This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.
A new book on contemporary lesbian fiction, Beyond Sex and Romance? examines the politics of writing by lesbian authors today. Here we reprint a slightly edited version of one chapter of the book, in which Rachel Wingfield considers the work of three novelists who have achieved mainstream literary success: Emma Donoghue, Sara Maitland and Jeanette Winterson.
I am beginning with a contradiction. In a discussion of lesbians in mainstream publishing I am going to start with — and keep returning to — the work of Sara Maitland. Responses to this decision to date have ranged from ‘Sara Maitland isn’t a lesbian. Is she?’ to ‘Sara Maitland, isn’t she married to a vicar?’  Personally, I have no doubts at all about including Sara Maitland’s writing in a discussion on lesbian fiction, for reasons which I hope will become apparent. Perhaps most contradictory — and interesting — of all is that I have chosen to write about Sara Maitland because as a lesbian feminist I find her work to be more radical, more inspiring and more political than many of the more publicly heralded lesbian authors. Sara Maitland would probably enjoy this contradiction herself — her own work is characterised by contradictions, doubts and uncertainties. But contradictions provide an opportunity, a key for looking at the assumptions which underlie them and the certainties which appear to prevail the rest of the time.
Sara Maitland’s work began to be noticed and read by lesbian feminists in 1984 when Virgin Territory was published. At that time, Jeanette Winterson was yet to publish Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Emma Donoghue was still in high school. In 1984, the women’s movement continued to ride on the wave of its strength and popularity in the 1970s. Beset by strife and divisions, it had still not received its crushing blow: the fundamental split which later took place around sexuality, and which focused on pornography and sado-masochism. Feminism hovered on the brink of this great divide, but a dialogue was still open.
This was the time I became a feminist; still at school, living in a small town, beginning to be an activist, I (amazingly) managed to discover feminist books in the local library. Virgin Territory was one of them — the first novel I had ever read which included lesbian feminist ideas. It had a profound impact on me, as I know it did on other women.
The prevailing mood within feminism then was that women (all women) were oppressed; violence against women, including pornography and sado-masochism, was a key means by which this oppression was both maintained and constructed. Heterosexuality was defined as a socially constructed institution for the first time — an institution which served the interests of male-dominated society, be it patriarchy, capitalism or some combination of the two, and which posited heterosexuality as the only acceptable form of sexuality. Debates raged over whether heterosexual practice was inevitably collusion and the idea that lesbianism could be a political choice was put forward. Feminism also identified the various forms of protection and privilege promised to those women who remained within heterosexual boundaries. On offer were two roles: good woman (virgin, wife, mother) or bad woman (prostitute, mistress, ‘slag’). You could be either, you could even be both. But until you stepped outside of those categories altogether they were still defining you.
Virgin Territory is set firmly within the context of these debates. Its central character, Anna, is a nun sent to London by her religious order in South America because she has had a ‘breakdown’ following the rape of another nun, Sister Kitty. The rape has had a profound effect on Anna’s psyche — she isn’t sure of anything anymore, and in particular she’s not sure if she still wants to be a nun. Terrified of the void which may lie beneath all the certainties she has lived by until now, Anna is controlled and bullied by voices inside her head; voices of ‘the fathers’ who urge her to be a good nun, to submit to the authority of the patriarchal order and not to dare question it.
In London, Anna is faced with two possible alternatives to this order. One is in the form of her identification with a brain damaged child, Caro, who represents the parts of Anna which she has always felt were unacceptable. Dirty, messy, out of control, not contained by any conventional boundaries, Caro is the ‘bad girl’ in Anna who existed before socialisation and who refused to submit to it. Anna projects Caro’s voice, hearing it talking to her inside her own head, tempting and willing her to give up her connection to the outside world once and for all and to join her at the bottom of the pit before the boundaries which separated form, space and time existed.
Anna both fears and desires this void, but she realises that she does not want to enter it and never come out. The alternative to the order of the Fathers has to be more than simply dis‑order: self‑destruction is no rebellion. As the Fathers themselves say of Caro: ‘Don’t be deceived by her power. It is only anti-power. There is no power but the power of the Fathers. There is no other power.’ (p72) But there may be. The other alternative Anna finds in London is a lesbian feminist one which sees sisterhood as the positive power, a power which lies outside the patriarchal boundaries and challenges Anna’s beliefs about religious celibacy.
A chance meeting with Karen, a lesbian socialist feminist academic, gives Anna access to new ideas and a new way of understanding her virginity:
Look at the archetypes; what have you got? You get the wife and mother, and the sex symbol and the friend-and-companion, and you get the virgin, all in this nice tidy balanced square, polarised, orderly, acceptable. But who’s standing in the middle of the square?… Men, that’s who, they’re doing the defining. And the virgin bit is… a totally negative image: it’s the power of not, of not being owned by a man, of not relating sexually to a man… If we want to talk about change and freedom we have to… smash the square. (p131-2)
And Karen knows how the square could be smashed: ‘What’s missing from the square, is the lesbian. And that’s how we break it. The dyke is the positive image of the negative virgin.’ (p132) Karen’s feminism also enables Anna to understand why the rape had such an impact on her: ‘protection’ for ‘good women’ within patriarchy is a con. Even nuns can be raped.
Virgin Territory is also set during the beginning of the debates around sado-masochism. Anna and Karen meet because Karen is researching the Church and women’s masochism, studying some of the female saints and the admiration they gained through harming themselves. Masochism in the novel is set firmly within the context of male power, and the eroticisation of women’s submission promoted by powerful institutions like the Roman Catholic Church throughout history. Anna’s guilt and self‑hatred are shown to inspire her own masochistic fantasies. Her masochism intensifies as she begins to acknowledge her sexual feelings for Karen: the voices in her head say she should be grateful for punishment which may save her from this ‘perversion’:
She craved it suddenly, physically, her belly melting, wanting, warming: greedy for her own humiliation, her own rape. Christ, she cried. She could not stay here in the church with her head full of such filth. ‘Rape me chaste’. She begged God and the Fathers sneered; they would consider it, they told her, if she was very good. If she deserved it. (p52-3)
As some lesbians were beginning to argue that masochism was liberating for women, Sara Maitland provides a clear, convincing analysis of women’s masochism as originating in internalised hatred of women and their sexuality — the opposite to the celebratory passion for women espoused by Karen and the other lesbian feminists in Virgin Territory.
However, in an increasingly individualistic society — Thatcher was in power, proclaiming alongside the postmodernists that ‘there is no such thing as society’ — a liberal rather than feminist lesbian politics was to thrive. In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published to great acclaim, winning the Whitbread Award for First Novel. The book was able to be so successful in the mainstream because it was a beautiful, clever, original piece of work, but also because lesbian feminist politics and publications — including Virgin Territory — had laid the foundations. A discourse was in circulation which had already begun to question whether heterosexuality was the only acceptable option for women.
Little of this was apparent within the pages of the novel itself. Not a feminist idea, character or insight crosses the pages of Oranges’ core narrative. There is no context for Jeanette’s, the main character’s, lesbianism, for her rebellion against her strict, fundamentalist upbringing, except for an ‘anti-authority’/individualist one — precisely the one rejected by the lesbian feminists in Virgin Territory.
Clearly, Jeanette’s story of growing up among Evangelists in a northern town is an authentic one. However, writing as an adult — as its narrator does — in the context of a vibrant women’s movement, Jeanette Winterson chooses to ignore its very existence. We see its influence only in the form which the author’s very early foray into technical experimentalism takes. Alongside the central narrative in Oranges, Jeanette Winterson retells the story in other forms. The female Bildungsroman is counterposed to traditional male narratives of mythical heroism in battle (the King Arthur legends) and to the language of fairy-tale magic. Lots of feminist authors were experimenting with re‑writing patriarchal narratives at the time, and have since. Sara Maitland herself was doing it with Michelene Wandor, retelling the story of Noah in Arky Types.
Set in a context of lesbian feminist theoretical debates, as well as within a lesbian feminist reality, Virgin Territory offers a positive where Oranges and others before it had only a negative. The lesbians in Virgin Territory are imperfect, arrogant with it, and do not manage half of the time to cope with the contradictions of trying to live their politics within a patriarchal culture. Nonetheless, they are bright, clear and present an alternative which is exciting, rebellious, warm and dangerous. Dangerous because it means losing the little protection their society affords women who remain within the parameters of male sexuality.
Into the 1990s: Feminism without women; sexuality without gender
As we moved towards the 1990s the increasing influence of postmodernist theory and the individualist social and economic reforms which underlay it became evident. Queer politics swept through the lesbian community, reinforcing many of the dominant notions which had existed before the second wave of feminism. Butch/femme and sado-masochism were repackaged as liberating and radical. Feminist theory which saw loving women as involving a political and personal rebellion against patriarchy, was replaced by arguments that sexuality was an individual preference that had nothing to do with politics. This backlash was matched within high theory by postmodernist attacks on any politics which still talked about power structures. As reality became simply a matter of subjective experience, and meaning became endlessly shifting, fixing any identity — lesbian or woman for example — was viewed as old hat. For feminists this was a problem: how could women be oppressed if the category woman could not be said to exist? Where was feminism without women, and more to the point, where was lesbianism?
These theoretical developments can be traced through the novels of both Jeanette Winterson and Sara Maitland. Jeanette Winterson, more individualist in her approach from the start, went with the flow of postmodernism with seemingly little trouble. The postmodernist preoccupation with writing about writing became more prominent in her later novels, until it seemed that the techniques became the end in themselves; the form not facilitating the communication of the content, but becoming all Jeanette Winterson had to say instead of how she said it.
Written On the Body (1990) fixes Jeanette Winterson most firmly within the mainstream literary community and its preoccupation with postmodernism. The audience is not intended to be feminists, lesbians or even the general public: it is the (male) mainstream literati. The ‘experiment’ around which Written On the Body revolves lies in the androgyny of its narrator. The reader is not allowed to know the gender of the narrator — who presumably is intended to be neither male nor female — nor their sexuality (s/he sleeps with both men and women, though mainly women). In true postmodernist fashion, gender and sexuality ‘shift’ throughout the novel as the reader constructs alternately the gender and sexuality of the narrator. The story of the novel, such as it is, focuses on the love affair between the narrator and a married woman, Louise, who we later discover has cancer.
Although the novel clearly intends to explore all sorts of themes, including a key one of body as text versus body as biology, its technical experiment dominates all else. Rather than enhancing the work and challenging the reader, the narrator’s lack of gender simply becomes an irritating ploy by which the author seems to be playing games with us. Jeanette Winterson’s skill in creating characters with whom we easily engage, a feature of her earlier work, immediately goes out the window. The narrator is impossible to engage with — an interesting enough finding in itself you may think — but the novel is never more than a series of experiments in form, with some rather beautiful, poetic prose to hold it together.
As a reader, I would love Jeanette Winterson to allow some of her other skills to come to the fore again. Some of the writing in Oranges is simply stunning in its ability to fuse poetry and prose, to invoke pathos and to make us laugh. Jeanette Winterson can write about loss and betrayal like no‑one else. One of the strengths of her earlier writing is its authenticity, its eccentricity and its ability to express directly what it feels like to be on the outside. What perhaps made Oranges so popular was the humour, affection and detail with which its fine array of characters were drawn. Her reactive shift into an increasing focus on the theoretical concerns of the (male) literary world has meant that the experiences of lesbians, and women experiencing oppression generally, are written out of her work. The impact of class on women’s lives, explored so powerfully in Oranges, is again absent from her later work.
Raw and uncontained
While Jeanette Winterson was developing those skills intended to impress the literary critics, Sara Maitland was fine-tuning hers. Virgin Territory never received the critical acclaim which Oranges did, not least because of its more radical politics. But there were other reasons. In many ways it plays Wuthering Heights to Jeanette Winterson’s Jane Eyre — like its central character, Virgin Territory is raw and uncontained. Reading it is an intense experience: it asks us to enter into the world of someone who hovers on the boundary between sanity and madness, who is holding on by the skin of her teeth, peering down into a bottomless chasm. The world she inhabits is a violent, passionate, frightening one where the options are very stark: you either fight back, you collude or you self‑destruct. In later novels, Sara Maitland returns to these themes but the novels seem more able to contain their ambivalence. They are easier novels to read.
The characters in Three Times Table (1990) face many of the same dilemmas confronting Anna in Virgin Territory, including having to abandon the certainties and fantasies they have chosen to live by. Three Times Table explores male theories of knowledge — including evolution and theoretical physics — demonstrating their role as patriarchal narratives and therefore social constructs, and takes a hard look at the implications and limitations for women of living with the reality of their influence. Here again, Sara Maitland is grappling with positive and negative solutions to pain — self-destruction, versus taking control and moving on. All three women in this novel — mother, daughter and granddaughter — know they have to face the future by confronting it. Although the influence of postmodernist thinking is apparent, Sara Maitland as ever manages to hold the contradictions she invokes. While understanding uncertainty to be at the core of living, she also suggests that we have to act on the world despite that. Significantly, she concludes with lesbianism as the hope for the future of the next generation of women. In the context of such doubt, 15 year old Maggie finds some certainty. When Maggie is called a ‘dyke’ by a gang of boys who have seen her in her friend Hermione’s arms, Hermione responds by laughing and shouting to the boys:
‘Don’t worry…it’s probably just a phase we’re going through’.
‘It’s all right’ says Maggie, perfectly clear, her bell sounding again uncracked and certain as she had feared it never would. ‘My grandmother says that a normal evolutionary phase can last two hundred million years’. (p215)
Clare in Home Truths (1993) undergoes a similar journey while suffering from amnesia following an accident in which she lost her hand and her lover David. Clare never remembers what happened to David, and in true postmodernist fashion, Sara Maitland avoids closure here, offering us possible explanations — a natural, biological one, a political one and a spiritual or magical one. Alternatively, Clare may have killed him. He was controlling and abusive and she certainly wanted to.
Home Truths is perhaps the most contradictory of Sara Maitland’s novels. On the one hand, the influence of postmodernism and queer politics are apparent in both its form and content. We even have a gay sado-masochistic vicar caught out by the tabloids, and endeavouring to convince us that gay sado-masochism is risk-taking and daring, as opposed to the straight sado-masochism between Clare and David which is portrayed as both destructive and stultifying. Nonetheless, Sara Maitland’s own uncertainty and contradictions do not allow this trend in the narrative to dominate — whatever the conscious intention. Home Truths remains a lesbian feminist narrative at heart, surrounded though it is by seeming uncertainty. All her life Clare had run from risk and danger. During the course of the novel, she is able to confront and not flinch from her feelings for another woman. Psychically and literally, she moves from hiding in the safety of controlling heterosexuality, towards reclaiming the lesbian passion she ran from. She completes the journey Anna, in Virgin Territory, was not able to.
While Jeanette Winterson retreated from lesbianism in her work, Sara Maitland tells us again and again that lesbianism is the answer. One may argue it is easier for her to get away with doing so in a mainstream press because everyone thinks of her as a vicar’s wife. Perhaps Jeanette Winterson feels more impelled to hide behind layers of masks because she is known to be a lesbian and now publishes with mainstream houses. However, Emma Donoghue, an Irish lesbian published by Penguin, seems to have been able to do so without either of these defences. The work that Sara Maitland and Jeanette Winterson, among others, did as forerunners has obviously partly enabled this to happen; Emma Donoghue has got away with a lot more, a lot sooner in the mainstream.
Emma Donoghue: An interesting comparison
Emma Donoghue’s novels, Stir Fry and Hood, published respectively in 1994 and 1995, provide an interesting comparison with the novels being published by Sara Maitland and Jeanette Winterson during these years. Unlike Jeanette Winterson, Emma Donoghue does not find it necessary to avoid either her gender or her sexuality to appeal to the mainstream, although she too has certainly been influenced by the backlash against feminism. Indeed, Emma Donoghue seems altogether a lot less self-conscious about lesbianism than either Jeanette Winterson or Sara Maitland, with both positive and negative results. In Stir Fry, we read about one young woman’s journey towards lesbianism, a theme we meet in Oranges and Sara Maitland’s novels generally. However, Mariah’s journey seems to have very little to do with rebellion against anything, be it patriarchy, or convention; and still less to do with a positive choice based on a passion for women and a desire to maintain her own integrity.
Mariah’s ‘decision’ to become a lesbian does, however, have everything to do with uncovering her own desire for her two flatmates, Jael and Ruth, with whom she shares an extremely voyeuristic relationship. Away from home for the first time, at university in Dublin, Mariah falls half in love with both of them, only to be shocked to discover they are lesbians, when she sees them kissing one evening.
Jael and Ruth provide two different models of lesbianism for Mariah; Ruth is a feminist, who would like to have a relationship premised on equality, who is committed to her relationship with Jael and to her politics. Much more of a postmodernist invention, committed to neither lesbianism nor Ruth, Jael has no fixed sexual identity and finds politics boring. Mariah is attracted to Jael, but it is Ruth she chooses.
However, despite the inclusion of a lesbian feminist among the central characters — and even a women’s group meeting — feminism seems oddly peripheral to the novel. Ruth’s lesbianism seems somehow separate from her feminism — the two never really connect — and there is no articulation of lesbian feminist ideas anywhere in the novel. It is interesting that although the women’s movement in Ireland has a different history from that in Britain, the context presented in the novel is very similar to that of the women’s movement in Britain. This may in part be due to the fact that Emma Donoghue was living in Cambridge when the novel was written. Lesbian feminism is almost a backdrop, which in many ways it would have been for women of Mariah’s generation. The legacy of the women’s movement lingers on: the university still has a women’s group; it still has lesbians in it, but the group seems to exist more as part of a lifestyle than as a tool for changing the world.
In Hood this is even more apparent. The central characters are part of a lesbian feminist community — a far cry from anything either Sara Maitland or Jeanette Winterson were publishing at this stage — but somehow the distinction between this and any other kind of feminism, or indeed from some kinds of heterosexuality remains unclear. And while Stir Fry in its own way presents lesbianism as an enticing option, and quite cleverly unpacks Mariah’s attempts to convince herself that she is heterosexual, Hood, despite its many attempts at portraying erotic lesbian sex — pages and pages — ultimately presents us yet again with an image of lesbian relationships as romantically tragic, and doomed to failure, as seen with Jael and Ruth’s relationship in Stir Fry.
It is interesting to note that not one of these three novelists depicts any lasting, positive lesbian relationship for her protagonists. Those early representations of doomed, unhappy lesbians (a teacher of mine once said to me ‘I’ve got nothing against gays but they do seem to be very unhappy people, and they always make each other unhappy’) lurk between the pages of our mainstream lesbian writers like ghosts, refusing to be expelled, outliving the growth of and backlash against the women’s movement, moving into the 1990s with the message that maybe you can’t ever trust a woman….
The Present Impasse: Of Mothers, Lovers, Loss and Betrayal
Having begun with one contradiction, I’m going to finish with another, and perhaps more than one.
All three authors have been seen as important in bringing the fictional representation of lesbians into the mainstream, and Jeanette Winterson in particular has been regarded as a significant figure for many women coming to lesbianism for the first time. Yet even at the points in their literary career when they have been positive about the idea of lesbianism, none of these authors seems able to represent lesbian relationships in a positive light. Their representations of lesbian relationships are deeply embedded in the traditional patriarchal narratives of lesbian lives which have preceded them. From Colette to Radclyffe Hall, lesbian fiction writers have a tradition of portraying lesbian relationships in a manner consistent with dominant ideas on gender and sexuality. Sad, doomed from the start, passionate but filled with pain, romantic but tragic, we meet again in these novels the stories of our foresisters’ fictional (and sometimes real) failures to build sustainable lesbian relationships.
So why has the passing of nearly a century and two waves of feminism had so little impact on even the way lesbians choose to portray their own relationships? One of the dominant lesbian discourses during this period has been a lesbian feminist one. Yet, even back in the mid‑1980s, it is possible to see a deep ambivalence about relationships between women in both Jeanette Winterson and Sara Maitland’s fiction.
All three authors link the ambivalence their characters demonstrate in their adult relationships with women to feeling abandoned by, betrayed by or unable to separate from their mothers. As Adrienne Rich writes, our history as women in patriarchal culture has inevitably partially been one of betraying and lying to one another. Our first relationship with a woman — our mother — may be fraught with contradictions in a world which pressurises mothers to collude with women’s oppression and prepare their daughters to be ‘good women’. We see the legacy of this history represented perhaps most clearly and forcefully in Jeanette Winterson’s work. Oranges is a very woman-centred world; men seem barely to exist. Men are ‘the other’, the beasts, and ‘beasts are crafty’ (p71). The impact of this, however, is not to present a positive image of the bonds between women in the absence of men. Quite the contrary. Jeanette is betrayed by one woman after another — her lover, Melanie; her ally in the Church, an older woman who uses Jeanette’s vulnerability as an opportunity to get her into bed; and, most significantly, her mother. Her one friend, Elsie, dies and leaves her just when she needs her most. Jeanette’s father is emotionally absent throughout the novel, and barely referred to — so much so that she tells Melanie when they first meet that she doesn’t have a father.
The impact of Jeanette’s mother’s betrayal overshadows all others. On discovering her lesbianism, Jeanette’s mother hands her over to Pastor Spratt of their Evangelical church and has her ‘exorcised’. Afterwards she destroys all mementoes of Jeanette’s relationship with Melanie:
While I lay shivering in the parlour she took a toothcomb to my room and found all the letters, all the cards, all the jottings of my own, and burnt them one night in the backyard. There are different sorts of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. She burnt a lot more than the letters that night in the backyard. I don’t think she knew. In her head she was still queen, but not my queen anymore, not the White Queen anymore. (p109)
Later, finding this hasn’t done the trick, Jeanette’s mother throws her out. From being her mother’s ‘joy’ in this close, strong, rather enmeshed bond, Jeanette is abandoned by her, first emotionally and then physically. Reflecting as an adult on her inability to trust the women she gets involved with, Jeanette again returns to the emotional language of her mother’s betrayal for an explanation:
One thing I am certain of, I do not want to be betrayed, but that’s quite hard to say casually at the beginning of a relationship. It’s not a word people use very often, which confuses me because there are different kinds of fidelity but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on someone else’s. (p165)
The material patriarchal world behind the misogynist world of the Evangelist church in Oranges barely gets a look in, other than in the form of Pastor Spratt. The emotionally female-dominated world of the narrator is so strong, that the material power of male reality does not seem significant. It is no wonder. then, that the narrator does not turn to feminism as a way of understanding her life.
Terror of loss and betrayal continue to haunt Jeanette Winterson’s later work, particularly Written On the Body, in which the elusive Louise threatens the ultimate abandonment: death through cancer. What the narrator of this novel is forced to recognise however, is that loss is the potential risk in any love and that risk is worth taking. ‘It was worth it’, s/he realises. ‘Love is worth it’ (p156).
In a moment of insight the narrator recognises the fundamental flaw at the heart of the ‘romance’ of the doomed lesbian tragedies and finally tries to let go of them. Love itself — not the dramatics — is the challenge: ‘What were my heroics and sacrifices really about? …Operatic heroics and a tragic end? What about a wasteful end?’ (p187)
Yet the ambivalence remains. The relationship which is finally worth risking loss for, can still slip through the net. It may not even be between two women.
Emma Donoghue similarly focuses on themes of betrayal and loss in Hood. Pen’s lover, Cara, has died, yet the pain she begins to experience after her death is for the losses she underwent before Cara died. Pen begins to ask herself whether she had in fact lost Cara a long time before her death. And whether Cara was emotionally absent from their relationship from the start.
The novel begins with a flashback: Pen remembers an incident in which she and Cara were out shopping one day and Cara suddenly, unpredictably, runs away from her. Cara never offers any explanation for this behaviour, but the impression given to the reader is that Cara felt a sudden bout of claustrophobia, an urge to escape; that somehow the bonds of this relationship were too tight. Cara was abandoned by her mother as a child and as an adult felt trapped by Pen’s presence, but panicked at the thought of losing her. In her relationship with Cara, Pen re-experienced what happened with her own mother, who also had sudden bouts of ‘claustrophobia’ wishing to escape the needs and proximity of her children, who were so attached to her. Cara has sexual relationships with other women; Pen does not. Cara endeavours to persuade Pen that this is no betrayal, quoting Jeanette’s line from Oranges — ‘By betrayal I mean promising to be on your side and then being on someone else’s’. She tells Pen ‘I’m always on your side’ (p215), and Pen does believe her. But the child in Pen who always felt at risk of abandonment recalls:
Sometimes when I was alone in the big house at night and the wind made the panes rattle, I forgot the explanations and I was 3 years old. My mother once said the worst thing about having children was that when she went into the cubicle of a public toilet, we would begin to snivel, and while she was struggling with her zip she would see these little hands come under the door, and would get an overpowering urge to stamp on them. I could understand that, but I could also understand the abased neediness that motivated Gavin and me to put our hands under the door. (p215)
Like Pen’s mother, Cara runs from feeling overwhelmed by Pen’s needs. Pen can no more give up hope of having those needs met one day by Cara than she could of having them met by her mother. Especially as Cara occasionally seems to offer that promise of fulfilment.
Pen and Cara lived double lives: in the closet to their family and their workmates, but known as lovers in the lesbian feminist community. Forced to hide behind masks, they also hid from each other. As Adrienne Rich writes, in a comment particularly pertinent to lesbians in a heterosexist society, ‘In the struggle to survive we are forced to tell lies, but the risk run by the liar is that she will forget she is lying’. The risk, from Rich’s point of view, is that the liar will thus become alienated from herself and those with whom she tries to be intimate. The cost of Cara and Pen’s closet life was immense but unrecognised by them, and only becomes apparent when Cara dies and Pen is unable to share her grief with colleagues or family. Yet, the novel raises a complex question here. Were Pen and Cara forced to hide behind masks because of fear of reprisal, or was this life in the closet chosen by them as an evasion of risk, because they both had a history in which intimacy — being one’s true self with another — was to be feared anyway? Did the closet provide a convenient means by which to avoid having to dismantle barriers, particularly with parents?
The conclusion of the novel, and the point at which Pen eventually cries, is when she decides finally to try having an open, honest conversation with her mother for the first time in her life. Hood closes with Pen sitting at her mother’s kitchen table, about to tell her she’s a lesbian, prepared to acknowledge that the child within her still needs her mother: ‘This birth is long overdue mother. It’ll be a tight squeeze. You’d better open your arms to this screaming red bundle, because it’s the only one I’ll ever bring you.’ (p309)
All of Sara Maitland’s protagonists are preoccupied with mothers, and their current relationships with women are complicated by this preoccupation. Anna in Virgin Territory was, like Cara and Jeanette, abandoned by her mother. Anna’s mother left her to be brought up by her father, who expected her to be the adult. When she meets Karen, the ‘bad girl’ inside her feels she may have found a mother at last. The longing to be held, to be given a hot bath and wrapped up, are finally met by Karen, and therein lies the confusion because Karen is offering lesbian feminism and adult sexuality. What Anna emotionally wants is a mother, and Karen can never be that. Realising in the end that Karen cannot save her, cannot take responsibility for her, Anna goes her own way. She cannot trust herself with Karen, because she does not feel adult enough to meet her on equal terms. But this means the novel is left open. We are not entirely sure if lesbian feminism is the path Anna will take, for what she was looking for from it was an experience from other women which could somehow put right and heal the loss and betrayal of women in the past. As she herself realises, she is currently confusing her feelings about her mother with those towards the women close to her now: ‘Until she found her mother, she could not love her sisters because she could not tell who they were’. (p231)
Anna does not allow herself to express her anger and ambivalence with women in general and mothers in particular until the end of the novel. Even then she projects the anger, hearing in her mind the voice of Caro expressing her anger with her own mother for abandoning her as a child:
You blame the Fathers but I have to ask, where are the mothers then?….The mothers desert the daughters. They sell us to the Fathers, over and over again…They are busy gnawing through the cord so they can sell us off, and their price is cheap. I hate them. I hate them. They go away. They ought to stay with the daughters but they go away. (p218)
In the novels discussed here, we find an array of angry, wounded, motherless daughters, abandoned or betrayed as children — Jeanette, Anna, Cara, Clare in Home Truths — alongside characters like Pen and the three generations in Three Times Table, battling out the complex process of trying to separate from and at the same time maintain their attachment to their mothers. Both abandonment and engulfment are equally feared — Clare, for example, has two mothers, one representing each of these fears. The security a mother may provide is also a constraint. Jeanette in Oranges, sums this up when she talks ambivalently of her attachment to her mother, still as strong years after her mother has thrown her out: ‘She had tied a thread around my button, to tug when she pleased’ (p171).
The ambivalence that Sara Maitland, Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue leave us with in their novels reflects the process that has taken place within lesbian feminism itself in recent years. Disillusionment with the possibility of sisterhood, its failure to meet impossible emotional expectations, has bitterly impacted on the movement.  (A consequent idealisation of ‘bad’ women — dangerous, cruel, violent or just plain cold and hard — has been the result.) Proponents of queer theory and postmodernism were able to benefit from this disjuncture. The work of all three authors reflects the influence of postmodernist discourse on sexuality and the concurrent backlash against feminism. Of the three, Sara Maitland is the most influenced by, and in dialogue with, lesbian feminist ideas although she is not considered to be a ‘lesbian author’.
All three of these authors have made it to the mainstream perhaps partly because their novels represent lesbian relationships in ambivalent forms, in contrast to more unreservedly feminist or idealised representations. None of the authors involves her protagonists in even mildly contented lesbian relationships. There are hopes for the future for characters like Mariah, Pen, Anna and Clare but there are no representations of happy lesbian lovers in these novels.
Jeanette in Oranges voices her disappointed expectations: ‘The unknownness of my needs frightens me, I do not know how huge they are or how high they are, I only know they are not being met’ (p165). All of these characters struggle with the question of how to form attachments with adult women, to take that risk having defended themselves alone for so long. The voices in the texts seem to beg the question, is it worth even trying to build new models of relating to women, in which fear of intimacy and betrayal do not dominate? Or are lesbians after all, doomed — in our self representations — to repeat the dramas, tragedies and failures of our foresisters?
These novels remind us that many women do not enter lesbianism loving women, or even liking them much, although the bonds they feel with other women may be strong. In this context, lesbian feminism has to struggle with many more compelling, more mainstream narratives, which offer solutions that can appear to be less threatening, less demanding and a good deal more romantic.
Beyond Sex and Romance? The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction, edited by Elaine Hutton (Women’s Press 1998)
Emma Donoghue Stir Fry (Penguin Books, 1994); Hood (Hamish Hamilton, 1995)
Sara Maitland Virgin Territory (Pavanne, 1984); Three Times Table (Chatto and Windus, 1990); Home Truths (Chatto and Windus, 1993); A Book of Spells (Michael Joseph, 1987)
Adrienne Rich ‘Women and Honor. Some Notes on Lying’ in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose (W.W. Norton and Company, 1995)
Michelene Wandor and Sara Maitland Arky Types (Methuen, 1987)
Jeanette Winterson Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Vintage, 1985); Written on the Body (Jonathan Cape, 1990)
 See Sara Maitland’s own account of dealing with these responses in her collection A Book of Spells (1987).↩
 This deep ambivalence about relations between women is rather serious for a political force dependent on ‘sisterhood’ for its success. Lesbian feminism in particular, unlike lesbianism per se, has at its base a belief in a commitment to women, a vision of lesbianism as a choice to positively celebrate and value our own, who have been so hated and violated throughout the centuries. In the face of patriarchy’s attempts to encourage women to mistrust one another and to battle over men, lesbian feminism argues that we can defeat patriarchy by uniting against it. Looking back to our mothers, we can rediscover the women who have been made invisible by patriarchal narratives and rewrite our own, reclaiming the bonds between women and the struggles they fought as they did so.↩