Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

    Long Barn, Knole, Richmond and Bloomsbury. All too familiar and
    entrapping. Either I am at home, and you are strange; or you are at
    home, and I am strange; so neither is the real essential person, and
    confusion results.
      But in the Basque provinces, among a host of zingaros, we should
    both be equally strange and equally real.
    --Sackville-West to Woolf, Letters 54

When Vita Sackville-West tries to persuade Virginia Woolf to run away with the "zingaros," Spanish gypsies, she alludes to a discourse evident both in her earlier relationships with women and in her novels Challenge and Heritage, where gypsies represent liberation, excitement, danger, and the free expression of sexuality. Sackville-West's fantasy of homelessness among the gypsies provides the imagined means for two women lovers to value their estrangement from familiar and familial settings, to make it a virtue, part of their true selves. As my epigraph suggests, to be "strange" is to be "real." Confusion, Sackville-West implies, would vanish in a setting away from the deceptive comforts of home and England, with an alien band who are themselves both estranged from the lovers and identified with them.

Sackville-West's letter provides one instance of the tantalizing presence of the gypsy as the antithesis of the "familiar and entrapping" in queer writing by women at the start of the twentieth century. The gypsy--and, as we shall see, the Spanish gypsy in particular--haunts texts about desire between women in this period. She wanders through writings by Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Woolf, allusive, evasive, and teasing, a figure around whom fantasies and desires coalesce. The tentative identification with the gypsies in Sackville-West's letter to Woolf is an undercurrent in all three writers, a tug toward "gypsiness" that functions, I argue, as a hint of same-sex desire. Their allusions to gypsies, whether in letters to each other or in texts such as Orlando, formed part of a private discourse centered around Sackville-West's alleged gypsy heritage, which served as explanation and excuse for her unconventional behavior. In this, these writers also appropriated a popular interest in gypsy culture that emerged in this period. The decades between 1910 and 1930 were marked by an explosion of writings on gypsies--anthropological studies, popular fiction, poetry, travel writing, folktales, and linguistic studies--that placed the gypsy at the center of commentaries on exoticism, primitivism, nature, sexuality, and savagery. By setting Trefusis's letters to Sackville-West, for instance, in the context of these writings, we can see not only how the popular image of the gypsy was reworked to serve as an image of the lesbian writer, but also how popular accounts of the gypsy were themselves always haunted by implications of deviant sexuality, wayward femininity, and other transgressions against dominant societal standards.

In her recent study of the Spanish gypsy in the popular European imagination, Lou Charnon-Deutsch concludes that representations of the female gypsy suggest "that the border between same and other is porous.... She is always hovering about, threatening the subject with regression" (242). The period in which such representations are most pronounced, according to Charnon-Deutsch, is roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s--the decades in which modern concepts of sexuality were in the process of formation. For early twentieth-century women writers, who would not necessarily have defined themselves as possessing a "core identity" as a lesbian, referencing gypsies, I argue, may have served as one means of blurring the boundaries between same and other, familiar and strange, and of situating lesbian sexuality within a recognizable cultural framework, while also subverting this framework by using the traditional image of the passionate heterosexual gypsy (Bizet's Carmen, for example, or Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss) to signal same-sex desire. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.