Female Ensembles: Lesbian Neo-Victorian Fiction, 1998-2023

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Friars, Rachel
Victorian , Lesbian , Neo-Victorian , Gothic , Queer Theory
Female Ensembles is a study of lesbian historical fiction set in the nineteenth century. This project takes a reparative approach as Eve Sedgwick defines it (1997) to lesbian literary history through neo-Victorian novels, short fiction, and film from the last twenty-five years. Chapter one argues that this subgenre of writing attempts to revise the fragmented historical record of queer history, and these texts hope for a liberated queer future by envisioning fully realised lesbian subjectivities in the Victorian past. Chapter two argues that gender disruption functions as a mechanism of butch erotic power in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (2011). Chapter three reads biofictions by Donoghue to posit that lesbian neo-Victorian biofiction of queer historical subjects crafts a lesbian genealogy that is not available in the historical record. The fourth chapter interrogates the uses of the lesbian Gothic in the neo-Victorian novel with a study of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020). Danforth’s text evokes a queer sense of place alongside moments of abjection as both Julia Kristeva (1982) and Judith Butler (1996) define it to explore the complex subjectivities and fragmented selves of lesbian characters and the forces that attempt to expel them. Divided into two parts, chapter five analyses forms of lesbian authorship, including the fictionalised diary form in Waters’ Affinity (1999) and the film The World to Come (2020). Because diary fictions self-consciously draw attention to subjectivity and textual construction, they are intimately linked with the construction of the queer self. Part two uses Waters’s Fingersmith (2002) and Heather O’Neill’s When We Lost Our Heads (2022) to posit that novels which depict the lesbian as the author of pornography actively reappropriate the objectification of such writing for lesbian subjectivity and desire. Chapter six is a reading of trauma in Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2017); the novel is a presentist text that is keenly aware of the absence of Black lesbian narratives in the archive; therefore, the novel is concerned with ideas around storytelling, memory, and trauma as a way of responding to or coping with these silences.
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