MAD ABOUT THE BUTCH: Emma Donoghue pursues women in pants

Emma Donoghue is an award-winning Irish writer who lives in Canada. She has written novels, plays, YA fiction and will soon publish her first children’s book, The Lotterys Plus One. The film adaptation of her Man-Booker-shortlisted novel Room is also due out this year. Donoghue’s work falls under Queer, Irish & Women’s writing, and the five plays in her new collection cover topics such as gay marriage, sexual identity, witch trials and fairy tales.
In this blog, Donoghue discusses the idea of ‘butch’ women, and how women from history who adopted the dress of men have inspired much of her writing.

“When I was a fourteen-year-old I was appalled by Martina Navratilova. Since the tennis champion had come out in 1981 she’d been a by-word for lesbianism. I accepted the fact that I was a girl who loved girls, but it horrified me that anyone would associate me with a woman so muscular, so mannish, so (I thought) ugly.

Five years later, when I fell for my first tomboy-who-always-wore-trousers, I realised that part of my visceral shudder at Navratilova had actually been a shiver of attraction. And the rest had been a confused, inarticulate protest that I wasn’t that; that I was the lipstick-wearing kind of lesbian myself.  It finally clicked for me that I wanted girls who didn’t dress like me, and that if same-sex desire, like the heterosexual kind, is sometimes a matter of opposites attracting, that doesn’t make it a pathetic copy of the real thing.

Emma Donoghue: Selected Plays

Emma Donoghue: Selected Plays

Every writer has two key sources, their own stuff, and something not-them that hooks them so deeply, they have to write about it just as urgently as their own stuff. My life experience to that point produced two contemporary novels set in Dublin, but my other great stimulus was Helena Whitbread’s groundbreaking book I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840). Lister, mocked by the locals as ‘Gentleman Jack’, strode across the moors in black cloak and boots and seems to have seduced every woman she took a fancy to in Regency Yorkshire. Androgynous but not actually crossdressing, running an estate and businesses like a man but relishing the all-girls-together freedoms of female friendship, she made gender look like a dangerous, thrilling game. My first play, I Know My Own Heart, was inspired by Lister’s diaries, and my first historical study, Passions Between Women, was a long answer to the question of what texts she might have come across that would have enabled her to put together a confident lesbian identity by the early 1800s.

Anne Lister started me on a quest for manly women which has been a key strand in my writing for the past quarter of a century. My second play, Ladies and Gentlemen, centred on Annie Hindle, who played the gender game for a living. One of those vaudeville stars who made her fortune by dashing among multiple theatres every night, this bullish, witty ‘male impersonator’ was always billed as a woman, ‘Miss Annie Hindle’, but some of her wishful girl fans convinced themselves otherwise. First she married a man, then a woman, and lost them both. Hindle’s story allowed me to explore the layers of performance – the differences between doing drag on stage, in the dressing room (where her dresser Ella Wesner went on to become a male impersonator in turn), in candid interviews with the newspapers, at her second wedding (where the minister swore the bridegroom was male), then in retirement in New Jersey where she and her wife both wore skirts.

These early affairs (as it were) with long-dead, seductive butches – as much as my PhD in eighteenth-century English fiction – left me feeling equally at home in the past and the present, so I credit Lister and Hindle with leading me into historical fiction, which I have been publishing for the past decade and a half. (A peculiarly geekish form of historical fiction, which tries to work as history as well as fiction, because when you’re writing about those who’ve been left out of capital-H History, you feel a burning obligation to put the facts on the record as well as spinning a memorable story.) Although the range of nobodies, oddballs and freaks I write about has broadened – my curiosity is as much about race and class as sex and sexuality –  the woman in pants often wanders in.


Emma Donoghue © Punch Photographic, 2013

My most recent novel, Frog Music, is about the unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet. What drew me to the case was Bonnet’s playfulness, which rings across the centuries. Here she is joking in court: ‘Jeanne Bonnet, the French frog-catcher, has been convicted for wearing man’s apparel, although she says she hasn’t any other. Therefore if she didn’t wear it she would be convicted, too.’ (Daily Alta California, 7 September 1875) A child actress who’d ditched that career to work as a shepherd and then a frog hunter for restaurants, Bonnet wasn’t wearing pants as a costume, nor trying to pass as a man. She took her gender rebellion to the streets (and even to jail) in an utterly nonchalant way that both men and women seem to have found attractive. Here we have the androgyne as trickster, truth-teller, even scapegoat for society’s tensions; when she was gunned down, one headline read ‘Woman’s Mania for Male Attire Ends in Death’.

Bonnet reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s advice that ‘it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.’  If ethnicity’s rules are most exposed at the edges, in cases such as that of Dido Belle (the subject of one of my early stories, and more recently a fascinating film by Amma Asante), then the same goes for gender: manly women expose the whole edifice as the fragile construction it is. They also, for me, have an irresistible otherness and charm. It’s often assumed that writers are motivated by identification with some group we feel we belong to or would like to, but sometimes, I suggest, we write as an act of homage and flirtation, a straining towards what we desire.”

Emma Donoghue: Selected Plays contains Kissing the Witch, Don’t Die Wondering, Trespasses, Ladies and Gentlemen, and I Know My Own Heart.

Find out more about Emma Donoghue and her work on her own website HERE


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