The Queer Woman Reader, 1790-1940

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sci


This thesis asks: how did the historical and fictional queer woman reader engage with emerging discourses of queerness in Britain in the long nineteenth century?

It will pursue the following questions:

How did readers constitute their queer identities through reading, and in conversation with popular images of the woman reader?

How did writers repurpose the image of the woman reader to engage with queer desire and identity?

What role did reading play in the formation of queer women's communities and networks as a function of social control and/or resistance?

A central contention of this thesis is that acts of reading are fundamental to self-knowledge and identity formation in a print-based society, and that this process functions in historically specific ways for minority groups, in this case queer women. "Queer" is understood by this thesis to mean lesbian, bi/pansexual, transgender, and other non-cisheteronormative lifestyles and activities, and provides a theoretical framework for analysis without applying anachronistic identity labels. The suppression of queer literature under obscenity laws affected access to queer knowledge, even as the industrialization of print gave rise to a mass reading public and the popular novel. This thesis will recover traditions of queer resistance to this suppression through the circulation and reading of texts, using De Certeau's understanding of reading as a form of consumption that is productive of meanings, as a radical "poaching" of text, rather than as passive reception (De Certeau 1984).

Literary images of the reading woman were rife in nineteenth-century culture, reflecting anxieties about changing gender norms and the socially transformative potential of working-class literacy (Flint 1993), but queer responses to this trope have received little attention. Queer theorists argue that the emergence of discourses that physiopathologised, psychopathologised, and moralized same-sex desire prompted a corresponding constitution of queer social identities in response (Sinfield 1994). This thesis is concerned with uncovering the ways in which historical individuals understood their own queer identities in relation to these discourses through private and collaborative acts of reading. Media sociologists have begun to examine this process in recent years (Driver 2007), but the period prior to the 1960s, which saw the rise of LGBT civil rights and stable identity categories, remains neglected. This research begins to fill this gap by comparing records of historical queer reading practices with literary representations of the queer woman reader, a fundamentally interdisciplinary approach.

The diaries, letters, book reviews, and fiction of the Ladies of Llangollen, Mary Diana Dods, Charlotte Brontë, Anne Lister, Geraldine Jewsbury, Jane Welsh Carlyle, Vernon Lee, Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Townsend Warner represent diverse queer experience, across a period of shifting queer sociality. This project will draw on archives relevant to these authors at the University of Edinburgh and the National Library of Scotland, as well as digitised documents and archives held internationally. I will use textual transcription, bibliographic examination, and close reading of original documentation to produce a comparative analysis of the roles that acts of reading played in these writers' private expressions of queer desire and evolving queer public identities. Close reading of these writers' representations of the woman reader in their literary output will expand on the archival findings, suggesting how these writers queered this fictional trope and its corresponding debates.

Given current public interest in, for example, the TV series Gentleman Jack, based on Lister's coded diaries, the emerging field of queer book history is a timely and impactful one, and this thesis will form a significant addition.


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