Image by Juliana Toro

Against Queer Presentism | How the Book World Neglects the Archive

Colton Valentine

History is a nightmare from which the queers have awoken. Or so it would seem in Elif Batuman’s Either/Or (2022).

It’s sophomore year at Harvard, and protagonist Selin is debating the merits of living either aesthetically or ethically. As in The Idiot (2017), she takes classes and reads; unlike in The Idiot, she drinks and has sex. Everywhere, queerness simmers. Selin’s university syllabi are populated by fictional male seducers, her parties by their fleshly equivalents, and both variants make her wonder: might there be other options? What if there were novels plotted without Casanovas, life-paths besides betrothal, or nights spent kissing her female best friend?

Such things do not come to fruition, and at the novel’s end, its “Notes on Sources” suggest one explanation. After a series of standard bibliographic entries on the many texts that Selin has encountered throughout the book, Batuman adds:

Although it isn’t directly quoted, I would also like to cite Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which I first read in 2017, and which enabled me to reconstruct some of the heteronormative forces that operated on me in the 1990s (preventing me from being attracted, at that time, to texts with titles like “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”). One goal of this book was to dramatize those forces.

The 1990s, we intuit, were not a good time to be queer: a moment when syllabi and parties were compulsorily heterosexual, leaving sapphic sex and sapphic essays with little allure. 2017, by contrast, stands for a rainbow triumph, at least in Batuman’s life. Over time, the “heteronormative forces” constraining her seem to have eased, leaving her more receptive to feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich, and newly capable of writing novels dramatizing the queer-normie agon.

This implicit chronology — and Either/Or’s conceit of self-revision — is one example of a broader trend in queer literature that we might call queer presentism: a Whig history of sexuality that positions today’s LGBTQ+ writers as liberators of the closeted past. Queer presentism canonizes contemporary texts, but elides or delegitimizes older queer lives and artworks, specifically those predating the twentieth century. It’s been almost 50 years since Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality dispelled the “repressive hypothesis”: the theory holding that the rise of bourgeois capitalism suppressed discussion of sexual acts and deviant sexuality. Yet, we don’t seem to have internalized this lesson. In fact, our continued belief in the “repressive hypothesis” itself ends up repressing a great deal of queer history. This collective amnesia impoverishes our vision of the past, but it also stalks the contemporary book world, depriving today’s queer writers and readers of their rich literary heritage. 

 

Once you start looking, you see queer presentism everywhere. It pops up when politicians espouse our “unprecedented” ability to love who we love, and when recent book bans are said to “roll back the clock” on LGBTQ+ rights, implying that clocks tick continually toward progress. It manifests in Oscar Wilde hagiography, which elevates him to the status of singular queer martyr and extrapolates an epochal paradigm from his 1895 trials. It seeps into our everyday speech, in our references to “forbidden love” and our use of the term “Victorian” to imply prudish homophobia. It both stems from and structures the editorial projects that publishers pursue, giving rise to catalogues like the NYRB Classics, where the oldest work tagged LGBTQ+ is Colette’s The Pure and the Impure (1932) — as if nothing queer was written before. But it’s perhaps most blatant in contemporary literature and the way critics talk about new works. And since it’s been a good year for queer fiction, it’s been a great year for queer presentism.

Take Colm Tóibín’s The Magician (2021), which fictionalizes and homoeroticizes the life of Thomas Mann as his earlier novel, The Master (2004), did for Henry James. While Mann’s journals and James’s letters testify to their same-sex desire — the first explicitly, the second obliquely — Tóibín’s novels inhabit their minds. The books’ revisionism is, in part, an attempt to fill in an archive whose gaps Tóibín has discussed explicitly in his many essays on queer authors. “Other communities who have been oppressed — Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland — have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear stories; they have the books around them,” he wrote in a 1998 review. “Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there in no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” 

Tóibín’s project has not been lost on reviewers. “In some ways, Mann is James with a German accent: another sexually repressed artist who did not let himself behave as he wished,” The New Yorker noted, qualifying that Mann was somewhat less repressed than James before adding, “Tóibín is sure that both James and Mann became fiction writers because of thwarted desire.” The London Review of Books concurred: “What really matters in Tóibín’s account of the life is the way that Mann’s creativity grew from a colossal act of repression.” Past authors, in Tóibín’s version of events, seem to end up writing masterpieces because they can’t have gay sex. Their own fictions keep us outside the closet, and we must wait for a 21st-century reimagining to finally peek in.

Hanya Yanagihara takes this speculative project a step further in To Paradise (2022). The novel’s first section reimagines Henry James’s Washington Square (1880) in an alternative Gilded Age where a set of “Free States” bestow the enviable right to (arranged) gay marriage. Its setup feels like Yanagihara’s riposte — conscious or otherwise — to Daniel Mendelsohn’s damning New York Review of Books piece on her previous novel A Little Life (2015). In that book, Yanagihara’s depiction of contemporary queer life centers on a sexually traumatized, self-harming, and eventually suicidal protagonist. While many applauded the melodrama, Mendelsohn accused Yanagihara of victimizing her characters for cheap reader thrills and likened her refusal to grant queers joy or sanguine denouements to “the projection of a regressive and repressive cultural fantasy from the middle of the last century.” In To Paradise, Yanagihara inverts the prior book’s projection: she applies today’s progressive and liberatory fantasy — where marriage equality means happily ever after — to the late nineteenth century. Like Tóibín, she takes the historical closet for granted. But while his Gilded Age allows James to lie quivering in bed beside a sleeping male friend, the only way for her to imagine queer desire in the period is to rewrite its rules entirely. 

Whereas To Paradise tracks its homophilic society’s decline into a dystopian future, Edmund White’s latest novel, A Previous Life (2022), imagines a rosier trajectory for the 21st century. In his 2050, there’s a gender-fluid dating app called Sweetheart and doctoral students can, in a self-referential nod, “work on White,” though “the great Sedaris or Garth What’s his name” are more canonical. White’s metafictional antics seem to betray a certain anxiety: that his own books will be fodder for the speculations of later queer thinkers, his life renarrativized based on their presentist logics (and perhaps even fictionalized in a Tóibínesque novel of repressed genius). After all, White’s own Hotel de Dream (2007) gave that treatment to American writer Stephen Crane, presenting, in one reviewer’s words, “explicit descriptions of the sexual and social deviance that ‘real’ Victorian novels could only hint at obliquely.” Perhaps to avoid being given the presentist treatment in the future, White has raced ahead to script the queers’ ever-increasing prestige.

What links Batuman’s campus autofiction to this array of counterfactuals and projections is the unspoken creed that the present should emancipate the past — either by dramatizing or reimagining the tyranny of heteronorms. To varying degrees, these novels are successful as literary projects, but their conceits are laced with a logic of salvation that recirculates repressive clichés. Readers and reviewers are invited to exaggerate the groundbreaking nature of contemporary fiction and to perpetuate a broader elision of queer literary history.

The truth is that there’s a world of queer writing that predates Colette, volumes of manuscript and books that aren’t so much products of historical suppression as they are suppressed by today’s “it’s gotten better” mindset. This is convenient for a culture industry in search of the sui generis and always eager to pat itself on the back for its own enlightenment. But the almost total neglect, outside the academy, of the queer literary archive is a shame, and not only because it propagates factual errors. In limiting our horizons for understanding how our predecessors lived, loved, and wrote, we end up narrowing our own vistas. When we apply the repressive hypothesis, we’re actually repressing ourselves.

 

Against the odds, one largely forgotten work resurfaced this summer. It’s full of queer reading and queer sex, it’s graphic and heartbreaking, and you’ve never heard of it. Because its author is anonymous, not Batuman or Tóibín or Yanagihara or White; because its English critical edition was published by Columbia University Press, not Bloomsbury or a Penguin imprint; and because the French source text was first written in the 1880s. The new translation is called The Italian Invert, and here’s how the original came to be.

In either 1888 or 1889, a 23-year-old Italian wrote a series of letters to the renowned French writer Émile Zola. The young man expressed his admiration for Zola’s novels and identification with two characters from The Kill (1872): a butler dismissed for sodomy and his genderqueer employer. But he lamented Zola’s omission of a fully sketched homosexual — an “invert” in the epoch’s terminology — and furnished his own life story for Zola to fictionalize in a future book.

Had he followed that request, Zola wouldn’t have needed to embellish much; the Italian’s letters already feature an exquisite dramatic arc. They begin with his upbringing in an aristocratic Neapolitan family and chart a gradual recognition that he’s attracted to men. (Fantasies about Hector, not Helen, are the giveaway.) An interval of deep shame ensues until his first sexual experience at age fifteen. More involved relationships transpire: first with an army officer, then with a man referred to as the “captain.” We hear of the Italian’s physical struggles to have penetrative sex, his concern that he’s being used for money or erotic novelty, and his jealousy while imagining the captain seeing other men. The letters end with a would-be cheater’s cliff-hanger: should the Italian sleep with a coy stranger in an inn? A final postcard to Zola provides the answer in triumphant epilogue. “I’ll shout it from the rooftops,” the Italian declares. “There where everyone else had failed, he has succeeded!” Zola’s queer novel, he implies, should end with an orgasm.

Sadly, Zola did not take the suggestion. Instead of fictionalizing the Italian, he passed the epistles to his doctor friend Georges Saint-Paul, who published an edited, serialized version, titled “Novel of an Invert,” under the pseudonym “Dr. Laupts” in a scientific journal called The Archives of Criminal Anthropology. In 1896, Saint-Paul reissued the “Novel” in his own monograph on sexual deviance. Eventually the Italian stumbled upon his own words in print, but he didn’t protest to Zola. Instead, he wrote to Saint-Paul, and continued telling his story.

This time, it gets both sappier and steamier. The Italian recounts his realization, in the wake of the captain’s death, that “I truly loved him then with my head, my heart, my senses, with everything.” But he also provides a play-by-play of that night spent cheating at the inn. At first, it’s just sultry glances being traded over evening newspapers, but then one unlocked door leads to another and soon they’re in bed, where “little by little the path was opened up and the conqueror entered the castle so long under siege but now captured.” In 1910, Saint-Paul published a selection of these addenda as a “Sequel” to the “Novel.” By this point he’d received other letters — more sex testimonials, more allusions to fictional inverts, and even requests to be put in touch with other queers. The Italian’s story is just the tip of the sexological iceberg. 

Imagine if Selin had read his words. For a long time, only French speakers could, and few probably did. Bringing them to Anglophone readers has required a careful act of literary activism, undertaken by the adept editors and translators Nancy Erber, William Peniston, and Michael Rosenfeld. Several manuscript discoveries in the Saint-Paul and Zola family archives allowed these critics to collate the sexological publication and the Italian’s original letters. They’ve restored places where his words were altered, cut, or — for the more sexually explicit passages — translated into Latin. The result is an especially passionate narrative of queer Bildung: a testament to the way that that heteronormativity did not categorically suppress same-sex desire or authorship. Peniston and Erber have made their careers out of exhuming similar stories, co-translating the anthology Queer Lives: Men’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France (2007), the single source text, Marc-André Raffalovich’s Uranism and Unisexuality (2016), and Erber’s own study, Lesbian Decadence (2016). This work isn’t sexy, but it’s as important for queer literature, and contemporary queer readers, as any recent novel. It’s proof that before the queer past can be reinvented or reimagined, it needs, simply, to be known. 

 

Partway through spring semester, Selin reflects on reading André Breton’s novella Nadja (1928) and observes: “In its simplest form, the aesthetic life involved seducing and abandoning young girls and making them go crazy. This was what I had learned from books. There was a problem of application: what did you do if you were a young girl?” It’s a fair assessment of Nadja but propagates an error about French “books.” If Selin had looked further down the shelves, she’d have gathered that sapphic novels were an absolute craze in the nineteenth century. In fact, one of the most famous examples includes the period’s defining treatise on “the aesthetic life”: Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). The novel’s famously anti-utilitarian preface declares, “a book cannot be turned into gelatine soup…. You cannot make a nightcap out of a metonymy…. There is nothing really beautiful save what is of no possible use,” before its plot tracks the eponymous seductress dressing as and sleeping with both genders. One answer to Selin’s “problem of application” would be to live like La Maupin.

Gautier, of course, was writing the male gaze. For a female one, we might turn to Marguerite Eymery Vallette, who published under the pseudonym Rachilde. Her 1884 novel Monsieur Vénus gives center stage to the dominatrix exploits of Raoule de Vénérande. The work launched Rachilde’s career, in which she helped run the illustrious Mercure de France journal, campaigned against censorship, and wrote scores of other novels depicting decadent doyennes. The titles alone — Madame Adonis, La Jongleuse, La Marquise de Sade — give you an idea of how her oeuvre plays fast and loose with gender conventions. Scholars have interpreted these works as both homoerotic and proto-trans, yet Rachilde remains largely unknown outside the academy.

As it happens, Selin does pick up a decadent novel published the same year as Rachilde’s debut: Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature (1884). For her, Huysmans’s jewel-encrusted tortoise emblematizes the same heteronormative “aesthetic life” as Nadja. But unless Selin was reading John Howard’s 1922 bowdlerized translation, she would have encountered the protagonist Jean des Esseintes recalling a same-sex affair halfway through the novel. Huysmans himself wasn’t inclined toward men (though he once accompanied his very out friend Jean Lorrain on a gay nightlife tour). He was just ornamenting his novel with a popular fin-de-siècle motif — the “particular friendship” — which furnished the period’s archive with many a queer liaison.

But if, like Batuman, you insist that your protagonist must read for repression, repression is what your protagonist will read. “How could a thirteenth-century person have written such things?” Selin asks of Rumi’s springtime lyrics. “Did that mean he was gay, or would have been gay if it had been allowed?” she wonders of the poet’s impassioned devotion to the dervish Shams. Upon starting Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881), she speculates about why James would have written about a young woman rather than himself. “I was pretty sure I had read that he was gay. Probably being gay had been illegal, and he had been ashamed,” she reasons. “So his problem, like Isabel’s, was that he had been born too soon.”

If these lines seem implausibly jejune — “I’m not sure this is what a Harvard kid would think,” noted one reviewer — it’s perhaps because Batuman relies on a received idea: that Victorian queers were all one calling card or raunchy metaphor away from being charged with gross indecency. In Britain, litigation was certainly possible, but homophobic legislation did not eliminate gay brothels or prevent James from threading his oeuvre with enough queer subtext to spin out a cottage academic industry. His suffragette satire The Bostonians (1886) has even been hailed as a striking, albeit cruel, depiction of covert sapphic intimacy between protagonists Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant. But as Terry Castle pointed out in The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), female desire tends to be “ghosted” out of literary and cultural history — even by post-Stonewall critics who acknowledge homosexuality. Batuman’s presentist paradigm furthers the ghosting cycle, making not only James but also Selin born de facto too soon to read for, or write, queer desire. They can do little to navigate their sociocultural constraints and must await 21st-century emancipation. 

There are other ways to paint the portrait of a queer reader. Castle’s introduction offers one, as she recounts her personal trajectory from being haunted by female specters (above all Greta Garbo) to materializing them on the page for her own readers. Novelist Andrew Holleran presents another in “My Harvard,” a talk delivered in 1991 — around the time Batuman, and Selin, attended the school — at the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus’s first annual Jon Pearson Perry Lecture. It was subsequently published in the inaugural 1994 issue of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, which self-advertised as a “New York Review of Books or New Yorker for gay people.” In the piece, Holleran reflects on his own challenges as a 1960s undergraduate encountering gay literary touchstones like Plato’s Symposium and John Addington Symonds’s A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891). “To know that great minds had considered homosexuality not only acceptable but noble did not make much of a dent in a twentieth-century middle-class American Catholic upbringing,” Holleran explains. “One can read certain things at a certain age and just not get it.” He picks up The Ambassadors (1903), a late James novel that depicts middle-aged American Lewis Lambert Strether on a transatlantic mission to recover the young bachelor Chad Newsome from the many pleasures of Paris. The novel’s only explicit relationships are straight. But its homosocial undertones and Strether’s climactic exhortation to “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” are today so often invoked they’ve become queer commonplace.

It took a postgraduate relocation to Manhattan to make Holleran a cruising aficionado who glossed James as a kindred spirit. “Re-reading The Ambassadors it struck me that the book was really about Chad Newsome’s penis — everyone wanted it,” Holleran explains, “and instead of going to Paris to live, live all I could, I headed straight for the Everard Baths the moment the train returned me to New York.” Holleran’s debut masterpiece, Dancer from the Dance (1978), captures that exuberant post-Stonewall epoch, its Fire Island summers and discotheque winters, and its quieter moments spent reading George Santayana and Plato. His latest novel, The Kingdom of Sand (2022), seems more like an echo of greatness than an original composition. But its story of gay male senescence maintains his interest in texturing contemporary life with phantoms of history.

In Holleran’s 1991 account, reading is neither an emancipatory nor a vain pursuit for adolescent queers. Instead, it offers something like what William James called “extra truths”: nuggets to carry forward, latent and unrealized, until an event occurs that brings their reality surging to the fore. It might take a bathhouse to actualize the truths of Greek eros or Chad’s penis; that doesn’t mean they weren’t in the texts all along.

The fact that Holleran thought through his sexuality in relation to literary classics may now seem quaint — or, worse, politically suspect given the canon’s white Eurocentrism. Today, queer identity is increasingly defined against textual representation rather than alongside it — by the failure of even contemporary novels to capture queer life.

Brandon Taylor diagnosed this dismissive tendency in a recent, characteristically electric Substack post that arraigned gay critics for “writing this tiresome genre of Oedipal essay in which they decry the status of contemporary gay writing.” A recurrent issue, in these apparent artifacts of Freudian malcontent, is how novelists should titrate levity and tragedy. Should gay fiction depict bright futures or present horrors? Trade in idealism or realism? Be droll or dire? Caustic or sincere? As Taylor sees it, these quarrelsome writers are out to kill their queer forefathers — faulting novelists like Garth Greenwell and Douglas Stuart to make room for their own fiction and prose. But it takes no psychoanalytic acumen to see that denouncing certain books’ tenors makes little sense when you take a long view of history. Clearly the novel genre — that most “capacious vessel” in James’s terms — can encompass all these affective and narrative variants. It’s only when we chronologically restrict our search for literary paradigms that we’re left demanding so much — too much — of writers like Greenwell. A few decades of queer literature have been needlessly forced to deliver centuries of aesthetic variation. Imagine if our genealogies for black and Jewish writers began only with Toni Morrison and Jonathan Safran Foer? Or if discussions of the millennial marriage plot didn’t lead back to Jane Austen?

So let’s take up the past. Not for the blueprints it offers aspiring novelists, but for the relief of fresh prose, the insights of comparison, and the vertiginous joy of speaking with the dead. “Like, you’re not annoyed at ‘gay fiction,’” objects Taylor to one critic. “You’re annoyed or disappointed in like, three or four writers, my friend. Maybe you should read more. Or better. Or both.” Though he offers no “Notes on Sources” or “Further Reading,” Taylor seems to have contemporary fiction in mind. Elsewhere, he has pointed out the enduring political and economic relevance of nineteenth-century novels, Zola’s included. But these works also resonate with the conditions of modern sexuality. Given some changes to our presentist mindset, we can “read more” and “better” before 1900.

Mindsets are informed by material conditions, however, so here’s what would need to concretely shift. We’d need more space in publishers’ catalogs for reeditions and translations, and more scholars willing to take time off their monographs to curate those books. The Michael Field Diary Project has digitized a 29-volume journal cowritten by a late-Victorian lesbian couple (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) who published with a joint male pseudonym. But few outside the academy will read it until there’s an abridged paperback. More Rachilde novels should be in print and more “particular friendship” literature as well: perhaps a reedition of Howard Sturgis’s Tim (1891), first translations of Abel Hermant’s Le Disciple Aimé (1895) and Achille Essebac’s Dédé (1901) (popular enough to christen a gay bar in Berlin!), and a retranslation of Georges Eekhoud’s Escal-Vigor (1889) — all fairly sentimental depictions of adolescent male love. For Greenwell’s antecedent in gay erotica, no translations are necessary: look no further than The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881) and Teleny (1893), two garishly pornographic works whose authorship remains contested.

These publications need not replace Tóibín-esque speculative histories; rather, they could serve as perfect companions. Next year, Penguin will publish Tom Crewe’s The New Life, which fictionalizes the late-Victorian relationship of Symonds and Havelock Ellis. What if they accompanied it with an affordable Classics paperback of the pair’s foundational sexological study, Sexual Inversion (1897)? Or a chapbook of Symonds’s own translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets? (Earlier translations relied on a bowdlerized source text, the pronouns changed to censor a homoerotic sequence.) What if, like Symonds, we saw the queer past less as something to rewrite and more as something already available to read?

Even a brief dip into Sexual Inversion offers the chance to see beyond the horizons with which we today understand sexual identity. For writers like Symonds and Ellis, to be “inverted,” or experience same-sex desire, was also to have a different gender profile — to be Anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (“a female soul bound in a male body”) in one influential formulation.To contemporary readers, this will look more like an articulation of trans identity than one of homosexuality, but in a period before such demarcations existed, the categories bled into each other in confusing ways. As historian of sexuality Laura Doan points out, grappling with the gulf between our own taxonomies and those of our predecessors may not “satisfy queer yearnings for collective belonging” but it can bring us into contact with “other structures of knowing, including residual knowledges now vanished.” And while she may be writing to a professional academic audience, accessing residual knowledge does not require tenured credentials. It just requires bracketing your assumptions — and picking up an old queer book.

Doing so brings forth the archive’s riches but also its many complications. Our predecessors’ politics tend to jar with our own, and the queers’, alas, are no exception. The Italian did not interrogate his class privilege, Rachilde scorned first-wave feminism, and the Michael Field diary is also an archive of jingoism. “I believe both England & Michael Field will win,” Cooper wrote following the outbreak of the Second Boer War. “I do not feel 1900 will be a peaceful year — but the strain to us & England will be athletic, not weakening.” These writers seem wonderfully contemporary one moment and then despicably old fashioned the next. Perhaps this admixture is part of why queer presentism has become so pervasive: the same leftist editors and critics who might take an interest in amplifying these voices are put off by their unseemly qualities. It’s simpler to bracket the Victorians as homophobic colonizers than to engage the period’s queer imperialists, safer to publish counterfactuals than cancellable facts. But to ignore our precursors is to deprive ourselves of the chance to climb atop their shoulders: of not only seeing a bit farther but also, on the way up, watching the way they saw.

That sage craft of viewing the past via parallax had few practitioners superior to Violet Paget, better known by her pseudonym Vernon Lee. A generation younger than Symonds and Ellis, Lee came of age in the same fin-de-siècle moment that furnished many of the books scattered in Batuman’s novel. So she read James, but was also briefly his mentee and friend. Though raised an aesthete, Lee found herself vexed by the role’s trappings of amoralist chauvinism, and in this respect, her either/or conflict recalls that of Selin. Only Lee didn’t hesitate to pick up her pen. Her novel Miss Brown (1884) lampooned the London literati for their obsession with sylphic beauties and insensitivity to widespread poverty. Her critical essays considered other paths, on what to do having “learned, or guessed, that in continuing to live only for and with the beautiful serenities of art, we are passively abetting, leaving unfought, untouched, the dreadful, messy, irritating, loathsomeness of life.”

Lee’s trenchant style and insistence that we confront life’s loathsome features lost her many an aesthete friend, including James. That negative reception in the 1880s went a long way to wiping her off the face of literary history, but it did not end her lifelong affair with art. The following decade, she began experiments in psychological aesthetics along with her lover Kit Anstruther-Thomson. Like Michael Field’s, theirs was hardly a secret relationship. Lee and Kit lived, worked, and traveled openly together, and while some of their virulent critics may have been motivated by homophobia, misogyny was likely the more relevant factor. The two women would traipse through galleries, monitoring each other’s postures and pulse rates, trying to pin down the relation between the “facts of consciousness” and “physiological processes” that cause us to find things ugly or beautiful. Their collaborative art writing is, among other things, a record of how charged it feels to inhabit a semi-public, enclosed space with your beloved.

These studies’ scientific method oriented Lee toward the future, but she was also always looking back. In the conclusion to her essay volume Renaissance Fancies and Studies (1895), Lee interrogated this penchant, asking what we gain by extending our sympathies toward bygone times. One reason, she suggests, is that the past offers “an additional world for real companionship and congenial activity,” one furnishing the mind realities “to count with, as much as the tables and chairs, and hats and coats, and other things subject to gravitation outside it.” To set our minds and hearts solely on contemporary objects — in a word, to be presentist — is to deprive ourselves of these other realities.

Lee does not speak explicitly about her own sexuality in this piece; her feelings for women are put most clearly in her letters. But she closes by noting the passing of Walter Pater, another queer aesthete whose own conclusion to the volume Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) included phrases like, “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” and “we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more… our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” It didn’t take a top-notch Victorian gaydar to tell what was going on. In fact, conservative criticism led Pater to retract the conclusion from the work’s second edition — before adding it back in for the third. 

Pater’s writing had a deep influence on Lee, not least in the models it provided for locating queer “companionship” across time. Academics like to theorize this operation with terms like queer temporality and queer historiography. But we might simply call it “Renaissance thinking”: the art of return and rediscovery, of dialogic existence, of engaging our predecessors instead of leaping to political disavowal. For that’s how the early moderns thought with the classics, and how Pater and Lee thought with both traditions in turn. Theirs is a way — always beautiful, and often ethical — to furnish our mind with other realities; it leads out of our presentist dream and toward history’s queer worlds. 

Colton Valentine is a PhD candidate in English at Yale.

Copyright © The Drift 2022