the significant details that are often missed by an unfocused awareness. I am sure I am not the only one who feels a deep disquiet and unease when encountering some of Henry James’ female characters, but now that I recognise them as ‘apparitional lesbians’, I can see that that unease I had felt was something I had been channeling directly from James himself.
One often feels the lesbian presence in a book or movie in the way one sees a moving shadow out of the corner of an eye, but other than Ms Castle, I have never before watched with fascination as the shadowy ectoplasm of a fictional lesbian came out so to speak, and stood framed in the light. Though these are not mentioned in the book, I am thinking now of Marian Halcomb in Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White and the clear ventriloquistic lesbian sensitivity evinced by Phillip in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.
Then we have Castle’s wonderful take on Ann Lister a Lesbian Yorkshire-woman of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, now famously seen the 2010 B.B.C production The Secret Diaries of Miss Ann Lister. Lister a ‘gold bond lesbian’ cohabited with her partner, traveled widely, and before she died prematurely at the age of fifty of what might have been typhoid, managed to write 4,000,000 words worth of encrypted diary entries.
I would compare my experience of reading this book to hearing music at a great distance and suddenly recognizing the song being sung.
When I got to the end of Apparitional Lesbians I found I couldn’t put it down. I felt the huge empty echo of emptiness when one comes to end of something one had hoped would be endless, I didn’t want the delightfully polemical essays to stop. Thank goodness for Youtube, which made it possible to hold the thread and continue the journey in a different place.
I read two books by Maureen Duffy, one of the writers mentioned by Castle: The Microcosm and Alchemy. I also began a fruitful search for Janet Flanner’s articles in The New-Yorker, and Darlinghissima, the compilation of Flanner’s letters to her partner.
Of the many excellent things that are to be said about this book, the most worthy, in my opinion, is that it makes one want to avidly continue the exploration into the almost inexhaustible subject of lesbians hidden in the shadows of art and literature.
There are very few writers, (though Camille Paglia as a fellow polemicist springs immediately to mind), who can write as well as Castle. She is brilliant,literate,scholarly, original, and as a lesbian she is writing about her own world: What more could one want! – And it follows that the opportunity of reading her work is not to be missed. If you want to read more of her writing and literary criticism, you can find it in her several contributions to The London Review of Books, – and if you want to see her painting and graphic art, you also can visit her blog, her web site, etc.