Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Butch Homage: The Middle Mist

Like many people, I enjoy reading about people who resemble me. Like many people who are members of marginalized groups, it's hard for me to find representations of people like myself, in fiction or non-fiction. Like many people, I will put up with some lack of resemblance, or some problematic elements in a book, just to read about someone like me. For that reason, I have a soft spot for the book The Middle Mist by Mary Renault.

Mary Renault is best known for her Greek historical novels. She also wrote a few novels set in the modern era, of which I have read The Charioteer and The Middle Mist (which was originally published under the title The Friendly Young Ladies.  But my American edition calls it The Middle Mist and that title is appropriate too.)

The Middle Mist centers around the adventures of a young butch called Leo.  Because at the time this book was published (1943 - set in 1937) gender-nonconformity and lesbianism were held to be shocking, almost unspeakable subjects, there is a certain amount of equivocation in the way the story is told.  The main character is Leo's younger sister, Elsie, who has been brought up with no knowledge of any facts of life and lives in a romantic dream.  Somehow she decides to run away from home and join her older sister, who also ran away from home a few years earlier, under circumstances which Elsie never understood.

Elsie finds her way to a pub near Leo's house (which is actually a houseboat) and starts asking around for her sister.  It turns out that one of the young men playing darts in the pub is in fact, Leo.  Leo takes her baby sister home to the houseboat where she lives with a beautiful young lady named Helen (who is, in fact, so perfect that she might have been born from a swan's egg.)  Elsie never figures out that the two women are lovers. Actually Elsie gets hold of the wrong end of the stick about pretty much everything.  I wonder if the readers of this book were supposed to be as ignorant as she is.  But I digress.

Leo lives her life exactly as she pleases (with a few concessions to the closet.)  She makes her living by writing cheesy cowboy stories about a place (the American West) she's never been.  She hates to put any female characters or any touch of "romance" into these books.  In some ways she is like a little boy who never grew up.  But, although it's dangerous to do so, Renault also portrays her confident sexuality - and her sexual fears.  Leo is happy as a lesbian . . . but she's also a little obsessed about trying to have sex with men.  That is to say, she tries to have sex with men, but she always panics and refuses to go through with it.  Then she tries again.  It appears that she's trying to confront her fears:  that the butch thing to do is to have sex with men, precisely because it's so frightening.

Many lesbians hate this book, because it's so coy about homosexuality, and because Leo ends up going off with a man.  But I don't really see the ending as some kind of generalization about lesbians going straight.  For one thing, the man Leo goes off with is not a man.  He's way too perfect to be human.  He's some sort of god.

Joe, the leading male character, is an English intellectual and also a cowboy:  he was brought up on an American ranch, later went to Oxbridge, and gives Leo plenty of tips on her stories while at the same time writing novels of his own which we're told are deep and meaningful and much better than her stuff (we don't get any actual quotes.)  He's caring, sensitive, and knowledgeable about people.  He may in fact know everything.  He's been friends with Leo and Helen for a long time and is not homophobic about them at all.  If he has any flaw I can't recall it.  He and Leo are best buddies -  he enjoys her masculinity (and if two masculine people fall in love with each other, isn't that a little queer?)  By contrast, the other male character, Peter, is a self-centered doctor who believes he's God's gift to women. The scenes where he attempts to seduce Leo, for her own good of course, are hilarious, and certainly cast doubt on the idea that the author accepted unquestioningly the superiority of the heterosexual male.

There are some things I don't like about Mary Renault's writing.  But one thing I do like is her depiction of characters struggling with the complexities of life, with things they don't understand, with their own inexplicable selves.  Does Leo make the right choices?  Maybe not.  But she's vibrant, courageous, and determined to live her own life.  Those things make her an admirable butch.

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