Posts Tagged ‘Emma Donoghue’

Inseparable by Emma Donoghue

May 25th, 2010

From the author of Room

“Donoghue’s adroit commentary, along with her chronologically organized bibliography, makes Inseparable necessary for scholars and enlightening and often amusing for anyone else.”—Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review


From a writer of astonishing versatility and erudition, the much-admired literary critic, novelist, short-story writer, and scholar (“Dazzling”—The Washington Post; “One of those rare writers who seems to be able to work on any register, any time, any atmosphere, and make it her own” —The Observer), a book that explores the little-known literary tradition of love between women in Western literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Agatha Christie, and many more.

Emma Donoghue brings to bear all her knowledge and grasp to examine how desire between women in English literature has been portrayed, from schoolgirls and vampires to runaway wives, from cross-dressing knights to contemporary murder stories. Donoghue looks at the work of those writers who have addressed the “unspeakable subject,” examining whether such desire between women is freakish or omnipresent, holy or evil, heartwarming or ridiculous as she excavates a long-obscured tradition of (inseparable) friendship between women, one that is surprisingly central to our cultural history.

Donoghue writes about the half-dozen contrasting girl-girl plots that have been told and retold over the centuries, metamorphosing from generation to generation. What interests the author are the twists and turns of the plots themselves and how these stories have changed—or haven’t—over the centuries, rather than how they reflect their time and society.

Donoghue explores the writing of Sade, Diderot, Balzac, Thomas Hardy, H. Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Bowen, and others and the ways in which the woman who desires women has been cast as not quite human, as ghost or vampire.

She writes about the ever-present triangle, found in novels and plays from the last three centuries, in which a woman and man compete for the heroine’s love . . . about how—and why—same-sex attraction is surprisingly ubiquitous in crime fiction, from the work of Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers to P. D. James.

Finally, Donoghue looks at the plotline that has dominated writings about desire between women since the late nineteenth century: how a woman’s life is turned upside down by the realization that she desires another woman, whether she comes to terms with this discovery privately, “comes out of the closet,” or is publicly “outed.”

She shows how this narrative pattern has remained popular and how it has taken many forms, in the works of George Moore, Radclyffe Hall, Patricia Highsmith, and Rita Mae Brown, from case-history-style stories and dramas, in and out of the courtroom, to schoolgirl love stories and rebellious picaresques.

A revelation of a centuries-old literary tradition—brilliant, amusing, and until now, deliberately overlooked.

Check out the table of contents

Emma Donoghue is the author of sixteen books, including the best-selling novels Slammerkin, Life Mask, and Room. Donoghue’s reputation as a literary historian has grown with the publication of two anthologies: Poems Between Women (1997) and The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1999). Donoghue has lectured at universities in Ireland, Britain, and the United States on Irish studies and eighteenth-century gay/lesbian history. She lives in London, Ontario.

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From our Q&A with Emma Donoghue:

Q: What inspired you to write Inseparable? Did you feel there was something important missing from the existing scholarly work?
A: Back in the mid-90s I was approached by a university press to write a history of lesbian literature. Although I was attracted to the idea of a book that would have a really long historical and geographical range, I didn’t want it to trawl dutifully and descriptively through the entire body of texts both by and about women-who-loved-women. That deal fell through, so what I ended up writing was much more for my own pleasure: a sort of travel guide that would identify and analyze the handful of underlying plot motifs about desire between women. As I worked on Inseparable for a decade and a half, more and more academic studies were published on specific periods and genres—sometimes on just a couple of texts. While I drew on much of this excellent scholarship, it also confirmed my hunch that both academic specialists and ‘common readers’ could do with a guide to this literary tradition in all its length, breadth and flavor.

Q: You describe Inseparable as a sort of map and each chapter a new “terrain.” What discoveries led you to choose the path you did for the book?
A: Some of the tracks were clear from the start: I always knew there would be at least one chapter on cross-dressing, because it’s been perhaps the dominant way for writers over the centuries to tell stories about how same-sex desire might ‘accidentally’ occur. Others were more of a surprise to me; I knew that lesbian detective fiction as a distinct genre was born in the 1990s, but I found much earlier detection stories (in large numbers from the 1920s on) that hinged on the discovery of desire between women, so that became a chapter of its own.

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