Roxy Bourdillon dips her toe into the well of lesbian literature


I started reading about queer women long before I admitted I was one, to myself, my family or the girl I was secretly snogging at sleepovers. It’s funny how sometimes we can’t see what’s right under our nose, even if it’s literally french kissing us inside a sleeping bag. I was always magnetically drawn towards sapphic stories, eagerly devouring descriptions of same-sex longing with the ravenous appetite of… well, me, I’m pretty greedy. What with the books issue and the upcoming DIVA Literary Festival as my perfect excuse, I decided to revisit a few of my most treasured reads and take a trip down mammary lane.

The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

I first read The Well Of Loneliness because, ironically, I wanted to feel less alone. This iconic lesbian novel had the opposite effect, reminding me of all the painful drawbacks of being queer – disappointing your parents, unrequited crushes, strangers yelling “invert” at you in the street… Suit-wearing Stephen Gordon isn’t like other women because she really likes other women. And therein lies the agony of her existence. After I’d grimly waded my way through this weighty, wallowy tome about how wretched it is to be a homo, I concluded that I should probably stay safely in that closet for the foreseeable future for fear of being hunted down with pitchforks.

Upon re-reading the classic, I was staggered all over again by how goddamn difficult it must have been, especially for those women stranded in the countryside with nothing but shame, sheep and socially acceptable homophobia. Instead of today’s sly, “I’m not sure how I feel about the gays getting married” it’s, “I’d like to institute state lethal chambers”. As I say, not a romcom.

I’d always imagined that being queer in the 1920s would be as marvellous as doing the Charleston with Ellen. I pictured merry flappers flapping away with each other’s flaps, wearing nothing but a feather headband and a worldly smile. But that is not the world we find in The Well Of Loneliness. I guess I should have figured that out from the title. If we’re not killing ourselves, we’re being rejected by our relatives or ditched for blokes. Being a “pervert” and a “degenerate” isn’t half as much fun as it sounds.

Nevertheless, making it to the end of The Well Of Loneliness is a queer rite of passage, like bingeing all six seasons of The L Word. It’s also painful, depressing and completely necessary. Like stalking your ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

Sample line: “I’m just a poor heartbroken freak of a creature. I’m some awful mistake, god’s mistake.”

Three-word plot summary: Love, torment, bravery

Message: Life is pain (especially if you’re queer)

Read it: With a bottle of whisky and an extra large box of Kleenex

Spring Fire by Vin Packer

I needed cheering up so next I reached for some brightly coloured clit lit, i.e. lesbian pulp fiction. Who could resist titles like These Curious Pleasures, Babes Behind Bars and Satan Was A Lesbian? The taglines are equally appealing: “Lorraine was ‘different’ – but was she bad?” “To fool the world, they married. For Joan loved women… and Marc preferred men!” “Anything Goes: The immoral story of a love-starved temptress and her insatiable desires.” Someone get me a phone, I need to call my mum and tell her they’ve written a book about me!

These disposable paperbacks were sold for pennies in chemists back in the 50s and 60s. When I first stumbled upon the genre, I was wowed. Finally, I thought, queer women that look like me! With their scarlet pouts, wiggle dresses and tits that won’t quit. I couldn’t help but be sucked in by all the melodrama, the retro style, the tantalising promise of girl-on-girl smut. In that department at least, these books don’t disappoint. They are simmering with sex. The pages practically vibrate with all that caressing and panting and helpless murmuring, which in my esteemed literary opinion, improves a story no end.

Spring Fire by Vin Parker (real name Marijane Meaker), is credited with being one of the very first lesbian pulp fiction novels back in 1952. It tells the tortured love story of two horny sorority girls, awkward Mitch and bombshell Leda. As I re-read it, I remembered something I had conveniently forgotten. Despite the Carry-On-style covers, these books rarely end happily. Fear of mid-century censors meant that queer women were obliged to end up drunk, crazy, with a man or dead. The author was even instructed by her publisher, “You cannot make homosexuality attractive. No happy ending.” Spring Fire is a disturbing and erotically charged time capsule of another era.

If you’re after a pulp novel that doesn’t end in total tragedy, try the more hopeful and appealingly alliterative Beebo Brinker Chronicles by queen of the genre, Ann Bannon.

Sample line: “Leda’s gasp was one of pleasure and desire and it moved Mitch to more violence, pinning Leda’s wrists behind her back and jerking at her skirt. Neither of them heard the door open.”

Three-word plot summary: Desire, danger, boobs

Message: It’s all fun and games until someone goes mad

Read it: Wearing a vintage nightgown and an expression of slight arousal

Tipping The Velvet by Sarah Waters

All this misery is pushing me over the edge, so I head for my old faithful, queer coming-of-age romp, Tipping The Velvet. In this period drama with added saucy bits, we follow Nan’s journey from oyster girl to music hall star to rent boi to live-in sex toy to oh-so-much more. We marvel at her adventures, cry at her heartache and re-read her sex scenes because they are so darn juicy.

The raunchy tone is set right from the off with the euphemistic title (*cough* cunnilingus *cough*) which provided me with one of my all-time favourite chat-up lines: “Alright sweetheart, I’d tip your velvet any day.” Steamy scenes abound and I lap them up like an “exquisite little tart”. Of course, we can’t discuss Tipping without mentioning the most important plot point of all time – the giant leather strap-on, or, as lesbo-Mrs-Robinson Diana Lethaby calls it, Monsieur Dildo. This contraption is so swanky it has its own antique rosewood storage trunk. Now, you don’t see that at Ann Summers.

There’s some more innocent romance too with Nan’s first love, gorgeous masher Kitty Butler. Drag king Kitty tells Nan she smells “like a mermaid”, although in reality it’s probably more like a herring. Ah, the sweet lies we tell our sweethearts.

Tipping succeeds in making queerness seem exciting and even liberating. This book taught me so much – that “tom” is old English slang for “lezzatron”, that oysters are symbolism for vag and, most shockingly of all, that literary lezzies can have a happy ending.

Sample line: “She pressed against me still; and even as her breath came warm against my cheek, I felt my lusts rise up to meet her own, and knew myself in thrall.”

Three-word plot summary: Drag, dramarama, dildo

Message: Being queer is super fun and hot AF, but may lead to heartache

Read it: Reclining on a chaise longue, sipping red wine with Forgotten Hits Of The Music Halls playing on the gramophone

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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