Bibrary Gender Identity and Expression Challenge: The Hermaphrodite by Julia Ward Howe

The Challenge: read five books in any five categories that deal positively with gender identity and expression.

I originally signed up for this challenge with my old gender blog, Mercury’s Moon, but that was before I created this one. I haven’t decided yet whether to cross-post the entries or just put them here. In any case, I’ll repeat what I wrote there when asked to explain why I was participating in the challenge: Books that focus positively on trans or alternative gender characters and/or subjects are not widely publicized. If we’re interested in the subject matter, if it’s important to us, it’s up to us to seek out those books and promote them ourselves. Because they ARE out there.

In fact, I just got done reading one of them.

The Hermaphrodite by Julia Ward Howe

This book was difficult to read, but not because it was badly written or hard to follow.

True, it was written in the 1800s, something I didn’t know when I subscribed to the method of “pick the first book off the list that I can actually find in the library.” True, it is an incomplete work with large segments of the plot altogether missing. But the old-timey style was easy enough to get used to once I realized what I had gotten myself into, and the editor Gary Williams did an admirable job piecing together an at-times very disjointed plot.

At one point in the novel, the protagonist Laurence and his mentor and friend Berto are at a Carnival celebration, and Laurence thinks to himself:

“So intolerant, so incomprehensive is society become, that fervent hearts must borrow the disguise of art, if they would win the right to express, in any outward form, the internal fire that consumes them. There is scarcely one great passion of the soul which would not, if revealed, offend the narrow sense and breeding of the respectable world, and the few who are capable of these powerful emotions, and who must express them, must speak as with the voices of others.” (pg. 121)

Likewise Williams, in an introduction that at first I found far too academic and drawn out, but that I later appreciated for the background and depth it gave the story, writes of “the encouragement [such texts as these] might offer to others struggling to sing their full natures with passion, without inhibition, despite cultural interdictions perceived or real.” (pg. xxxviii)

The Hermaphrodite was difficult to read because it cuts directly into the heart of a problem that is, it would seem, timeless: the struggle for those who find themselves invisible to or forbidden from “polite” society to express themselves, to love themselves and to be loved, or even simply to exist without feeling stifled.

Laurence himself was born with ambiguous genetic traits, and although his parents chose to have him assigned male, almost no one in the book (including Laurence himself) ever seems entirely comfortable with this assignment. Others may find his ambiguity beautiful from time to time, but he himself is repulsed by it: he sees himself as a thing unworthy of love even as he strives to find his place – if not in the physical realm, then as a pious and spiritual being. Ward’s words are clear and emotion-driven, and cannot help but hit home for anyone who has wondered whether there’s any sort of the place for them in the world. There are struggles with religion, with family, with the possibility of suicide, and they ring just as true as anything that could and does happen now, more than a century later. The tone may seem over-sentimental and florid to some, but that’s partially the style of the time in which it was written and partially the way Howe chose to handle her subject.

This is a book that’s going to stay with me for a long time. It’s hard not to wish it were a complete work, but at the same time its incompleteness adds something in itself. It is not the totality of a life, but snapshots of a life: almost as if it’s being presented to us to take or leave as we will. In the end the story has something of the same attitude as Laurence himself who, while living as a woman for a time, offers us this:

“What would you say to me, fair reader, if I present myself before you in feminine masquerade…Will you recognize me with an astonished smile, and a ‘who would have thought it?’ or will you treat me as men and women are apt to treat an old friend in an equivocal position, and pass me staring at nothing, or at me as if I were nothing? Let it be as you please, quite as you please. If you know me not now, you never knew me, and so, questioned or unquestioned, let me pass.” (pg. 130)

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Posted on April 29, 2011, in Bibrary Gender Challenge 2011, Reading Challenges. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very well said, hon. I admit to being curious about this, but the very acadmeic introduction did put me off. I think I may have to take the plunge, though, and work my way through it.

    • The intro could stand to be trimmed – you get the feeling that Williams is a little enamored of his own writing – but it still puts the book into the context of Howe’s life, which gives the story extra depth. I’d recommend giving it another try.

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