The Literature of Lesbianism. Terry Castle, editor.

The Literature of Lesbianism is a big subject, deserving of a big book, and Terry Castle has made one. The subtitle explains: “A historical anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall.” As she’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington next month, Terry Castle is among the group of authors I’m swotting up on. This big book – 1110 pages, if you include the index – was published in 2003, and I have a copy to explore only because a friend lent it to me.

Terry Castle’s introductory essay is great. She’s concerned with the idea of lesbianism and how it has been represented by writers, male and female, over the centuries; lesbianism as “something to talk about”.

I love how she writes. I got a bit tired of Terry-Castle-the-snark in The Professor (while devouring the book) so enjoyed the more or less snark-free writing here. “This woman has read everything!” I cried out more than once, with some envy. She writes beautifully nuanced paragraphs on the “paradox [of] the way in which would-be banishers of the lesbian idea have often ended up facilitating its entry into cultural consciousness by making it more ‘talkable’.”

To my delight, Terry Castle derives from the cross-dressing women in Shakespeare, who invariably end up with a man, the “central thing” that “the possibility of divergence is is broached.” She has this way of taking a word, like “broached,” and using it in a slightly unusual way, which for me makes her writing lively and surprising. I can’t wait to hear her speak.

The extracts gathered together, the introductory notes to each section, and the (long) lists of further reading for each author selected, reinforce my admiration for the extent of Terry Castle’s reading. I fancy myself as voracious and expansive in my reading habit, but she leaves me barely off the starting blocks.

A longer, and much more interesting, version of Terry Castle’s interview with Guy Somerset in the recent Listener is here: