Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

"Lullaby for a Lady's Lady": Lesbian Identity in 'Ladies Almanack.' (Djuna Barnes)

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

"Lullaby for a Lady's Lady": Lesbian Identity in 'Ladies Almanack.' (Djuna Barnes)

Article excerpt

Now as a wonder worker, Dame Musset was perhaps at her very best when, carrying a pole and muff, and sporting an endearing tippet, she stepped out upon that exceding thin ice to which it has pleased God, more and more, to call frail woman, there so conducting herself that none were put to the chagrin of sinking for the third time!(1)

This inscription and its accompanying imagery pose several interpretive problems for the reader of Djuna Barnes's little book of 1928, Ladies Almanack. Various critics have debated the meaning of the images: does the crude masculinization of Dame Musset, the phallic pole she extends to the drowning women, replicate dangerous stereotypes of lesbians promulgated by a male psychoanalytic establishment,(2) or does the alternation of "pole" and "muff," top hat and petticoat serve as visual proof of the undecidability of the text, its "feminine writing"?(3) Few of these critical stances discuss the significance for lesbian sexuality of the cultural context within which this set of images is located, the "thin ice" on which Dame Musset appears to be balancing while others fall through.(4) It is my opinion that Barnes herself is aware of this "thin ice," this particularly fragile moment of nascent lesbian identity.

As Foucault describes it, at the end of the nineteenth century there is a shift from an emphasis on homosexual acts to an emphasis on homosexual identities. In the case of women, this new "lesbian identity" is itself a product of the anxieties surrounding changes in the status of women, changes which include but are not limited to the shift in the production and control of bourgeois white women and their sexuality from the family to the public sphere, the increasing demand for careers for women outside the home, and the flowering of women's education, all of which are tied in some way to the need of industrial capitalism to produce new kinds of regulated individuals. Because of these transformations, the supposed centrality of the private mother-daughter relationship is replaced by more public, more dangerous, perhaps even "unnatural" relations between women: teacher and student, older teacher and younger teacher, nurse and head nurse, novice and initiate, missionary and convert. As others have documented, sexology and psychoanalysis arise in direct response to the threats posed by these kinds of "modern" relationships. In their attempts to regulate women's sexuality, these discourses produce what is perhaps the first codification of a modern lesbian identity.(5) In this paper, I will argue that Ladies Almanack constitutes both an intervention into and an example of this process.

The Almanack is full of allusions to cultural spaces in which middle-class American and British women are allowed to leave the private sphere of the home for the public sphere of the boarding school, college, war effort, and perhaps, by the twenties, the salon. For example, Dame Musset's designation as "the Grand Red Cross" (6), obviously a reference to Spenser's knight, also invokes another more recent cultural register, the "wonder worker" women ambulance drivers of the First World War, who exchanged the restrictions of the domestic sphere for the thrill of the war effort and of the many other women with whom they worked.(6)

The use of slang terms for women, such as the nickname "Old Girl" in the phrase "My Love she is an Old Girl, out of Fashion" (15), plays off the vernacular of both the women's boarding schools and the women's colleges, which in 1928 were still fairly recent developments. Similarly, Evangeline Musset's first name itself hints at her higher purpose, and she is a parody of the religious women who formed independent sisterhoods in the nineteenth century.(7) Instead of converting women to Christ, however, Musset converts them to lesbianism.

In its witty encoding of such allusions, Ladies Almanack intervenes into the debates surrounding the effects of these newfound freedoms on women and specifically on women's sexuality. …

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