THE STORY BEGINS LIKE SO MANY OTHERS: I was at a dinner party. As I chatted casually about my lesbian YA novel, Sister Mischief, I was met with an incisive comment on the state of lesbian literature, which I paraphrase here:
“Why is it that all lesbian novels end with one lover either dying or going straight?”
The statement stung me. Almost every lesbian novel I could think of, including my own, seemed to acquiesce to this dichotomy. I knew that there was ample work to be done in expanding the LGBTQ canon, but was it true that all lesbian stories ended tragically, and if so, had we really failed to invent more than two conclusions? I decided to investigate the issue.
Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness, called “the most depressing lesbian novel ever written” by critic Lisa Walker, initiated the tragic convention in the lesbian coming-of-age story. While considerable progress has been made in generating more hopeful narratives, the lesbian romantic tradition is nonetheless marked by fear, melodrama, and secrecy. According to literature, the Sapphic love story rarely ends well.
After 1980, the lesbian love story often interweaves with a “coming-out” story, adding what queer theorist Michael Warner calls “the special burden of disclosure” to gay characters’ emotional journeys. Unlike straight characters, gay characters are charged with disclaiming their sexual preferences, further particularizing the queer bildungsroman as one moving toward, or moving past, self-disclosure. As a result, a character’s self-realization as queer is seldom incidental to a story.
But how true, how frequent, is the “dead or straight” binary to the lesbian novel at large? Six books struck me as fruitful territory upon which to unleash the trope, representing a range of era, class, and cultural settings while maintaining a unity of theme. Annie on My Mind, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, and Kissing Kate are classified as young adult fiction, and illustrate a central love story. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Well of Loneliness, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe are not considered YA, but do depict an erotic coming-of-age narrative. Be warned: As a result of reviewing the books’ endings, spoilers abound.
The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (1928)
No lesbian novel has earned a more contentious critical reception than The Well of Loneliness. Published originally in England to a Howl-scale shitstorm – London’s Sunday Express launched a morality campaign against the book that led to an obscenity trial – The Well still ignites controversy. No survey of Sapphic tragedies would be complete without attending to the excellent queer theory that has underpinned their place in the canon, and critic Heather Love’s work on The Well astutely emphasizes the novel’s reception by lesbian readers: She calls The Well “the most famous and most widely read of lesbian novels … also the novel most hated by lesbians themselves.” In it, Stephen Gordon self-identifies not as a lesbian, but as a sexual “invert,” a designation contemporary with the sexology of the era (evoked revealingly in Havelock Ellis’s original introduction to the novel).
Stephen’s erotic passage is repeatedly tragic: Born to aristocratic parents who desperately wanted a boy, and a father who essentially raises her as one, in early life Stephen lusts after housemaid Collins, only to be heartbroken when she finds Collins snogging a footman. Later, she engages in a brief affair with a married, bored American woman, which nets Stephen little more than being outed to her own mother.
Stephen is introduced to her great love, Mary Llewellyn, when she enlists in the Great War as an ambulance driver. Hall allows the reader to dare to hope that Mary may become Stephen’s long-sought partner, only to dash those hopes on the rocks of Stephen’s own investment in class privilege and social order. Stephen effects a kind of emotional suicide to “save” Mary by forcing her to marry a man who, in Stephen’s view, can offer Mary all the trappings of civilized life denied to Stephen: “children, a home that the world would respect, ties of affection that the world would hold sacred, the blessed security and the peace of being released from the world’s persecution.”
Love describes Stephen’s ultimate self-effacement, rightly underscoring her sexual martyrdom: “In a move that has deeply troubled lesbian and queer critics, Stephen seals her own lonely fate, accepting her role as martyr and tragic lover as she affirms the priority of this heterosexual union.” Can we blame The Well of Loneliness for setting the tragic precedent for the 20th-century lesbian novel, for positioning the Sapphic narrator as a socially exiled outcast? Hall’s literary prowess may, in fact, be eclipsed by inaugurating, to borrow another phrase from Love, the “self-hating Radclyffe Hall tradition.” The Well, in its famous final plea, asks permission for acknowledgment rather than demanding it: “Give us also the right to our existence!”
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg (1987)
Better known as the abbreviated 1991 weeper film Fried Green Tomatoes, FGTATWSC is laden with a folksy Southern kitsch that likens it more to the 1970s pulp classic Rubyfruit Jungle than the British civility of The Well or Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The story of Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, co-proprietors of the titular café, is relayed through visiting-hours conversations between elderly Ninny Threadgoode and menopausal anti-heroine Evelyn Couch. Evelyn comes to rely on the support of Ninny, who points Evelyn toward hormone replacements and Mary Kay between long retellings of the ballad of Idgie and Ruth. Homosociality, if not explicit homosexuality, is echoed in these two central female relationships.
Tomboy Idgie Threadgoode, heartbroken over her brother’s death, has taken to living in the woods, playing poker at wrong-side-of-the-river clubs, and communicating only with Big George, the Threadgoode family’s hired man and resident magical Negro. Ruth, a family friend, arrives for the summer to exact a good Christian influence on Idgie, but the obverse is the outcome: Idgie plugs Ruth full of liquor and honey until Ruth is loathe to return home to the man she is conscripted to wed.
Especially because the Idgie-Ruth romance was significantly platonicized for the film version, FGTATWSC could be easy to miss as a lesbian novel. The honey, though, is the erotic linchpin of the story: During their summer courtship, Idgie impresses Ruth with a country picnic in which she charms a hive of bees out of a fresh chunk of honey, earning the nickname “The Bee Charmer from Alabama.” Ruth is terrified as she watches Idgie retrieve the honey, then exhilarated as she tastes it; Idgie is cocksure and unafraid, confident in her ability to impress Ruth with one of her many “masculine” survival skills. The sexual underpinning of the metaphor could hardly be more traditionally Sapphic – vainglorious butch leads reluctant femme through her first foray into nature’s honeypot. Idgie’s self-designation as “The Bee Charmer” is reiterated, tellingly, when Idgie arrives to help Ruth leave her abusive husband, whom Idgie is later, equally tellingly, charged with murdering.
Ruth and Idgie happily run the Whistle Stop Cafe in a tacitly accepted domestic partnership, surviving the Great Depression and Idgie’s murder trial. Saintly Ruth, though, is soon struck with cancer in her lady parts, and dies. Idgie goes on as a local phantom of sorts, and, in a wistful conclusion, is last seen selling honey by a country road. Overall, the novel undermines lively storytelling with a demurred reluctance to declare itself as a lesbian love story, connoting its romantic arc, sadly, as yet another shameful secret.
Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden (1982)
Gay young adult literature hews to the coming-out narrative, often via unsuccessful love stories – which, to be fair, reflect the nature of most teenage loves. Nancy Garden’s groundbreaking 1982 YA novel, Annie on My Mind, while certainly a cartography of the road toward self-disclosure and self-acceptance, distinguishes itself through the tender complexity of its central relationship. Narrator Liza meets Annie at the Met, recalling the mischievous stowaways of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the two bond over a shared love of art and fantasy. An intense friendship emerges despite their class divide: Annie goes to a rough public school and her immigrant family lives in a shabby uptown walk-up, while Liza’s family can afford a Brooklyn Heights brownstone and private school.
Before long, Annie and Liza are sharing furtive kisses at Coney Island, confessing their true feelings for one another, and trying to keep their burgeoning relationship a secret. “Mostly it was the closeness,” Liza narrates. “It made my throat ache, wanting to speak of it.” Liza becomes close to a teacher at her school whom she discovers is partnered with another female teacher, and the perfect opportunity to steal away with Annie arises when the teacher asks Liza to house-sit over spring break. The girls spend a halcyon week undisturbed in the house, playing at domesticity and having unprecedented amounts of sex, until they’re caught by an administrator at Liza’s school, resulting in a disciplinary hearing and the firing of the lesbian teachers.
Annie on My Mind is not unmarked by tragedy – after being outed to her entire school, Liza endures humiliating questions from classmates: “‘I just wondered,’ [Zelda] said smoothly, ‘if you could tell me, from a scientific standpoint, of course, just what it is that two girls do in bed …'”
The question is cringe-worthy, yet the novel’s treatment of adolescent female sexuality is true and nuanced: Annie and Liza are both daunted by and fiercely interested in sex; they have it, and life goes on.
The novel concludes with hopeful ambiguity: Liza and Annie go off to separate colleges and don’t speak for several months, but the novel is framed by a cross-country letter from Liza to Annie, and ends with an ecstatic phone call. Nothing is neatly resolved, but the girls’ love for each other persists despite class differences, geography, and bigotry. FSG’s 2007 rerelease of Annie on My Mind includes a moving interview with author Nancy Garden about the history of lesbian literature, her own autobiography, and the controversy Annie stirred in the 1980s. Neither death nor enforced straightness mars this beautiful, complex love story, securing its enduring position as a necessary and much-lauded cornerstone of the lesbian YA canon.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (1985)
It’s probably impossible for me to claim an objective critical stance on this text, because I love it in a way that feels deeply personal, and because, full disclosure, I lifted an epigraph from it for my own book, Sister Mischief. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is Jeanette Winterson’s 1985 masterwork of a debut novel, winner of the Whitbread Award and an explosive collision of sexual becoming, Pentecostal fervor, and the bleak landscape of Northern England.
In this reputedly autobiographical bildungsroman, we first meet pre-adolescent Jeanette listing her mother’s enemies (The Devil, Next Door, Sex, Slugs) and friends (God, Auntie Madge, The Novels of Charlotte Brontë), then tells us, “I cannot recall a time when I did not know that I was special.” Jeanette is an orphan who was adopted by Christian evangelists, and Oranges’ parallel inquiries into sexual and spiritual identity, illumined by her lush, wry, deeply poetic diction, combust into a transcendent story that dallies with the mystical.
The initiation of Jeanette’s sexuality is analogized to a walled Forbidden City: “The body that contains a spirit is the one true god. It is the nature of stone to covert bone. At one time or another there will be a choice: you or the wall.” And her romance with fellow budding missionary Melanie is no less devotionally fraught: “I love you almost as much as I love the Lord,” Jeanette tells Melanie. Soon after, their relationship is discovered and the women of the mission forcibly exorcise them. Melanie capitulates, renouncing Jeanette and repenting to God, and her family moves her away. After a return to the church’s fold and the exposure of yet another relationship with a convert, Jeanette is excommunicated by the church and banished by her mother. “There are different kinds of treachery,” Jeanette observes in a moment of characteristic incisiveness, “but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it.”
Jeanette’s faith in the previous social and spiritual organization of her life is shattered, but the critical Wall has also been breached. In fact, the aforementioned epigraph from Sister Mischief arrives just as Melanie leaves, signaling the definitive end of Jeanette’s innocence:
All true quests end in this garden, where the spilt fruit pours forth blood and the halved fruit is a full bowl for travellers and pilgrims. To eat of the fruit means to leave the garden because the fruit speaks of other things, other longings. So at dusk you say goodbye to the place you love, not knowing if you can ever return, knowing you can never return by the same way as this. It may be, some other day that you will open a gate by chance, and find yourself again at the other side of the wall.
Unapologetic, intricate, divinely embroiled, and true, Oranges makes a familiar outcome seem credible and inevitable. Winterson’s hagiographic narrative of the sexual becoming of a brilliant young woman is the most surpassing lesbian novel of the last 30 years.
Kissing Kate, Lauren Myracle (2003)
While the lesbian narrative of unrequited love for a beautiful, charismatic straight girl undoubtedly roots itself in common experience, Kissing Kate fails to rise above the stereotypes that mark this source. When the novel opens, 16-year-old Lissa is mysteriously estranged from her predictably beautiful, popular, and boyfriend-ed best friend, Kate. Gradually, we learn that the unbridgeable gap is a passionate kiss the two shared while Kate (but not Lissa) was tipsy at a party. Lissa is curious but reluctant to discern the meaning of the kiss: “It was one thing for someone else to be gay. It was something else entirely if it was me.” Kate can’t handle it and clings to her boyfriend like flotsam in the wreckage, dodging Lissa’s pleas to discuss the incident candidly.
Through Lissa’s weekend job she meets Ariel, a free spirit who galvanizes Lissa’s sluggish ascent toward Sapphic epiphany by trying to set her up with a male friend. Unfortunately, the length of time it takes Lissa to realize she’s gay outlasts the reader’s willingness to root for her as a protagonist. Meanwhile, Kate’s refusal to confront the meaning of their kiss denies us access to the other main character. We never do learn much about quirkless Kate, except that she doesn’t really love her boyfriend and doesn’t want to talk to Lissa about that time they made out. Kate stays straight, and that’s about all we get from the titular character.
For a book released in 2003, couldn’t Kate display a more intricate, or interesting, resistance to bi-curiosity? Overall, Kissing Kate is a fairly vanilla coming-out story that spends too much time on Lissa’s internal wrestling with whether it’s okay to be gay and not enough on the external social machinations that might inform or complicate such a struggle.
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, Emily Horner (2010)
A luminous, funny example of why the 2000s may soon be known as YA’s golden age, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend features an epic multistate bike ride, a student-written musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad, a surprising love story that sprouts from junior-high bullying, and the poignant, relatable recollections of a taciturn girl who falls in closeted love with her best friend. A Love Story is a story guided not by conflict but instead by reconciliation; rather than lingering on death, it graphs a process of mourning. Horner places attention on process rather than event, a strong point of the novel.
Unlike the treatment of the same romantic conflict in Kissing Kate, Cass’s friendship with beautiful, popular, boyfriend-ed best friend, Julia, is authentically, artfully constructed: “We were friends,” Cass tells the reader, “not because we always had things to say to each other but because we could sit next to each other with nothing to say.” In a story told half in the present and half in flashback, Cass and Julia plan a postgraduation road trip to California, Julia starts writing the aforementioned musical (my favorite number features the lyric “ninjas can divide by zero”) and then is killed in a car accident, racing home to make curfew. Cass is quietly devastated, as well as alienated from Julia’s theater-geek friends, who seek to put on the musical without her while Cass attempts to carry on her and Julia’s planned road trip on her bike.
As the plot unfolds, an unlikely attraction crops up between Cass and Heather, a girl who bullied Cass for her burgeoning gayness in junior high. Heather is one of the most interesting antagonists I’ve encountered in YA literature – a closeted girl who teases out of fear – who manages to destabilize and then regain the reader’s confidence. Heather also gets some of the book’s best lines: “‘Poems are not for explaining,’ [Heather] said, her tone as bored and faintly scornful as his. ‘They are for pretty girls to read aloud. Everyone knows that. Can we get back to Hawthorne now?'”
A Love Story escapes predictability at every opportunity: The beautiful, popular best friend is also a theater geek who dies; the mopey, thoughtful quiet-girl narrator is also an accomplished bike mechanic and fearless survivalist; the antagonist transforms into a new love object. The book’s believable teenage dialogue, gutsy display of female courage, and deft, literate writing, qualifies A Love Story as among the best and most original gay YA of the decade.
As an analysis of these texts testifies, the tragic “dead or straight” binary of lesbian literature has hardly been extinguished. That said, contemporary authors like Garden, Horner, and Winterson, as well as a burgeoning number of others, are challenging this destructive dichotomy, treating common stories – such as the pain of falling in love with a straight girl – with the nuance, complexity, and grace they so aptly deserve. As literature continues to mirror the changing landscape of LGBTQ civil rights – which is to say, as more lesbian love stories continue happily in life – perhaps the real step forward will arrive with a lesbian novel that celebrates a durable and enduring love story. The author who chooses to tell this story will be entrusted with a massive responsibility: to model a Sapphic story of passion and commitment with the strength to endure all the slings and arrows of persistent stereotypes, and by prevailing, end them.
Keeping You a Secret, Julie Anne Peters
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
Ash and Huntress, Malinda Lo
The Bermudez Triangle, Maureen Johnson
Inferno, Eileen Myles
Hard Love and Love & Lies, Ellen Wittlinger