Dissertations and Theses @ UNI

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Thesis (UNI Access Only)

Abstract

Compton Mackenzie’s 1928 novel Extraordinary Women has been critically neglected for ninety-one years since its publication. Although explicitly lesbian characters in novels were not a new invention, Mackenzie’s novel addresses lesbianism at a time when homosexuality was often viewed as dangerous and even seditious. Despite arriving in a literary climate populated by Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando both published within the same year, Mackenzie’s novel has never received the same kind of critical attention, often being dismissed out of hand and rarely being mentioned in connection with any kind of British lesbian literary canon. Through a close reading of the novel and the way in which the lesbian characters within the novel embody a variety of the cultural issues at the center of the struggle for the formation of a coherent public identity, I demonstrate that Mackenzie’s novel offers further insight into the formation of a coherent, explicitly British, lesbian sense of public identity in literature. Rather than celebrating the novel as a wholly positive work, which it decidedly is not, I explore the ways in which a satire of lesbianism offers a new dimension of understanding when it comes to exploring the emergence of a coherent literary lesbian identity.

By focusing on sexuality, identity, nationality, and social class, I read the novel as being an important work of lesbian literature that creates a binary structure of what it means to be either a “good” and therefore socially acceptable lesbian, and what it means to be a “bad” and therefore socially outcast lesbian. This binary draws on an understanding of the sociocultural setting that offers new and complicated insight into the changing views of lesbianism in literature by establishing neither a celebration of the differences in human sexuality or a novel of “lesbian panic” that solely lambasts and derides lesbianism and homosexuality as a whole.

With characters that mirror other stock figures in lesbian literature (the mannish lesbian, the poor young woman seduced to a life of sin and sexual debauchery, the wanton sexual deviant), it becomes clear that the novel may be read as an important precursor to other novels that follow, both in the characters it creates and in the questions of identity that the narrative struggles to answer. Although work on this novel is far from exhausted, this thesis may be read as the beginning to spur further critical work on the novel, and as a call for other critics to take seriously a novel that has been often overlooked but may yet be an object of fruitful study, both through the lens of women, gender, and sexuality studies, and in other fields.

Year of Submission

2019

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Department

Department of Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Dr. Jeremy Schraffenberger, Chair

Date Original

2019

Object Description

1 PDF file (iii, 71 pages)

Language

en

File Format

application/pdf

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