Sunday, April 13, 2008

Angeline de Montbrun A Lesbian?

I'm reading an article by Margaret Michaels in Studies in Canadian Litrerature on crypto-lesbians in twentieth-century Canadian fiction. Michaels argues that the dearth of Canuck lesbians (she calls them Canlickers--an interesting pun for an academic) is due to the prudery of Canadian male writers who chose instead to have their male protagonists engage in shirtless, sweaty grain threshing. But the lesbians are there. Mrs Stake in Robert Stead's Grain, Morag in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, Joan Foster in Atwood's Lady Oracle, and the Second Mrs Panofsky in Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version are all, according to Michaels, repressed lesbians.

But the twentieth century is too easy. If Michaels had just extended her argument a little bit, she'd see that nineteenth-century Canadian writing is teeming with lesbians. Except instead of wearing black Everlast sweatshirts they're wearing frilly gingham and gabardine. (There are gay men in the genre, but they just have large teeth.)

Michaels's principal nineteenth-century Canadian literary lesbian: Angeline de Montbrun. Laure Conan's protagonist suffers through a relationship with an overbearing father and an impotent male lover. Really, all she wants to do is climb into bed with Maurice's sister Mina. It's kind of a Richard-Lady Anne thing. Michaels claims that Mina enters the thick, labial cloisters of the humid convent to escape her prurient urges; thereby protecting Angeline from lapping up some new-original sin. Most critics have read Angeline as despairing and neurotic; Michaels just sees her as sexually frustrated. Conan's metaphorical spiritual masturbation scene could, in that respect, be read as the tipping point of Canadian Catholic whiteness. I know Morley Callaghan agrees.

It's an interesting take on an unpopular text. Terry Goldie tried something similar in Pink Snow: Homotextual Possibilities in Canadian Fiction. It works if you want it to work. Original? Yes. I'll try any argument at least once.

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