To read about “Sapphists” in Victorian England is something of a shock. Having read queer literature before that fact was not the issue, but mainly the world it depicted. Fiction, obviously, yet I refuse to believe completely so as the picture is paints seems so realistic. The story flows and mixes with the past (events of the book) and the present (the protagonist telling us her memories) at the same time all-knowing yet experiencing everything for the first time, with us in tow. The new vocabulary and the acts and costumes and the seeming freedom of women on the stage left me quite splendidly confused. Did this really happen? Could it really have been that easy? Of course, reality hits again with Kitty and the secrecy recquired to make the relationship work. Alice never speaking to her again, their friends knowing nothing and the eventual affair and marriage to Walter (which I so did not, and at the same time did, see coming) all proclaim the same message. Luckily this message was somewhat overturned later in the book, making it possible for Nancy to find love and happiness, just in another setting, with bolder and stronger people around her than those who cast her aside.
Most queer books I have come facross represent this and the previous century so it is a nice change to see that maybe, just maybe, there was a thriving queer culture even back then. Of course there was, I now realise and shake my head in awe at my own stupidity, yet when I think about it, it is not stupidity. It is the world telling me that this never really happened until recently; a message I know to be a complete lie. There has never been a starting point to variations in sexual preference or gender expression, something to blame for this *gasp* change in “normal” behaviour. It seems tired and obvious to sing the same song over and over again, yet there need to be more singing until our ears bleed and we can remember the lyrics by heart to the point of exhaustion (“I’ll be there for you” by The Rembrandts, anyone?). This book is just one verse, we need more!
something a little bit naughty
Having said that, let’s focus on the stage for a bit. The costumes, the acts and the thing in itself: a girl in boys clothes, pretending to be a boy in love with a woman. I mean, hello, they did not think that was just a little bit gay? Apparently it was supposed to just be fun, harmless entertainment even… Anyway, there is always something irresistible about breaking rules, which is exactly what Kitty did by impersonating a man. She created her own warped, reality that allowed her to woo the woman she wanted and to gain her affection under the disguise of entertainment. Later, Nancy finds herself in man’s clothes, actually more free and herself than in her frocks. There is something different in the two, as the former is for other people whereas the latter is for Nancy. She finds herself better expressed in a pair of trousers and short hair and luckily she finds a place where she can choose this herself and not because she has to for the sake of the music hall or for her mistress to show around like a pet. Finally, in Bethnall Green, she can choose the life she wants and make it her own. The difference is clear in the suit nancy wears; for the stage it had to be cut to make it look more feminine so that it would be clear it was a girl pretending to be a boy. Later, she cuts the seams and becomes a man, in society’s eyes. However, this is truly her, but a disguise again for income. The suits Diana made her wear are nothing more than runway pieces for the consumption of the audience. But finally, when entering Florence’s bar, she finds women who are truly like her, who choose the wear trousers simply because they feel better in them.
what makes us whole
This book tells a lot of stories. The first part alone, could be a novel by itself, having the perfect setting of girl meets girl, becomes friends with the girl, falls in love with the girl, finally starts a relationship with the girl and then gets betrayed by the girl and has to find her own way in the world. Seems simple enough and very complete in itself. However, there are more to be told, part II with its shiny glimpses of the kept life and the foreshadowed and predicted ending to the short life in the sun. The third finds our heroine finally able to find a balance between the two worlds of work and glamour and realising what is truly important, who is worth loving the most and also that love in itself is not always enough, there has to be more. With Florence, there is a life.
But why tell the shameful, unsettling details? Why linger so long onthe duties of the oyster-girl, why walk endlessly on the streets exchanging meaningful looks, why describe the endless f-fest that is Felicity Place? Because they are what made Nancy who she is. Past is not something you can hide from, actually the more you try the more is seeps into your life. When Nancy finally opened herself up to someone fully, it did hurt but there was so much to gain. To understand how a person – or a fictional character – came to be, you ust look at their past, their experiences, their entire life. Fragmented as it is, it is the only map to true discovery.
– Jatta –