‘Queerying’ LGBT+ narratives

Alice Mottram 6 February 2015

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway touches upon a same-sex relationship with as quiet a fanfare as possible. Clarissa remembers the happiest moment of her life as a kiss she shared with Sally Seton years before. However, the potentials of the LGB narrative in Mrs Dalloway would not be explored until almost 75 years later, in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Updated to modern New York, the bisexual Clarissa lives with partner Sally. 

As Cunningham updated Woolf, Christopher Isherwood revisited his own work Goodbye to Berlin, transforming fiction into fact with Christopher and His Kind. Whilst Christopher Isherwood “is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy” in the semi-autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, wrote the author in 1935, his 1977 memoir would remove all self-imposed censorship to reveal an honest portrait of homosexuality in pre-war Germany.

But perhaps the most striking revision of a same-sex narrative is that of Achilles and Patroclus. Whilst in The Iliad they are perhaps cousins in a pedagogical relationship, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles has reinterpreted their story as explicitly homosexual. Yet, is this revision and reinterpretation of LGBT+ narratives progressive, or is it evidence of a modern misunderstanding of ancient culture? Cunningham’s treatment of Woolf, and Isherwood’s self-revision, can certainly be called updating. They have augmented narratives which did not have a historical platform, and given a voice to that which had to be “left out, unattempted”. The same could be said of ancient Greece, but doing so neglects the purely pedagogical nature of some homosexual relationships and sustains a modern misunderstanding of such a culture. 

Yet, The Song of Achilles has not replaced The Iliad; it stands alongside it. It may say more about modern culture than ancient, but so long as readers do not approach it as a historical account of homosexuality there is no need to discredit it. It is as much a fiction as Homer’s epic, and if it provides readers with another LGBT+ narrative on the overwhelmingly heterosexual shelves of history, then that is surely a good thing.