Updated: May 4
On the stories we tell and the stories we don’t about the women who don’t quite fit in.
By Dominy Gallo
On the sliver of Claremont Avenue just north of Milbank, kitty-corner from the Interchurch Center and nestled one block in from Riverside, sits a small building with bay windows. It can only be found by those who already know where it is: denizens of the Department of Religion or Columbia Technology Ventures, whose office PO boxes betray its address, and the attorney named on Google Maps as working (living?) there. Students whose schedules on SSOL read, cryptically, “Claremont,” discovering this not to mean the back-of-Barnard dorm, must walk the avenue in anguish until a kind and knowing stranger points them to the corner of 120th. I was such a student last September, and would never have found my way had not the troupe of eccentrics with whom I would share every Wednesday evening last fall swept me across Broadway and into the clean and airy seminar room on the second floor. There, waiting at the head of a long table, a stack of printed Amy Levy poems at her side, sat Sharon Marcus.
Professor Marcus commands a classroom with astonishing elegance and force. She’s the kind of professor who can sift through the rubble of undergraduate inarticulacy and tell you what you would have said could you have thought more clearly. She’s also the rare academic who’s as accomplished a researcher as she is gifted a teacher: She’s written three books on 19th-century Britain and France and, in 2012, co-founded Public Books, a magazine intended “to publish writing that is erudite without being esoteric.” It is this line, so difficult for even my doctorate-less colleagues on The Blue and White to toe, that Professor Marcus practically dances on.
Though English is her field, her work defies departments. Literature, she tells us, offers answers otherwise concealed from historical memory to the question that guides her work: how “people find freedom within restrictive norms and laws.” To this end, it is “the pains and pleasures of gender nonconformity” that Marcus’ students tackle in her most well-known seminar, Odd Women in Victorian England. These titular misfits are women who, to paraphrase from our interview, made women—not men—the central fixtures of their lives and of their politics, in an era when such was anathema. I left the course hungry for more and, from my perch in Oxford, England, I asked her to speak to me about lesbians, literature, and writing a life on the margins.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Content warning: This conversation includes mentions of sexual violence.
The Blue and White: Your seminar, Odd Women in Victorian England, is by now the stuff of legend. On the syllabus, you give a long list of characters who fit the description of “odd women”: female outlaws, eccentrics, activists, spinsters, working women, feminists, women who desire other women, people assigned female at birth who live as men. What does it mean to be an odd woman to you, and how did you come to those terms?
Sharon Marcus: People thought about Victorians in England as being repressed, uptight, unable to deal with the sexual aspects of human existence, really invested in very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity. The evidence in the novels I read was that this is a time filled with eccentrics, and people who didn’t marry ever, and people who were really not adhering to norms. I’ve always been struck by this contrast, and I guess we could see it as a tension between the values that society espouses and how people actually live their lives and the many ways they find to get around those values. The 19th century was actually the period where “the homosexual” was invented, with the idea that there’s this type of person who isn’t like the normal heterosexuals and that this is an identity that people were embracing—in the very period where, we were also being told all the time, nobody could even think about sex, they certainly couldn’t think about sex outside procreation, and people thought women had no sexual desires and only had sex as part of pleasing men and being wives and mothers.
B&W: What have you learned from the strategies of 19th-century women to carve out spaces of autonomy?
SM: We need to really look to that first generation of feminists, the first wave of feminists who come through in the 1840s, to understand both the limitations of feminist movements—and how to move beyond them—and to understand the power of feminist movements. There is a core group of women, around 1848, who decided to change the laws that affected, especially, married women that meant that married women could own no property, that if they earned money it belonged entirely to their husbands, that women who were married when they had children had no rights whatsoever to those children, that the father was the only legal bearer of rights as a parent, that women had no grounds for seeking a divorce except through really, really expensive procedures, so women who were being physically abused by their husbands had no recourse to end those marriages. This group of women came together to do something about that.
A surprising number of women who were interested in improving the lots of married women were themselves not married—women who were married to men, as this was a time when the only legal form of marriage was between a man and a woman. Many of these women were in partnerships, romantic partnerships, with other women. Lillian Faderman has written a whole book about this in the United States, called To Believe in Women. It is really remarkable how a number of women we would now call lesbians have really led the way in improving the lives of women, in general. One way to think about odd women is women who, instead of making men central to their lives, which is what the ideology of domesticity said most women should do, made women central to their lives, both personally but also in terms of a larger cause.
The other thing I would say I learned from studying odd women is that people will find all kinds of ways to live their truth. Even at a time when there was explicit endorsement of conformity and people who weren’t interested in heterosexuality were pathologized by doctors and scientists and psychologists, people found ways to be who they were. They had a pretty high tolerance, often, of not being able to do this openly. I learned a lot about the centrality not only of education, but something that’s linked to education, although not always, and that’s the ability to work and have some degree of financial independence. When you look at these odd women who, in an era that did not support women being anything but wives and mothers, managed to, like Mary Seacole, become a nurse who traveled around the world, or like Ann Lister, who pursued dozens of affairs with other women, or the schoolteachers in Scotland who ended up involved in a very difficult libel case when they were accused of having sex with each other, or the novelists who wrote about odd women and therefore made odd women more available to other women to identify with—all of these were women who, at a time when it was not encouraged at all for women to work, found paid work, put themselves out into the public sphere, and that was not easy.
B&W: We learned that “lesbian” is an anachronistic category when applied to the 19th century, but this is also when that category is being solidified into an identity. Can you speak about the 19th century as a turning point in the history of women’s sexuality?
SM: We can trace certain kinds of fascination with women having sex with women all the way back to antiquity. There’s the poetry of Sappho. There are the Satires of Juvenal. Nineteenth-century women use this code when meeting each other to signal that they themselves had sexual interest in women: You’d say, “Hey, have you read the Satires of Juvenal?”, and that would be a way of indicating that you were in the know. What happens in the 19th century is there starts to be a medicalization of sexuality. With the advances in science that are happening and the professionalization of medicine and psychiatry, there’s a lot more interest in documenting people’s sexual practices. It’s a period where people are fascinated with classifications and typologies. There’s the classification of the “invert.” Initially, the discussion of women who were sexually interested in other women was lumped in with men who were sexually interested with other men. People couldn’t really sort out how much of this was identifying with the “opposite gender.” A lot of the people the figures talked about as lesbians, the salient thing that doctors had to say about them was that they seemed masculine. Built into this is the assumption of a baseline heterosexuality: that to be masculine is to be interested in women.
Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, has written powerfully about how everything that seemed to stigmatize same-sex eroticism also created more opportunities for it. So as people became more familiar with all this medical discourse about pathological deviance, it was a way of learning, Oh, I have options—there’s a name for what I feel. It didn’t have only a discouraging effect, it also had an encouraging effect. Most of the women you looked at in my class did not feel very affected by any of these classifications, these technologies. Medical discourse can emerge, but it takes a lot for that medical discourse to actually impinge on people’s lives. Already, in the 19th century, a lot of women who were questioning gender codes and sexual morays were skeptical of the medical profession and how it talked about gender and sexuality.
B&W: Although so much of what you do could likely be termed cultural history, you are in the English department. So, what about literature? What is it that literature can do, particularly in articulating woman–woman eroticism, that these other discourses can’t—or didn’t?
SM: Literature has a lot of means at its disposal for talking about emotions, for talking about desires, for talking about how people interpret the values that they’re handed. Literature doesn’t have to traffic in the explicit, so there’s a lot of room to talk about things in ways that can bypass various modes of censorship, or that can bypass taboos on saying things explicitly. For the first week of our class, we read a short excerpt from a book by Michael Lucey about French literature called Someone: The Pragmatics of Misfit Sexualities from Colette to Hervé Guibert. What he was particularly concerned about in that book is how people feel excluded, even from communities set up for the outcast. There’s something about community and identity that creates exclusion as well as inclusion, and he looks at people who felt like outliers even within queer communities. He wrote an earlier book called Never Say I, which is a quote from Marcel Proust. Famously, his multivolume Remembrance of Things Past is a book in which pretty much everyone turns out to be engaged in same-sex eroticism. This is at a time when same-sex acts weren’t criminalized in France, but they were stigmatized. Proust said, Eh, you can write about whatever you want, so long as you never say “I.” So there’s something about indirection, elusiveness, the way that in literature you can work out something personal through characters who are not you.
One of the authors we read at the beginning of the semester from the 19th century who points to a really interesting example of what literature can do is the poet Amy Levy, who died quite young from suicide. She uses the form of the lyric poem and the way that a speaker can say “I” and not be completely gendered to write all these poems about her love of women, about being at a dinner party where the speaker is making contact with another woman in public. It’s almost an allegory of what literature can do, which is bring things into public that are extremely private in ways that are allusive, coded, indirect. Something can have multiple meanings that aren’t necessarily that pinned down, and it’s up to the reader to find all those meanings. That means that the writer is absolved of the responsibility of saying them.
B&W: There’s a paper you wrote in the ’90s, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” in which you argue that rape is a language. This is a strategy, you say, to push back on the imagination of women as inherently rapeable or in some way already raped. Tell me more.
SM: In writing that paper, I especially leaned on the concept of a script. Rape is all about depriving women of agency, but I felt when I wrote that piece that what we now call “rape culture” created a certain kind of hopelessness around this. There is actually very little research on the many, many women who were in a situation where someone was trying to rape them and they succeeded in stopping that from happening. Of course, I was really concerned, in writing this, not to in any way make it seem like a woman who couldn’t prevent a rape from happening was somehow at fault. But it just felt like there was a different way to think about the problem that shifted away from, How do we address this in courts? (And again, I value all that work that got done to change the laws.) A lot of the literature at the time was, How can we make the ways that these cases get tried less prejudicial towards the women who were the victims here? I was really interested in the actual situations that women found themselves in and what could be done there.
I was writing this right around the time that the concept of date rape was becoming popularized. For a long time, the image of rape in people’s minds—what counted as “a rape” in quotes—was a very violent assault. If a woman had been basically coerced into having sex against her will without being violently assaulted, that was not considered a rape. I talked to a lot of people about their experiences, I would read about what people said about situations where they had been raped or someone tried to rape them, and it seemed like so often women just felt unable to take action on their own behalf. Women felt very, very disempowered. And it wasn’t just because they felt physically weak, which isn’t always the case—it was just a sense of not feeling entitled to defend ourselves against someone making demands on us, or trying to coerce us, or bullying us into doing what they wanted that we didn’t want. In thinking about that as a script, I was really interested in how we internalize a certain set of behaviors and values that affect what we think we can and can’t do—and what it would take to change that.
Some of what it seemed it would take to change that is simply saying, we’re allowed to act on our own behalves and we’re allowed to think, first and foremost, do I want to do this? No, I don’t want to do this. So I’m going to behave badly, I’m going to behave in ways that I’ve been taught are rude, unacceptable, excessive. If I’d been a philosopher, I might have written it as a paper about personal phenomenology, because I was just very aware of how disempowered I felt in my body to even say something as simple as “Hey, fuck off, you’re really getting on my nerves. I don’t want to go out with you.” It just felt like as a gender, women were taught to put others before ourselves, to please other people. Therefore, there’s this incredibly heavy lift to asserting what we did and didn’t want in a situation where there’s some kind of conflict around sex. That seemed, to me, the result of the stories we’re exposed to and the scripts we see, and how we internalize them as blueprints for our own behavior.
B&W: You are living and working in a university setting, and sexual violence is a huge problem on college campuses. To the point that you’re making about us imbibing cultural scripts, I’ve been thinking about what English classes are teaching me, and teaching the men at my side, about how women behave sexually, how we should behave sexually, how we should be treated sexually. It’s rather disheartening. As an academic, knowing the statistics about how many women, nonbinary, and trans students will graduate having been assaulted or raped in the four years of university: What is academia doing to enable this?
SM: About 10 years ago, I was on the committee for the GRE Literature in English Test—the committee that comes up with passages and questions. The first meeting, we were reviewing a bunch of passages and questions that people had come up with, and at least half of the passages had something to do with sexual violence, because there’s so much poetry that’s about sexual violence and there’s so much literature that’s about sexual violence. I remember saying, “I think we need to think about how people are going to respond to this. It’s a Saturday morning, they’re already in a stressful situation taking an exam, and you’re putting in all these questions that—I think we can safely assume that at least half the people taking the test have been sexually assaulted—and then they have to grapple with this material? There is actually English literature that is not all about rape; maybe we could foreground that more.” It didn’t make me a popular member of the committee. As is often the case with academics, their initial response was to really push back and argue with me, but then I did notice that in subsequent years, we managed to find a lot of passages from literary texts that weren’t exclusively about rape. But what’s also interesting is how easy it was. I don’t think anyone in the years before it was deliberately gravitating towards questions about rape. I really think that much of our literature reflects, as you’re saying—your cat looks a lot like mine! Except my cat is deeply asleep.
B&W: Sorry, she was yelling at me from the foot of my bed. She wanted to come.
SM: Is she a Bombay? Oh, she has a little white, too; my cat’s all black.
B&W: Yeah. She’s a rescue. We love her very much, and the dog is now angling for her attention. So sorry to interrupt.
SM: That’s okay. But the fact that this situation even arose points to how much of our literature is about sexual violence and perpetuates ideas about women being sexually available—if they’re not sexually available, they’re bad; if they are sexually available, they’re bad. The majority of literature that’s in the canon is a male perspective that celebrates a heedless version of masculinity that just revels in its own power, is resentful of women who resist male power as just an impediment to this grandiose male subjectivity. You have to, in some ways, inhabit your own subjective position and let it run riot, but I think good literature, the best literature, shows the awareness of the limitations of one’s own perspective and it’s about trying to enter the perspectives of others.
The answer to your question, What can we do in teaching literature? You have to be really, really sensitive to what people’s experiences are. If we’re going to teach a work that represents sexual violence … we need to acknowledge that it does that. We need to treat that as not necessarily a bug but a feature. We have to take seriously that this might say something really important about the worldview of the person writing it. When I teach, I ask myself, How important is it that I teach this text? This text, as opposed to another. I’m always making choices—I can never teach everything worth reading. And if I do teach it, do I think I’m going to be able to have a conversation about it that helps us reach a better understanding of whatever traumatic, difficult, criminal experience it might be recounting? Or is this text too compromised in its understanding of sexual violence, sex work, sexuality—I mean, the list goes on—for it really to be what I’m going to ask us to spend our precious time on?
I’ve tried teaching Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles a few times. Hardy is a really great writer, he expresses a lot of sympathy for Tess. But the novel depicts a scene that is written in such a way that students always end up debating whether she was “actually” raped, or did she just give in—and I feel that the way he depicts it is part of rape culture. And I got tired of having that conversation. I felt that it was really, really hard, in the context of a lecture class, to have to teach this text in a way that advanced students’ understanding of sexual violence. I think in a seminar about rape culture and the complicity of literature in rape culture, that it would be essential that I teach Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
B&W: You told me after class one evening, in your fabulous red leather coat, that you were editing a new edition of Jane Eyre. I’d love to know more about this. You mentioned you’d read it dozens of times; how has it been revisiting the text? What will be new about this edition? It must be an enormous undertaking.
SM: This was a new edition of Jane Eyre for the Norton Library Editions, which are an attempt to offer an affordable US-based alternative to Penguin and Oxford World Classics. The main work I had to do was to figure out how to introduce the book to a reader who was reading it for the first time. It was hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have never read it, as I’ve been teaching it for 30 years and I think I first read it when I was around 11 years old. It’s a book that’s very close to my heart, but—to return to some themes from earlier in the conversation—it’s a book that also we can use to chart the development of feminist criticism and the awareness in feminist criticism of the limitations of a perspective that’s exclusively white or exclusively Anglo. To me, it was, first and foremost, a chance to present to an audience how to think about the feminist implications of the text and what it means to be a feminist reader.
The main thing that was a new kind of task, though, was annotating the text and figuring out what merits a footnote, what doesn’t—what can I assume people to know, what can’t I?—and doing that in the age of Google. I decided that if I saw a word I didn’t know, and I put it into Google, and the first meaning that came up was the correct one, then I didn’t need to annotate that. I can just assume that readers today are as likely to Google a term as they are to click on the footnote within the text and see my definition of it. But then if, for example, Brontë used an obscure term to describe the color of someone’s eyes that happens to also be the name of a very popular bottled water, I needed to annotate it, because if you Google that term, you’re just going to be sifting through a lot of sponsored blog posts about bottled water.
B&W: What is it about Jane that is so captivating? Is she, in fact, your favorite Brontë character?
SM: I prefer Lucy Snowe because she’s even more recalcitrant and unusual than Jane. One of the things that I like is that I find a lot of people don’t particularly like Charlotte Brontë and don’t particularly like Jane Eyre. They find them stubborn, rigid, too determined to stick to their own set of values at any cost—and that’s exactly what I like about them. I like that there’s a certain refusal to compromise, and I also like that there’s a stubborn practicality, particularly to Jane. She writes a lot about food and whether the room is warm or cold—she’s in her body, she’s in touch with her bodily needs, in touch with her needs, in general. There’s a forthrightness with which Jane Eyre says, “I need to love and be loved,” that it’s very, very rare to find a 19th-century female character saying, or a female novelist articulating through any of her female characters. There’s also a defiance to Jane Eyre. One of the pivotal scenes, early on, is when she speaks out against the injustice that she feels her aunt has visited upon her. [Jane and Lucy] are beleaguered characters, for whom it’s not easy to take a stand, but they do it. They go along feeling resentful for a while and then they burst out with a really strong articulation of what they see as unjust or unfair, what needs to change, or even just how they feel, and I like that. There’s a combination of being very down to earth and being that kind of crazy romantic that I find very appealing.
B&W: I mentioned the red leather coat. I want to know the story.
SM: There’s always so many stories with all beloved items of clothing. It’s a Courrèges coat, and my main association with Courrèges is that it’s what Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac wear in the movie Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort. It’s a very mid-1960s brand that’s kind of mod and supposed to be evoking space-age aesthetics: streamlined, but also bold colors, usually one block of color, maybe a little piping in white, usually. In 2011, I was doing research at Ohio State University in their theatre archives for my book on celebrity in the 19th century. They had an exhibit from their collections that included exhibits of clothing, and there was this amazing pleather, actually, orange trench coat with white piping. I took a picture of it and showed it to my partner and I told her, ‘Oh my god, I love this coat, I wish I could find some way to get this coat.’ And for my birthday in 2018, she went on eBay and she found the coat.
B&W: That’s so sweet.
SM: She was dealing with very advanced recurrence of cancer at the time, and she died before my next birthday, so that was also the last birthday present she got me.
B&W: Oh, I’m so sorry.
SM: It’s something that’s important to talk about. Death is a part of people’s lives. It’s one of these things, even more than sex … people really still have a hard time talking about. And I’m a big believer in talking about things. I guess that’s why I like outspoken Jane Eyre. She doesn’t believe in keeping too much to herself.