Academic journal article Hecate

Becoming-Violet: Desire in the Love Poetry of Mary Fullerton

Academic journal article Hecate

Becoming-Violet: Desire in the Love Poetry of Mary Fullerton

Article excerpt

You say that violets fade upon your breast, I'd rather dearest that mine perished there Quick on your passionate heart than otherwhere. Did some cold vase become their purpled nest They longer there might live to die unblest: Better their fragrance float about your hair, Your heart-beats pulse their sweetness to the air That breathed again gives aromatic rest.

The flower was made to give to Beauty dreams, And when its soul for her behoof is spilled So hers be fed by transitory gleams With Meanings clear, its mission is fulfilled. Breathing of love in its suspiring breath Let the flower swoon to its luxurious death.(1)

There are four published volumes of Mary Fullerton's poetry, of which the last two, brought out under the pseudonym of 'E'(2) in the 1940s with the help of her writer colleague and friend, Miles Franklin, are the best known.(3) Mary Fullerton is remembered (in so far as she is remembered at all) for the terse, epigrammatic style of the later poems, reminiscent of her favourite poet, Emily Dickinson. In the archives of the Mitchell Library, however, there survive many unpublished poems, mostly from a much earlier period in Mary's life, and quite different in style and content. The untitled sonnet quoted above is one of the poems she wrote to her friend and companion of over thirty years, Mabel Singleton. Many of these are dated and dedicated with such epithets as: 'With more love than can be spoken or written.' This particular sonnet is not dated but its sentiments fit with the poems written during the early years after the two women met in Melbourne in 1909 when they were both office-bearers in Vida Goldstein's Women's Political Association.

Mary Fullerton described herself in her unpublished Memoirs as a 'go alone' woman, a phrase that has been picked up in bibliographies to explain the fact that she never married.(4) She qualified that description, however, with the following statement about women who refuse marriage and motherhood, one that hints at a form of emotional fulfilment not encompassed by the heterosexual contract:

'Unwomanly,"cold-hearted,' and so forth are the charges levelled. I have heard these words and their like applied to myself. I have smiled, knowing them to be from an entirely false understanding of me.(5)

In letters to Miles Franklin, this writer often referred to herself as lacking the 'sex instinct.' But Mary's definition of the 'sexual' was specifically limited to what she called "the process of reproduction" which she once told Miles was 'repulsive' to her.(6) By restricting the domain of the 'sexual' to heterosexuality, Mary was able to create a positive space for her own same-sex desire within the province of friendship, albeit an increasingly contested and fragile space by the 1920s following the popularisation of sexological theory and psychoanalysis.(7) She constructed a complex hierarchy of friendships, the highest form of which was reserved for her relationship with Mabel Singleton. My interest here is in how desire is expressed in the love poems written by the woman who eschewed the label 'lesbian' and who regarded her lifelong companion as a friend. In other words, I would like to problematise the category of 'romantic friendship' which is often used to describe such relationships as this one.

The catalyst for the contemporary discourse of romantic friendship was an article by historian, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, first published in 1975 and reprinted many times since.(8) From an examination of diaries of nineteenth-century white, middle-class women in America, she discovered that female friendships often appeared to contain a sensual element and were described in language that today would seem more appropriate to lovers than friends. This article helped to free women's relationships from the fixed models of medical discourse, of normality and abnormality. It crossed those boundaries and situated friendship as a dynamic concept with historical, social and cultural specificity. …

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