Academic journal article Antipodes

Very Queer Indeed: Martin Boyd's Nuns in Jeopardy

Academic journal article Antipodes

Very Queer Indeed: Martin Boyd's Nuns in Jeopardy

Article excerpt

Although Nuns in Jeopardy (1940) is one of several of Martin Boyd's books that have received relatively little critical attention, and even more so in relation to its queerness, it is one of if not the most erotically charged, queer or otherwise, of all Boyd's novels. Although there is a lack of attention to the novel, several reviewers have appreciated its merit. The Advertiser (1940) described it as "a most unusual story, wittily and sometimes brilliantly told" (Rev. of Nuns 8), while it was also regarded as "a tragic-comedy of good and evil" (Brighouse 2). A lack of recognition by literary commentators of the queerness of Boyd's work is not unusual, and his Anglo nostalgia was alienating for nationalist critics. It might be argued that this absence has begun to change only relatively recently with the publication in 2008 of Robert Darby's "The Outlook and Morals of an Ancient Greek (Homoeroticism in the Fiction of Martin Boyd)." However, Darby's article is but a brief introduction to the eroticism of Boyd's work, including an even briefer mention of homoeroticism in Nuns in Jeopardy. In this article, I attempt to counter the absence of overtly queer readings of Boyd's work by providing a close queer reading of Nuns in Jeopardy.

It is important to note that Boyd would have repudiated "a queer reading" since his aim was always to establish a subject position for lovers of male beauty that could be accepted as having centrality. Any suggestion of aberrance, of deviance from a norm, would have been rejected by him. For this reason, he would have seen the label "queer literature" as a damaging reclamation of a pejorative term carrying with it unwanted baggage. For his times, Boyd was radical in his approach to sexuality and gender. On the gender front, he wanted always to affirm a fluid identity. He asserted for instance about his portrait of a female character, "Lucinda Brayford [. . .] C'est moi" ("Dubious" 10). Of course, he understood the difficulties of this affirmation but sought a resolution beyond Dominic's "jam in his brain," which appears in his When Blackbirds Sing (131). This novel presents a triadic prospect of a significant other for Dominic as he reflects on his feelings toward Helena, Sylvia, and the wounded soldier Hollis. The conflict Boyd dramatizes remains unresolved, an imagined resolution lost perhaps with the lost novel-the final in the Langton series.

On the sexuality front, Boyd was undoubtedly gay, recognized this in himself, and wrote homosexuality-sometimes directly, sometimes tangentially. The problem of gendering a male homosexual orientation was always with him as a novelist. At one point, a female character seems the appropriate vehicle for exploring the possibilities of a life lived for "delight." At other times, such as in Scandal of Spring, Boyd's vehicle is a male character. The dilemma has existed for many writers. Patrick White as Theodora Goodman in The Aunt's Story is a case in point, and comparable fictional cross-dressing might be sought in E. M. Forster's novels.

I argue that the primary way in which Boyd constructs this novel as queer is, more often than not, through an interconnection of three elements: first, aestheticism; second, religion (specifically Anglo-Catholicism); and third, classicism-or engagement with at least one of these elements, centered on the descriptions of beautiful young men exiled from society. I argue that it is artificial to separate the elements. When they are considered together, a more comprehensive picture of Boyd's ideas of homosexuality is evident.

Nuns in Jeopardy tells the story of survival of a group of High-Church Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) nuns who are shipwrecked with a small number of other survivors, including several young male sailors-Dick, a Devonshire farmer's son; Harry, a young man of South Pacific origin; Joe, a sailor; Mr. Smith, a complicated English passenger; Sisters Agatha and Hilda; Winifred, a novice; and several other characters-on an Edenic, very fertile, and productive tropical island. …

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