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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review: Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

This fascinating non-fiction book examines the representation of desire between woman in literature in six section: 'Travesties', 'Inseparables', 'Rivals', 'Monsters', 'Detection' and 'Out'. While it's full of detail and so will please any scholars interested in the subject, Inseparable is also an easy, sometimes amusing, read for non-academics. Donoghue infuses her non-fiction analysis with the same edge of humour that I enjoy so much in her fiction. Though, for me, this subject could never be dry and boring, she ensures it isn't so.

The 'Travesties' section looks at cross-dressing within texts from 990 onwards, including brief discussions on Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish and Theophile Gautier amongst others. It examines the recurring depictions of 'The Female Bridegroom' and 'The Male Amazon' in a chapter that looks at the causes and consequences of cross-dressing and its heyday in the drama of the seventeeth century.

'Inseparables' begins with the Biblical account of Ruth and Naomi and covers the representation of love based on similarity. As this is one of my areas of interest, I perhaps found this chapter the most interesting, particularly the discussion on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. It also highlighted some works I want to read, both for pleasure and study - as every chapter did.

'Rivals' is a fascinating analysis of what happens when a woman and man compete for the same love. It starts with Sappho and goes through Shakespeare, Richardson and some rather brilliant-sounding French texts before moving on to discuss what happens when the rivalry bubbles over. It examined some texts I was already familiar with, such as The Rainbow and The Fox, but, again, the ones I found most intriguing were the ones I've yet to read, most notably The Bostonians.

Perhaps the chapter on 'Monsters' contains the themes most familiar to observers of fiction about desire between women. It's interesting to see the texts these stereotypes stemmed from then we take a short tour through Dickens, Hardy and others. This is quite an uncomfortable chapter, though I particularly liked the section on ghost stories.

The fifth chapter on 'Detection' provided me with plenty of books I want to read somewhere down the line. Again, desire between women is a theme pretty familiar to readers of the crime genre and it looks at writers including Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and P.D. James. Given my sensation fiction roots, I was also pleased to see a discussion of The Woman in White in this chapter followed by an examination of two novels by Sarah Waters.

'Out', the final chapter, looks at the 'awakening' motif in texts from George Moore onwards. It's a nice shift in tone from the other chapters, looking at declared love instead of coded texts, but it also highlights the complexities of modern life. There's a section here on 'first love' which covers several texts I was already familiar with and, once more, a number of works mentioned in this chapter are now begging to be read.

Ultimately, Emma Donoghue has written a book that is both informative and fascinating. Her subject knowledge is exemplary and her style engaging. I've already referred back to Inseparable for academic work and I have no doubt I'll be doing that again fairly frequently. Highly recommended!

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