So I’m doing a module this semester on women and literature, which has been pretty cool so far, and made me think a lot, having been perceived as a woman my whole life. We’re only a few weeks in, but already the questions we’ve been presented with have leaked into other aspects of my thinking and my life. Like,“Why, according to Virginia Woolf, were there no female Shakespeares?” becomes “were there any transgender Shakespeares?”
Our first piece was Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, often referred to as “Shakespeare’s Sister”. It’s kind of a thought experiment, exploring what might have happened to a woman who followed Shakespeare’s footsteps – it’s not a pleasant read. So what about Shakespeare’s trans cousin? How would that have gone?
I know if it were me, being open about being trans and trying to make it anywhere, I can only assume I would be swiftly murdered. If not disowned by my parents and left to starve, then I can only imagine what would have become of me on the streets of London. Before I go on, I want to stress that I do not want to take away from the struggles of women writers in any way – this isn’t a competition to find out who has it the worst – I just found that a lot of the questions popping up in feminist literary criticism can be applied to a whole scope of minority groups. I had always pondered about my sense of self being linked to my quality of writing, or even my ability to write in the first place. But I’ll get onto that.
First, Dale Spender.
For a long time it seemed like canonical works of literature were magically only produced by men, and seeing as we relied on authoritative and educated critics to tell us this was so, nobody really went about investigating whether that was actually fairly judged. It wasn’t.
Spender, one of my new favourites among wonderfully sarcastic feminist literary critics, wrote a book called Mothers of the Novel, and Chapter 5 in particular leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Spender discovered that roughly half of the novels produced in the 18th Century were written by women (though a number of the anonymous writers were likely to have been women also). At the time, “the novel was seen as the female forté”. What we consider to be the first novel, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719, came after Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), which could be argued was the actual first novel. This has huge consequences for the history of the novel – instead of the first novel being a (mostly) realist work written by a white man, for the middle classes, with a European central protagonist, the first novel could arguably be a Romance work by a woman with an African central protagonist.
I’m talking a lot about women here. My point is, as a transgender and queer individual, I have so little to identify with. The only thing I associate with my gender and sexuality is fear. To do what Dale Spender did, to try to uncover works by people like me, is a terrifying thought, because I truly believe I will find nothing. It sucks that I’ll never know, because if women were written out of history books you can be sure as hell any openly transgender or queer writers were burned out.
Woolf’s piece ‘Professions for Women’: The Death of the Moth’, is really the work that got me thinking about my identity as a trans person, and as a writer.
She discusses at length the presence of the Angel in the House, i.e. the ideal woman, the woman she has been conditioned to be: the stifled, subservient woman. It’s not a long piece, but it explains the effects of ideologies in a deeply profound manner.
The Angel is the ideological barrier women writers face. Women have got to battle that internalised ideology, that sense that what they’re doing is unnatural, that instinct to be apologetic for even bothering to put pen to paper. Combined with the erasure of countless pieces of literary works by women, following in the footsteps of an invisible tradition can be terrifying. Where is your entitlement to write?
As a transgender person, my battle has been finding my entitlement to exist. I am told I am unnatural, and wrong, and there is no real way for me to be who I am without defying some fundamental law of nature. The poems I read about people like me are about suicide or being disowned or murdered. But I’ve always found aspects of my personality in writing. I see my race and my class and my nationality all represented. I see the struggles I face as an individual with mental health problems. Yet parts of me are lost. Even in a world where heroes wield magic and teenagers save the world, my identity doesn’t exist.
Kayla Briët, a favourite filmmaker of mine, once said in an interview, “We want to see ourselves in the characters that we read about in books […] If those characters and if those people aren’t there, if our identities aren’t even existing in those mediums, then it feels almost as though we don’t exist”.
This quote permeated into my bones and settled there. I have to write those characters. I have to write this identity. I knew that I wrote because it was a way to cheat death, but it feels like I’m not just writing for my own preservation anymore. I feel like I have this big, profound point to make, but you’re going to have to cut me some slack – I am, after all, treading blindly. And yet I am unable to publish even this without fear of the ramifications. I am that frustrating percentage of unidentified sex, the ones labelled as modest women or, maybe, people just like myself, hiding out in anonymity. I have not yet killed the Angel in the House. I haven’t even figured out what the Angel looks like yet.
But at least I write.