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Midcentury British fiction by women is one of my favourite genres, and I have the overdraft with Persephone Books to prove it. I was rereading a few classics recently, and noticed something which I’ve only been half-aware of in the past.  It was probably because we’d just rewatched both dramatisations of Mapp and Lucia, with their differing presentations of the relationship between Lucia and Quaint Irene, but going from E.F. Benson’s carefully coded male view of one gay women made me notice what appeared to be lesbians all over the place.

diary of a provincial lady

To be more specific, they appeared in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels.  Or rather, characters who weren’t lesbians, but whose conversations and perceptions were presented in ways which would be almost definitely read as gay in modern writing.  When the wry and beaten-down Miss Pettigrew first meets the glamorous Miss LaFosse, the latter is described very definitely from the former’s point of view:

Miss Pettigrew gasped. The creature was so lovely, she called to mind immediately beauties of the screen.  Her golden, curly hair, tumbled untidily about her face.  Sleep was still heavy in her eyes, blue as gentians.  The lovely rose of youth flushed in her cheeks.  She wore that kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing-gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films.

The rush of vaguely hackneyed romantic imagery (”blue as gentians”, “tumbled untidily”) and cinema references (“the most famous of stars in seduction scenes”) makes it clear that Miss LaFosse is being read through a particular set of genre conventions. Miss Pettigrew is seeing her as a romantic heroine, presented to what Laura Mulvey would later identify as the “male gaze” in film.  She appears as an enticing and charming figure, framed to attract the romantic appreciation of the viewer, even though the viewer in this case is Miss Pettigrew.

Through the next few chapters Watson develops the comedy via the tension between Miss Pettigrew’s personal life and feelings, and the way she reads Miss LaFosse (and her life) in cinematic terms:

Miss LaFosse wore nothing but a peach-coloured silk dressing-gown. As she moved carelessly her robe swished apart, and Miss Pettigrew had a glimpse of beautifully modelled limbs, of flawless, pale-coloured flesh.  Her face was flushed a delicate pink by the heat.  The steam had fluffed her hair into tiny, curling tendrils round her face.  Miss Pettigrew regarded her with shy admiration.

“You are very lovely.”

“Well, now”, smiled Miss LaFosse, “that is very nice of you to say so.”

She slipped off her dressing-gown unconcernedly and began hunting round for another garment. Miss Pettigrew gasped, blinked, shut her eyes, opened them again

“It is I,” thought Miss Pettigrew sternly, “who have an evil mind. What’s wrong with the human body?  Nothing.  Didn’t the Lord make it, the same as our faces?  Certainly.  Would He create anything He thought wrong?  No.  Isn’t it only the exigencies of our climate which have demanded clothes?  Of course.  It’s all in the way of thinking.  I’ve a silly, narrow mind.  I’ve never seen anything lovelier than Miss LaFosse standing there.”

She slipped into a bit of silk and lace. Miss Pettigrew gave a gentle sigh of relief.  She was quite willing to have her outlook widened, but she was a bit old to move too precipitately.

Alongside the obvious humour provided by the clash of the two women’s world-views, there’s another kind of comedy here, as we see Miss Pettigrew viewing Miss LaFosse, and herself reflecting on the way she views her new acquaintance. There are both the clichés of moviegoing and watching a distant star, and the impact of Miss LaFosse’s immediate presence, which Miss Pettigrew tries to rationalise to herself.

The way she reacts to Miss LaFosse’s glamour is – I gather from better-informed people – not inherently unlikely for a woman in this era. I remember hearing a paper by Lisa Stead, in which she described fan writing by women about female stars in midcentury cinema.  Alongside the use of female starts as fashion exemplars or role models, there was apparently a certain amount of appreciation which took the form of romantic poetry addressed to them, and descriptions of the fans’ feelings towards these stars.  I wonder if the passages above make more sense in this context – as expressions of fan appreciation which uses the tropes of romantic adoration to express women’s feelings for women?  After all, Miss Pettigrew isn’t gay in this novel, though anyone only reading those quotations might be surprised to hear it.

E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady is less striking in her descriptions of other women, but I kept noticing the way men and women appear differently in her narratives. Though she talks a lot about the importance of securing men to make social life successful, and resenting women who can attract lots of men, she never quite pays them much attention.  Two particular pairs of passages in the novels point up this tendency.  The first two come  quotations come from the sequence when the protagonist arrives at the complex of basements under the Adelphi where she is trying to find war work:

Trousered women are standing and walking about in every direction, and great number of men with armlets. Irrelevant reflection here to the effect that this preponderance of masculine society, so invaluable at any social gathering, is never to be seen on ordinary occasions.

Serena then offers me coffee and a cigarette. I reply, though gratefully, that I have already had both and she assures me that this war is really being won on coffee and cigarettes, by women in trousers.

In reasonably quick succession we are informed of the exciting presence of men, and then distracted by the personalities of women. And given how the Second World War has become the focus for stories of romance and fetishized for its fashions, it struck me how easily Serena’s offer of a cigarette and comment about women in trousers would sound like an attempt to pick up the heroine in a modern screen version.  Certainly the relationship between “the Commandant” and “Darling” would read very much like a gay relationship in its current wording.

The same process is noticeable near the end of The Provincial Lady in America, to almost comic effect, as the protagonist is taken out to see Harlem before leaving the country:

I become part of the Night Life of New York, and left more or less stunned by the experience, which begins at seven o’clock when Miss Ramona Herdman comes to fetch me. She is accompanied by second charming young woman – Helen Something – and three men, all tall.  (Should like to congratulate her on this achievement but do not, of course, do so.)

Eugene talks about publishing, and I listen with interest, except for tendency to look at his enormous eyelashes and wonder if he has any sisters, and if theirs are equally good.

Presented with the presence of three men, the Provincial Lady is impressed, but immediately interprets them as personal achievements by the young woman who has come to take her out. When she gets into conversation with one of the obligingly-provided young men, she goes as far as focussing on his attractive eyelashes, but this spins her off into wondering about an imaginary sister and whether she is so attractive.  A woman who does not exist (as far as she knows) is more interesting and attractive than the man in front of her, whose company she claims to be delighted by.  But – as with Miss Pettigrew – this doesn’t seem to be the heroine struggling with her unacknowledged attraction to other women.  Her attention simply slides off the men and onto the women.

So I wonder if what might look like lesbian writing to a modern audience – in these cases – is mostly an effect of the sustained attention being paid by a woman to another woman? Is this something which we see quite as much in modern popular fiction?  Certainly I found it unusual enough to scrutinise the passages, in an attempt to work out why they read as vaguely gay in their sensibility.  What do you think?  Am I entirely over-reading these passages, or is there a different mode of writing going on here from a lot mainstream fiction today?  Is what chimed as subtly lesbian in fact this quality of sustained and appreciative attention by women towards others?

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