Anna Charczun
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Amy Jeffrey

Routledge, 2022. 174 pages.

ISBN: 9781032009483

The subject of queer liminality is undoubtedly an important aspect of study of literature, as it not only highlights the spaces of liminality of queer desire across a variety of texts, but also charts how those spaces evolved over time, and, consequently, how this evolution changed the portrayal and reception of queer persons in popular culture and vice versa. Deriving from the Latin word for a threshold or a border, liminality is “understood as a rupture or suspension of ordinary structures, a time and place out of the ordinary in which individuals or collectives must invent new forms of action or thought, which then become recognized permanently” (de Rapper 2016: 174). From a queer point of view, then, liminality denotes the in-between spaces occupied by queer emotions and individuals, which signify queer subplots in otherwise heterosexually centred texts. Moreover, when this in-betweenness is read in the Irish context, the concept of liminality seems even more judicious, as liminality “is a widespread theme in Irish literature and culture” (Gilsenan Nordin and Holmsten 2009: 7). The fusion of queer liminality in relation to Irish lesbian fiction, therefore, creates an interesting study, where Jeffrey’s readers are met with a trajectory of Irish lesbian desire from the position of liminality to a homonormative inclusivity.

Jeffrey’s monograph comprises a compilation of individual essays, connected by the theme of queer liminality present in Irish lesbian fiction. This is evident in her extensive introduction, which introduces and explains not only the concept of “(queer) liminality” and how she intends to use it throughout the book, but also terms such as “lesbian” and “queer”, accompanied by lengthy histories of lesbians and of homosexual laws in Ireland. As a result, despite sounding sometimes like a textbook, and repeatedly misspelling Eve Kosofky’s last name, Jeffrey achieves the aim of her introduction, where she ensures that her readers are comfortable enough with her take on all the terms in the book, which will eventually allow them to come to a similar conclusion, namely that lesbian desire is no longer liminal, at least in the south of Ireland, unless we choose to consider queer liminality from a new perspective of assimilation.

The monograph is thus preoccupied with an interrogation of spaces of queer liminality occupied by lesbians in Irish fiction between 1872 and 2016, although Jeffrey’s discussion on queer liminality in culture reaches 2021. Her examination varies from in-depth analyses of the main recurring themes or places of lesbian desire’s isolation, or rather concealment, to sometimes listing any additional motifs that could signify liminality, not always queer, in each text. However, even though the idea of liminality is interwoven into the book, as its engagement with thresholds, crossings, transitions, and intersectionality keeps appearing and disappearing, creating an impression of an ever-present thematic contingency, Jeffrey also proposes her own readings of the texts, which expertly go beyond a simple verification of the presence of lesbian desire and its implications for queer liminality.

Jeffrey’s work is also largely expansionist as, rather than just concentrating on lesbian fiction written by women, she includes male authors or authors who do not at all identify as lesbian, since lesbian desire and identity are “an integral part of their work” (30); therefore, representations of lesbian liminal spaces in their respective works should be included in a discussion on queer liminality. Moreover, the conclusive part of the book incorporates voices from Northern Ireland, which is significant for two reasons: firstly, it ensures the all-round inclusivity that Jeffrey first created by fusing the moments of lesbian intimacy, passion, and desire within the wider concept of queer liminality; secondly, she is able to show the liminal position that Northern Ireland holds in comparison to her southern neighbour.

The first three chapters of the monograph portray queer liminality in the period between the late-nineteenth and the late-twentieth century. The liminal spaces present in the texts are first owed to the demonisation of lesbians and lesbian desire by the scientific literature of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, to then being condemned by religion, specifically the Catholic Church, although later Jeffrey does turn to debate the criticism of the occasions of lesbian “sin” instigated by the Protestant church, too. The first chapter, consequently, reads Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin (1886), which, according to Jeffrey, construct the lesbian and the concept of sexual “inversion” within the context of the discourse of sexology, and thus contain spaces that are associated with liminality such as attics, boarding schools, and religious convents for women. The alliance of these places with an idea of them being alienated from the patriarchy and the general heteronormative order, Jeffrey notes, obscures the figure of the lesbian in the nineteenth-century literature (37).

In her reading of Carmilla, accordingly, Jeffrey concentrates on the motif of the pathologization of the lesbian body as the centre contamination, as she claims that “both inversion and vampirism are portrayed as infections that can be transmitted between women” (41). She thus investigates those sites of contagion that occurs predominantly in bedchambers, but also discusses how other locations could function as liminal spaces of crossing boundaries of female/male, dead/undead, and absent/present, which decisively points to her queer reading of the text. Since the term infection is indicative of an involvement of at least two persons, as well as any outside agencies and institutions, Jeffrey also discusses the effect that Carmilla has on Laura, and how Carmilla’s execution can be seen as an act of “clerical aggression that seeks to reinstate patriarchal control which the deviant transgressive woman/vampire has momentarily disrupted” (47). In her reading of Drama in Muslin, on the other hand, Jeffrey concentrates on the queer liminal space of a convent school, a motif to which she returns repeatedly in her discussions of Kate O’Brien and Edna O’Brien’s fictions.

Chapter Two concentrates on two novels by Kate O’Brien, Mary Lavelle (1936) and As Music and Splendour (1958). Here, Jeffrey argues that lesbian desire is still initiated in homosocial locations where women can feel partly liberated from the restrictive rules of the patriarchal order, and later begins to invade heteronormative spaces, such as cafés, opera houses, or public squares. Equally importantly, the chapter demonstrates how by comparing her characters to nuns, or generally positioning them in liminal spaces that relate to Catholicism, O’Brien begins to blur the line between the sacred and the secular. Admittedly, at the time when the Catholic Church remained silent with regards to lesbian desire and its dangers, despite its public position of contempt for gay male sexuality, O’Brien’s lesbian characters occupy liminal spaces between inclusion and exclusion, of being neither fully visible nor invisible. In fact, Jeffrey proposes that “invisibility is a condition of liminality” (59). O’Brien’s characters challenge not only the religious views on homosexuality, but also the Catholic church’s association with Irish nationalism through their shared ideal of womanhood. Therefore, although lesbians in these texts are seen as abjected and marginal figures, existing only on the peripheries of their respective narratives, Jeffrey’s argument certainly moves them closer to centre stage.

Before this happens, however, the monograph takes its readers to the fiction of the late twentieth century, where it offers readings of three authors: Edna O’Brien (“The Mouth of the Cave”, “Sister Imelda”, and The High Road), Maura Richards (Interlude), and Mary Dorcey (A Noise from the Woodshed). At this time, queer liminality was fluctuating between embracing its positive aspects, where it was “not just a resistance to social norms or a negation of established values but a positive and creative constructions of different ways of life” (81) and reverting to its closeted space. This pattern, Jeffrey claims, was disrupted by Mary Dorcey, who liberated the space of queer liminality with her association of lesbian desire with nature, which “holds the potential to alter ideologies and assumptions” (104). She ushered this liminality into the narrative spaces that were hitherto reserved solely for heterosexual relations, thus moving lesbian desire away from its marginal position and towards an overtly central space in the narrative and, by extension, Irish fiction.

Having achieved this, Irish lesbian fiction could then begin to openly discuss issues of (an emerging) lesbian sexuality. The reclaiming of the closet, therefore, becomes Jeffrey’s focus in the first part of Chapter Four. The discussion of Emma Donoghue’s Stir-fry and Hood appropriates the closet as a metaphorical (and sometimes a literal) space of public and private coming out, as opposed to the previous containment of one’s lesbian desire. The monograph instances a plethora of physical and metaphorical spaces of queer liminality, some of them spaces of mourning or islands. By 2009, however, when Donoghue’s Landing was published, Irish lesbian writing had long ago left the issue of coming out behind and moved towards a celebration of the state of inbetweenness. Nevertheless, despite the novel’s portrayal of a seemingly synergic harmony between its lesbians and the rest of Irish society, Jeffrey laments that with the glorious crossing of borders and counterurbanisation of queer desire come certain risks. She thus contends that Landing is a perfect example of how “LGBTQ+ people’s access to different spaces is dependent upon heteronormative ideologies” (140), which not only explains why she now begins to question the liminality of lesbians in popular fiction in the title of the chapter, but also directs the readers to her concluding thoughts on queer liminality in Irish lesbian fiction.

In conclusion, therefore, the book questions the position of queer liminality and argues that not only do lesbians lose their individuality within the wider queer movement, as more women begin to identify with the term queer rather than lesbian, but also that queer itself has become so popularized that it no longer holds its previous exceptionality. To explain this, Jeffery turns to the premise of homonormativity, which is largely based on the mimesis of heteronormativity appropriated by queer assimilation to the larger society, where literary portrayals of lesbians no longer occupy a liminal position, but a queer space (148). However, working with Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes and Rosemary Jenkins’ Aphrodite’s Kiss, Jeffrey also notes that queer liminality still very much plays an important role in representations of lesbians in Northern Ireland, as mentioned earlier: “caught in a space of suspended liminality […] Northern Ireland finds itself in a liminal position in regard to many issues, being apart from the rest of the UK and also from southern Ireland” (150). Nonetheless, in her closing remarks, Jeffrey poses a significantly valid question: what is the future of queer? Can we still think about Irish lesbian fiction in terms of queer? I suppose the time will tell, but we can rest assured that Irish lesbian fiction will be a witness and a testament to whatever the future brings.

Space and Irish Lesbian Fiction is a great resource and a good read, which will be found useful by academics and Irish lesbian literature enthusiasts alike. It provides a new way of reading, and a framework for consideration, of Irish lesbian fiction, as well as of thinking of the presence lesbian desire occupies within narrative. With its cohesive and extensive explanations, innovative ideas, and a multitude of sites of queer liminality, from metaphorical to physical, this monograph has a real potential to bring new scholarship to the fields of lesbian, queer, and Irish literature, North and South.

Works Cited

Gilsenan Nordin, Irena, and Elin Holmsten (2009). Liminal Borderlands in Irish Literature  and Culture. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Rapper de, Giles (2016). “Book Review: Thomassen, Bjørn. Liminality and the Modern: Living  Through the In-Between.Anthropological Notebooks 22 (3):  174-75.