Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Robust Body and Social Souls: Reassessing Ronald Firbank's Effeminate Queer Men

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Robust Body and Social Souls: Reassessing Ronald Firbank's Effeminate Queer Men

Article excerpt

Attempts to place Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) in the context of the British literary canon have frequently focused on his campy humor and his disjointed, seemingly frivolous style in order to present him as a bridge between a Wildean decadence and modernist experiments in narrative. One early version of this critical trend stems from E. M. Forster, who categorized Firbank as a modern writer belonging to the "fin de siecle" and as an occasionally admirable "butterfly" who wrote "frivolous stuff' and "an untainted series of absurdities" (118, 119). Another, more sympathetic version stems from Evelyn Waugh, who likewise asserted Firbank's association with the decadent nineties but emphasized how Firbank simultaneously avoided outdated "attributions of cause to effect," largely through his humorously proffered "illuminated fragments of the commonplace," fragmented commonplaces being a hallmark of British modernism. Firbank's "literary influence," Waugh argued, derived from his "experiments" with non sequiturs and fragmented "selective" details, all set forth in a "peculiarly appropriate and delicate" fashion (57, 58). Both Forster and (to a greater extent) Waugh appreciate Firbank's reappropriation of Wildean fin-de-siecle fancifulness for modern literary experimentation. Yet, they also characterize Firbank's work as "frivolous" and as "peculiarly... delicate," thereby implying that his writing is somehow effetely idiosyncratic and slight. In doing so, they subtly present his work as an updated version of a pathologically decadent and enervated late-nineteenth-century homoerotic aesthetic.

More recent critics have advanced this double-edged line of analysis by describing Firbank's style as technically interesting, yet as semantically uncertain and as pessimistically effete. Jonathan Goldman, for instance, suggests that, as opposed to meaningful modernist experiments in "resignification," Firbank's frivolous dialogue results in the "designification" of language and accompanies "plots" that "follow the same pattern" (303, 302). Jed Mayer argues that in Firbank "[u]tterance is fragmented" and that "disembodied conversations take place in a kind of void," thereby stressing a similarly repetitious vacuity of signification (96). Mayer contends, moreover, that this fragmented style reinforces diverse themes of social "marginalization" (111). According to these critics, Firbank's frivolity and experiments in narrative discontinuities evoke an aura of semantic ephemerality, a lack of solidity, and social estrangement.

Although persuasive, these analyses of Firbank's fragmented literary style, his breakdowns in signification, and his "disembodied" voices echo troubling turn-of-the-twentieth-century conventions that linked same-sex desiring bodies and identities to a degenerate aestheticism, feebleness, and social alienation. Alan Sinfield has traced how the "vaguely disconcerting nexus of effeminacy, leisured idleness, immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism, which Wilde was perceived as instantiating, was transformed into a brilliantly precise image" of a "queer" identity in the late nineteenth century, an identity that extended, with qualifications, into the modern period (118). One might think here of Forster's withered Platonist Clive Durham in Maurice (written 1913-1914) or Waugh's intensely effeminate Miles Malpractice and Peter Pastmaster in Vile Bodies (1930) or Anthony Blanche and Sebastian Flyte in Brides head Revisited (1945). In a flagrant yet conventional display of misogyny, these overtly feminized queer characters are diversely enervated or decadent aesthetes who end up emotionally alone, psychologically alienated from society, and frequently drunk. While I do not wish to dispute Firbank's lauded role as a stylistic bridge between a fin-de-siecle aestheticism and a fragmentary modernism, I do want to suggest that some of the critical descriptions of this role are problematic. They risk replicating, however unwittingly or sympathetically, early-twentieth-century literary stereotypes that presented same-sex desiring aesthetes as effeminate and as consequently weak, unhealthy, socially alienating, and relatively unproductive. …

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