Danika reviews Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando

Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.

This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.

Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.

The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:

And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.

I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)

Rachel reviews Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

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First published in 1969 under the title A Place for Us, Patience & Sarah is a lovely classic lesbian novel by Isabel Miller. Like Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind, this book is one of the first and few books of the time to have lesbian female protagonists in love, and to have a happy ending. It is still popular today and one of the most beloved LGBT novels.

Taking place in Connecticut in 1816, the story follows the viewpoints of Patience White and Sarah Dowling. Patience is in her late twenties, which at that time labeled her as a spinster. She lives with her brother Edward, his wife Martha, and her little nieces and nephews. She not only helps Martha care for the children, Patience is a wonderful painter, which she would love to do for a living. Sarah Dowling is the second-oldest in a house full of sisters. Being strongest, her father picks her to help him do the “men’s” work. A hard worker and itching to buy her own land, Sarah one day goes to the White’s home to deliver wood, and she meets Patience. The two feel an instant connection as they share a meal together and look at Patience’s pictures. It’s love at first sight, and when Sarah reveals her plans to go to Genesee, New York, and start a farm, Patience asks to come too.

After sharing their first kiss, the two women are happily in love. However, their families find out about their love, and react badly. Initially worried about her reputation, Patience refuses to go with Sarah, and Sarah sets off, heartbroken and alone. En route to Genesee and disguised as a boy, she meets Parson Peel, a knowledgeable man in books and learning. After learning to read, Sarah returns to her community and reconciles with Patience. Finally accepting her feelings for Sarah, Patience travels with her lover to hopefully find a good life together.

Patience & Sarah is a simple read, but Isabel Miller conveys so much in her story: from what the characters are thinking and feeling to brief but beautifully written details of the scenery and other observations. The characters of Patience and Sarah balance each other out well, though there are personality clashes between them sometimes. At first, the idea of them deciding to move to New York together after only a second meeting seemed too quick and impulsive to me, but as the women’s story moved along, I was nonetheless still rooting for them.

The novel had a good cast of characters with their own personalities. Some of the more sympathetic and likeable ones were Sarah’s sister Rachel, and Parson Peel. The Parson especially was entertaining, with his acceptance of differences and his endless supply of facts from the books he read. He taught Sarah more than just letters; he showed her possibilities she hadn’t known existed.

The love story between the two women blooms as they travel and build their own farm. They endure some trials as well as their own worries and doubts, but both Patience and Sarah really are in love, and believe that as long as they have each other, they can get through anything. Their unyielding bond is admirable.

Isabel Miller based Patience & Sarah on two real historical women. Painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion Miss Brundidge settled together in Greene County, New York around 1820. Miller even dedicated her book to them, which I found very touching.

All in all, Patience & Sarah is a wonderful historical lesbian romance that warms the heart. Anyone who is interested in LGBT literature be they gay or straight, should take the time to read this amazing novel.

Rachel reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Orangesarenottheonlyfruit

Published in 1985 by Jeanette Winterson, the classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit hits home on a young girl coming of age and beginning to question her sexuality.

The protagonist, Jeanette, has been adopted by stringent Pentecostal evangelists. As she grows up, she is expected to one day be a missionary. Her mother in particular pushes Jeanette to pursue this dream. Together, the family listens on the radio to missionaries converting unbelievers, attend church for intense sermons, and learn as much from the Bible as they can. Jeanette is an outcast at school because her beliefs set her apart from the other kids; her only true friend is Elsie, an elderly woman who encourages Jeanette in her work. One day however, Jeanette meets Melanie, and begins to feel the first stirrings of attraction. This causes uproar in her family and community, leading Jeanette to make her own decisions about her future.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a mixture of humor and sadness as the story follows Jeanette in her journey to awakening. And the journey is full of ignorance and a lack of understanding. Jeanette loves God and Melanie, but her pastor tells her she cannot love them both. She is surrounded by people who do not understand her; her mother and community believe she has allowed the devil to take her with “unnatural passions.” It was heartbreaking at times to read of how Jeanette was treated by people she had known her whole life. The homophobic remarks were infuriating. People fear what they do not understand, and the characters in this book were no exception.

Winterson brilliantly captured Jeanette’s struggles to find her own place while reconciling her attraction to women. As the novel progresses, Jeanette begins to question her beliefs and challenge her society’s rules. The reader can see her getting more independent with every page. Her growth from a young girl to a mature woman exploring the world around her was liberating in a way.

Throughout the book, there are stories interwoven with the main plot. These stories hold a message relevant to what Jeanette is going through. Every chapter of Oranges is marked by the name of a Bible story, starting with Genesis and ending with Ruth. My favorite chapter was Deuteronomy. Though short, in it Jeanette ponders questions about history and how easily people change it to match their beliefs.

Lesbianism is not the main subject touched on in the novel; religion and questioning are at the forefront. It’s no surprise; Jeanette’s beliefs are important to her and she built a lot of her dreams and plans on it. She works hard to make sense of her faith and the world around her. That makes her the strongest character of the book in my opinion, and more endearing.

I can see why Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic; the novel prompts readers to question society, religion, and prejudice. Some may find the subjects too heavy, but this book has important messages, and should be read by everyone, gay or straight.

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!