Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Charles Dickens and the "queer acceptability curve"

December saw the final talk in a series Manchester's local LGBT community centre LGF have organised looking at LGBT history. This fifth talk was presented by academics Dr Holly Furneaux and Dr Kim Edwards Keates, exploring the works of Charles Dickens and queer representation in them and in associated fan fiction from the era in which he was writing to the present day.  For tl;dr readers, it was most excellent and stimulating even for those of us with next to no handle on Dickens' work.

And excellent it was. Where Paul Fairweather's talk earlier in the series rewrote identities and erased both bisexuality and large sections of queer history to fit a narrow predetermined narrative, this talk was expansive and exploratory.  It left the layqueer with an appetite to read some of the subject matter, albeit if possible with some kind of Study Guide To Sly Queer Allusion In The Victorian Era at your side.

Now like any sensible person the only bit of Dickens I really have a handle on is his excellent The Muppets Christmas Carol, which he had to rewrite extensively when his publisher pointed out that the Muppets had not been invented yet and it could all lead to a complex time-travel intellectual property trial.  A Christmas Carol is at the level of cultural icon in the UK and USA and perhaps some other places, such that even if you have never read it nor watched a film adaptation you've probably absorbed enough about it to have a fair idea of the characters and plot.

Dickens wrote lots of other things too though, some of it to the point and some excessively florid, verbose loquacious and wordy in the manner of a person who is being paid by the word (which as a writer for literary magazines, he often was). Like a modern TV writer he'd've been writing some excellent episodes and some that were filler to move the plot along as little as possible when a story worth five episodes was supposed to fill eight episodes.

The two main foci of the talks were A Christmas Carol (as it was the middle of December) and his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The latter seems to have had a high profile in fanfic writing and reading circles even immediately after its publication, which was warming to hear about as someone who encountered a small amount of that sort of thing before the internet exploded it into a wider consciousness. The joy of the unfinished text for letting readers fill in the 'what happened next...'

Something touched on that had passed me by was a recent American 'gay retelling' of Christmas Carol, the film Scrooge & Marley, which rearranges some of the genders in the tale to make for a gay and lesbian variation on the story, including altering a closing line from that Bob Cratchitt is thereafter treated by Scrooge such that it is like having "three fathers" rather than "a second father".

Exploring queer readings and subtexts involved a lot of talk of homosexuality and gender transgression (though I don't think the latter phrase was ever used but this was extensively about that rather than sex and relationships) without giving specific voice to the situational and transitional bisexuality involved or suggested.  I quite understand not wanting to apply modern senses and experiences of sexuality to different historical social situations, but I did think more could be made of using the B and T words to reflect and clarify what we were talking about.

An interesting aspect was that where his work included more obviously gender transgressive characters - a woman who didn't 'keep to her place' or a man who failed to be appropriately 'manly', it was apparently often followed by a more normative story without such bold characters.

It struck me - and I threw in one of those questions from the floor that is really an observation rather than a question - that this tied in with a "Queer Acceptability Curve" of how far from accepted (cishetero) gender normative behaviour a writer then or filmmaker today can go and still have enough of a broad market appeal.
Dickens could allude for the informed reader to things that might suggest a character had an interest in sex with other men or with other women, but could only push so far and then roll it back a little for the next story to make sure he wasn't getting a dangerous reputation, like a Hollywood actor who feels the need to alternate 'credible' films with ones that prove their box office acceptability.

From the description of Scrooge & Marley, which I freely admit I've not seen so am going on the outline given, that too only pushes things so far within a queer acceptability space. Same-sex monogamous couples replace mixed-sex couples, there is a simple rather than gendercomplex trans character: nothing too challenging and all keeping within the binaries that keep same-sex desire unthreatening and similar to the notional normatives of married cishetero life.

It's grand that the curve has moved as far as it has compared to Dickens' day. It still has some way to go.

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