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Lesbian Modernism

Censorship, Sexuality and Genre Fiction

Elizabeth English

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The first book-length study to explore the importance of genre for the body of literature we call lesbian modernism

Elizabeth English explores the aesthetic dilemma prompted by the censorship of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. Faced with legal and financial reprisals, women writers were forced to question how they might represent lesbian identity and desire. Modernist experimentation has often been seen as a response to this problem, but English breaks new ground by arguing that popular genre fictions offered a creative strategy against the threat of detection and punishment. Her study examines a range of responses to this dilemma by offering illuminating close readings of fantasy, crime, and historical fictions written by both mainstream and modernist authors. English introduces hitherto neglected women writers from diverse backgrounds and draws on archival material examined here for the first time to remap the topography of 1920s-1940s lesbian literature and to reevaluate the definition of lesbian modernism.

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Introduction: Foul Minds and Foul Mouths: Censorship and a Turn to Genre Fiction
Part 1: Fantasy
Chapter 1: ‘The book is a sort of touch-stone to other people’: Sexology, The Invert and Desire in Katharine Burdekin’s Utopian Fiction
Chapter 2: ‘Ghost desire’: The Lesbian Occult and Natalie Clifford Barney’s The One Who is Legion or A.D.’s After-life
Part 2: History
Chapter 3: ‘Spiritual progenitors’ and the Historical Biographies of Margaret Goldsmith and Mary Gordon
Chapter 4: ‘I dislike the correct thing in clothes’: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography and the Cross-Dressing Historical Romance
Part 3: Crime
Chapter 5: ‘Murder is a queer crime’: The Lesbian Criminal and Female Communities in Detective Fiction
Chapter 6: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe’: Repetition and Heterosexual Crime in Gertrude Stein’s Detective Fiction

About the Author

Elizabeth English is Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University


Lesbian Modernism pits highbrow modernist experimentation against popular genre fiction to offer fresh perspectives on the literary representation of Sapphic love. Conceptually ambitious and deeply researched, this study exposes the ways some women writers evaded the censor by exploiting the fissures of the literary marketplace.


- Laura Doan, author of Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War

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