Amy Tooth Murphy

Part 1: The Case of the Disposable Butch

Over the last few months, on the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been working my way through the novels of Mary Stewart, a British post-war novelist of middlebrow fiction. Stewart’s 1950s and 1960s back catalogue is made up of thrilling adventure stories of intrigue and derring-do, always with a female protagonist, who always unwittingly finds herself in the middle of some great criminal plot. Luckily Stewart’s leading ladies, although unwaveringly glamorous, are not just pretty faces, being a fairly resourceful bunch and unafraid to crumple their crinoline or tear their petticoats. In fact, it is fairly easy to make a case for Stewart’s work as feminist, certainly presenting young women as more than mere bedtime distractions for secret agents, à la her contemporary, Ian Fleming. Stewart certainly cashes in on the huge upsurge of interest in suspense and spy novels in this period. Only in Stewart’s work, women take centre stage.

One of many covers for Wildfire at Midnight, published by Fawcett Crest. (Image: Pulpcrush)

Unlike highbrow fiction, which floats on high o’er hill and vale, and over the general population’s radar, middlebrow fiction is a wonderful benchmark of cultural mores and attitudes, making it excellent source material for historians. As a historian of non-normative sexualities, I can’t help but apply a queer lens to everything I read. Much post-war middlebrow fiction, Stewart’s included, points to a growing cultural awareness of queerness as an identity position existing in the everyday world, but also reflects cultural anxieties and suspicions about this dangerous ‘other’ that walks among us. Queerness lingers on the margins of the page in two of Stewart’s novels, Wildfire at Midnight (1956) and The Moonspinners (1962). Treating lesbianism and male homosexuality respectively, the way in which these spectres loom, never fully manifested or exorcised, in the liminal spaces tell much about differing cultural attitudes towards female and male homosexuality.

In Wildfire at Midnight a group of well-heeled would-be adventurers come together in a remote hotel on the Isle of Skye, only to find out that one of their number is a murderer. Among this cohort are two women, Marion Bradford and Roberta Symes, holidaying together. Straight from their introduction into the dining room, any decent gaydar should be twitching. Marion is masculine, gruff, rude, with short hair and a stocky frame. She is, in other words, the typical depiction of a butch dyke in mainstream fiction of this period. Roberta, on the other hand, is the femme to Marion’s butch. She is fair, naïve, younger than Marion, with flowing locks and a generally attractive though nervous disposition. She is the archetypal otherwise-heterosexual woman who has fallen, for one reason or another, into the clutches of the ‘real’ lesbian. She is being, literally, shown the ropes by Marion who, as an experienced climber, is taking them both out onto the hills to teach Roberta, a novice. So far, so metaphorical.

Queer readers may delight in the following campy exchange in which the main character, fashion model Gianetta Drury, and her new-found friend, the glamorous actress, Marcia Maling, discuss the lesbians in their midst,

‘I saw two women –’  I began.

‘Oh yes, the – what’s the word? – schwärmerinen’, said Marcia, in her lovely, carrying voice. ‘They–’

‘Marica, no! You really mustn’t.’

But the crusading spirit seemed to be unexpectedly strong in Miss Maling. Her fine eyes flashed.

‘That child!’ she exclaimed. ‘Nineteen if she’s a day, and dragged everywhere by that impossible female with the moustache! My dear, she bullies her, positively!’

‘If she didn’t like the female’, I said reasonably, ‘why would she come with her?’

‘I told you. They’re–’

No, Marcia. It’s slander, or something. Do remember this is a Scottish fishing hotel, not a theatre cocktail-party’

(Wildfire at Midnight, p.22)

If you’re equipped with a queer eye, the implications being made about the two women can be inferred even if you don’t know the meaning of the German ‘schwärmerinen’, which translates as having a crush or infatuation. However, with no queer eye and/or no grasp of German the exchange is rendered simply confusing. This is to suggest that not only is queerness on the margins, it also has an air of the exotic or the sophisticated. The urbane Miss Maling knows a lesbian affair when she sees it, be it in the cocktail parties of London or the tartan twee-ness of a Highland hotel.

When Marion and Roberta fail to return from a day’s climbing the rest of the group set out to find them. In fact, they find Marion’s body and a deeply traumatised Roberta, who is suffering such shock as to be rendered incapable of speech and continually fainting away. The reader learns by the end that Roberta is expected to make a full recovery. This whole plot arc entirely encapsulates, albeit in covert depiction, the infamous ‘lesbian cliché’, a common motif in both literature and film, in which the true ‘invert’ or ‘degenerate’ dies (cliff-top deaths making up more than their statistical probability) or goes insane, while the young femme is rescued from deviancy (by a man) and reintegrated into society as a fully functioning heterosexual (Vito Russo’s acclaimed book, The Celluloid Closetand the documentary of the same name examine the trope extensively). In Wildfire at Midnight one can read Roberta’s close brush with death and recovery to full health as symbolic of her lucky escape from a life of queerness.

Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart, b. 1916. (Image Source)

The inclusion of a stereotypical and camply drawn lesbian couple among the supporting cast is not uncommon in middlebrow fiction of this period. Indeed the first British lesbian magazine, Arena Threeliked to pluck out such cameos and report on them for readers’ enjoyment in their regular book review section. The gruff butch and the swooning femme bring comedic value and the opportunity to demonstrate your worldliness, like Marcia Maling, by spotting the queers hiding in plain sight.

If you find yourself a somewhat marginal character in a remote hotel in the grip of a murder mystery then you should always be concerned for your safety. Marion Bradford is not the only character to be thrown unceremoniously to the wolves, or, more exactly, off a cliff, for the sake of propelling this narrative forward. But she and Roberta’s relationship is disposable, as is Marion herself. Roberta lives to simper another day; saved, potentially, by her lingering heterosexual potential. Marion, on the other hand, having provided some titillation and scandalisation for Giannetta and Marcia, acts as both plot fodder and, through her demise, as a way of reaffirming heterosexual norms, clearing the way for a happy ever after resolution.

So far lesbians have not fared too well in Stewart’s post-war middlebrow world. They are temporary exoticisms; a textured backdrop to a conventional narrative. But what of the boys? How do gay men fare in Stewart’s plots? Tune in next time for the gripping denouement…


Further Reading:

On Arena Three magazine, see Rebecca Jennings, Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A lesbian history of post-war Britain, 1945-71 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

Amy Tooth Murphy is an oral historian specialising in lesbian and queer oral histories and post-war lesbian history, with an emphasis on domesticity. Amy completed her PhD, ‘Reading the Lives between the Lines: Lesbian Oral History and Literature in Post-War Britain’, at the University of Glasgow in 2012. She is currently based at the University of East London where she is Project Manager for the Bethnal Green Memorial Project.

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  1. Pingback: Queer round the edges: Mary Stewart’s post-war middlebrow fiction (cont’d) | Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality

  2. Except later in the text it makes clear the ‘butch’ character has a crush on one of the men. It is not a description of a lesbian couple at all, but rather admiration of a younger woman for an older more dominant personality.

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