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Suffisaunce: Women Alone and Together in the British Cultural Imaginary


“Suffisaunce: Women Alone and Together in the British Cultural Imaginary,” illuminates an English literary-historical legacy of female self-sufficiency from the early modern to the modern period. Its focus is the Victorian era, pivotal as much for its reanimation of older paradigms of female relationality as for the changes it inaugurated. Suffisaunce is a meditation on sexual switching and women’s independence as much as a prehistory of lesbian identity. The medieval word refers to a source of perfect satisfaction, and to perfect satisfaction itself. That suffisaunce flashes forth in single women as well as between women marks its difference from earlier historical and queer theoretical conceptions of lesbian relationality. Suffisaunce brings the formal relations queer theory has prioritized together with historical categories of identity and bodies that inhabit them. Looking at women alone/together demands response to the recursions and repetitions. But beyond the non-normative temporalities theorized by scholars of queer time, suffisaunce evokes the frustration of denouement for which lesbianism specifically is famous: simultaneously the sexuality of under-development and non-arrival, lesbianism is unfinished and ongoing. My methodology and my argument are tied together; the figures I examine reject time. Sufficient “without father, brother, or husband,” Elizabeth I created impossible possibilities of motherhood, eliciting panicked responses like Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, where she appears as monstrously masculinized women. She set out a paradigm to which the Victorian period perpetually returned; in “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson degrades suffisaunce into “erotic similitude” by fixating on time-stopping, aesthetic auto-eroticism. While imagining women together in terms of similitude rendered female relations insignificant, inversion made the lesbian visible, taking hold conceptually from the literal inversion of the photographic negative, and aided by discourses of blackening in photographic writings to produce a novel national invert type. Examining photo-technical and sexological texts, Clementina Hawarden’s photography, and The Woman in White, I coin “photographic inversion” to demonstrate that in England, female inversion was first photographic and literary, before sexological. Elizabeth’s afterlife appears again in Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, who stops all clocks, living forever in the moment of heterosexual marriage’s failure in “Satis House”—so named by Elizabeth I—which Dickens makes the seat of an unsatisfied virgin. Finally, Virginia Woolf’s four “Mary’s” are perpetually reborn as women writers. E. M. Forster and Woolf draw out the definition of suffisaunce as “enoughness;” without houses and rooms of their own, women’s poverty sustains compulsory heterosexuality.

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