Academic journal article Hecate

Eve Plays Her Wilde Card and Makes the Straight Flush

Academic journal article Hecate

Eve Plays Her Wilde Card and Makes the Straight Flush

Article excerpt

In her two published novels, the Prior Prize-winning The Pea Pickers (1942), and its sequel White Topee (1954), Eve Langley engaged in subversive gender games and resignifications, including cross-dressing and picaresque adventures that could still be accommodated within the mainstream of relatively conventional narratives. However the manuscript of Langley's third, and potentially finest novel, Wild Australia, when submitted in 1953, utterly disconcerted the Angus and Robertson Readers, unaccustomed as they were to public speaking/writing that radically disrupted normative textual and biological boundaries by outrageously transgressive and parodic multiple shifts of gender, sex, time and space. "The thread of the MS (it can certainly not be called a story or plot) is a ride taken by 'Steve' in 1929 over the Australian Alps from Bruthen to join her sister Blue who is hop-picking. The first 200 pages describe the ride, the places stopped at, the people met with and, most of all, the landscape and the yearnings and--not to mince matters--the completely irrelevant thoughts it often calls forth in her. At all times the reader has difficulty in following Steve's leaps in time and space. One is given so few clues to her thought processes . . . it is so undisciplined, so, in parts, overwritten, and so, one might say, chaotic . . ."(1) Nan McDonald's annotation on this Report also expresses concern and mystification about "the author's idea of having been Oscar Wilde, mixed up with some peculiar ideas of changing sexes . . .".(2)

The pun in the title of Wild Australia hints at these shifts; Langley redeploys Oscar Wilde as Steve/Eve's reincarnated Other/Self to explore identity inversions and temporal, spatial, and sexual dislocations that make the gender politics of Orlando seem by comparison about as radical as those of Peter Pan. The parodic and ironic juxtapositions, destabilisations, and reappropriations of Langley's innovative narrative strategies wreak havoc with hegemonies, decades before Monique Wittig's deconstructions and reconstructions of heterosexual configurations and normative identities. Langley charted her own rites of passage to textual, psychic, personal, and political spaces, creating extraordinary narratives that make it tempting to affix such labels as Premature Postmodernist, were it not for the fact that Eve and Oscar have surely suffered enough from categorisations, specifically those reserved for the asocial and eccentric, the "bad" and the "mad".

Both writers are similarly plagued by their novels being interpreted overliterally in the context of their lives, instead of in fictive contexts which extend beyond personal encodings which may or may not be discovered in their evasive, shifting and multilayered textual realities. It is said that labels derive from distrust of truly radical difference in the other, and Wilde himself ironically observed that "from a label there is no escape."(3) Wilde and Langley were subjected to inevitable and varying degrees of textual and material diminishment as an outcome of that ultimate means of controlling the different other, incarceration: one was deprived of liberty in Reading Gaol, the other in the Auckland Mental Hospital.

Langley's labels have been predictable enough; madwoman in the Australian literary attic; repressed lesbian, or maybe even "clinical transvestite"; victim of a conservative critical and publishing establishment; abject object in reclusive death in that isolated hut on the outskirts of Katoomba--the images proliferate and coalesce, refracted through other realities and agendas which invariably distort and diminish the woman and the writer. The comments of Vyvyan Holland, writing of his father, hold an analogous relevance; "As people recede further and further into the past, they are apt to assume the aspect of effigies from which all humanity has departed; and when other people write about them they hack them about to make them fit into a pattern of their own making until no flesh and blood remains. …

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