THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




‘Such penetrating power’: Seeing queerly in Teleny and Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet.

Helen Davies


The authorship of Teleny is obviously a contentious issue, and a summary of the arguments regarding Wilde’s purported authorial input into the text can be found elsewhere.[1] For the purposes of this article, however, I suggest that the ‘truth’ of the novel’s authorship is, to an extent, irrelevant.  Sarah Waters has remarked that her 1998 novel Tipping the Velvet is in part a reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s milieu of the fin-de-siècle sexual subculture, reappropriated from a lesbian perspective.[2] It is not unreasonable to speculate that Teleny (1893) was produced by members of this circle, if not, indeed, Wilde himself.[3] There are various aspects of the novel that emulate the culture of male-male desire within which Wilde was involved, and so Waters’ comment allows for the theorising of various intertextual connections between these two novels.

This article will focus upon one of these connections. I propose that both Teleny and Tipping the Velvet enact a subversion of the hetero-normative and traditionally-gendered power of the ‘gaze’ between spectator and performer. I argue that the arena of performance which facilitates the introduction of the ‘queer gaze’ into Teleny is reappropriated and developed in Tipping the Velvet, providing a forum for a Butler-esque fantasy of fin-de-siècle ‘gender trouble’.[4]

Writing during the 1970s and from a psychoanalytical/structuralist perspective, Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the ‘male gaze’, specifically referring to the relationship between the male spectator and female actress in Hollywood cinema:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (11).[5]

Mulvey’s analysis functions around a binary system of gender whereby masculine qualities will always be privileged over the feminine – a reasonable appraisal of the inequalities of the traditional, patriarchal order. However, Mulvey’s theory is limited by focusing only on heterosexual power relations.[6] When transposed into a forum of a ‘queer gaze’, the static active/passive dichotomy of gender has the potential to be unravelled, even to be transgressed.

The two protagonists of Teleny and Tipping the Velvet, Camille Des Grieux and Nancy Astley respectively, experience their first stirrings of same-sex desire whilst watching performances. Des Grieux has attended a piano recital by Teleny, and as he watches and listens to the performance, he has a series of sexualised visions. He remarks upon the power of Teleny’s stare:

[...] he had not what you would call hypnotising eyes, his glances were far more penetrating than piercing, or staring; and still they had such penetrating power that, from the very first time I saw him, I felt that he could dive deep into my heart; and although his expression was anything but sensual, still, every time he looked at me, I felt all the blood in my veins was always set aglow (Teleny: 28)[7]

The ‘gaze’ is described in overtly sexualised terms; Teleny has the power to ‘penetrate’ Camille with a glance. This is a strange reversal of the usual power dynamic between spectator and performer. In terms of conventionally gendered gaze, the male subject has the power to penetrate the female object. Outside the confines of hetero-normative desire, however, we see that the power of the gaze acquires a new fluidity. The arena of performance allows Camille the space to gaze at his male object of desire: ‘My eyes were fixed upon the artist who stood there bowing listlessly, scornfully; while his own glances [...] seemed to be seeking mine and mine alone’ (T: 31) and Teleny is provided with the opportunity to penetrate the male body in a way that transgresses heterosexual boundaries. In the midst of the performance, ‘[...] the pianist turned his head and cast one long lingering, slumberous look at me, and our glances met again. But was he the pianist, was he Antinous, or rather, was he not one of those two angels which God sent to Lot?’(T: 30).[8] The dynamic of this performance, embedded as it is in queer desire, provides a spectrum of potential roles for both spectator and performer that transcend the subject/object, active/passive binary of heterosexuality.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) is generally acknowledged to be a formative text of queer theory. Butler argues: ‘When the constructed status of gender is theorised as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one’.[9] Gender is constructed through the repetition of stylised acts within an extremely rigid framework. Over time, the repeated acts ‘congeal’ to produce the appearance of a ‘natural’ self (43) and according to Butler, the potential for subversion of traditional gender roles manifests itself between the fissures of the repetitions necessary for a stable gender performance; the inevitable failure to exactly repeat the performance. Butler suggests that drag performance in particular provides a forum for this subversion to take place, considering the dissonance between the anatomy of the performer, the gender of the performer, and the gender depicted in the performance (175).

Though Teleny’s performance is obviously not in ‘drag’, he adopts a power of the gaze that subverts the typically feminine role he is placed in through offering up his body as a spectacle in performance; his performance could therefore be interpreted as cross-gendered. Similarly, Camille adopts a role as spectator whereby his body is unexpectedly ‘penetrated’ by the performing subject, yet he still retains his masculine privilege through fulfilling the role of the spectator. In this scenario, the gaze is queered through a dissonance between the anatomies of the spectator/performer with the roles that they adopt in relation to the performance; moreover, the gender of these roles is not fixed but fluctuates and multiplies.

The performance of gender is significant in Tipping the Velvet, and the queer gaze is also an important theme in the development of Nancy’s sexuality. She watches the performance of male impersonator Kitty Butler, and is so captivated that she repeatedly returns to the music hall to watch Kitty’s act, as Camille is compelled to return to Teleny’s performances: ‘Whenever he played in public I always went to hear him – or rather, to look at him’ (T: 60). Nancy yearns for Kitty to meet her gaze: ‘Notice me, I thought. Notice me! I spelled the words in my head in scarlet letters’ (Tipping the Velvet: 18) and soon enough, Nancy’s stare is reciprocated: ‘[...] every time her gaze swept the crowded hall it seemed to brush my own, and dally with it a little longer than it should’ (TTV: 26).[10] The notion of gazes that ‘brush’ is suggestive, and the amalgamation of a tactile sensory experience with scopic pleasure perhaps provides another challenge to the hetero-normative economy of the gaze.

The dynamics of the mutually queer gaze between Teleny and Camille are echoed and developed in Tipping the Velvet. Nancy is a girl who gazes (thus fulfilling a masculine role) at a girl who is dressed as a boy, who promptly meets her gaze and stares back –  we again find that the active/passive power distribution of male subject/female object is troubled, dissolved. The mobility of gender that is briefly implied in Teleny is thus more fully realised in Tipping the Velvet.

A further association between performance, sexual activity and spectatorship is implied in Teleny, as Camille develops a mysterious psychic connection with his beloved, exemplified in the scene whereby he vicariously experiences Teleny’s heterosexual encounter. Camille relates the scene in detail, explaining: ‘I had a most vivid hallucination, which, strange as it might appear, coincided with all that my friend did and felt’ (T: 73). Camille is simultaneously voyeur and participant in this act; roles shift as he experiences Teleny’s physical pleasure, his own pleasure in spectatorship, and the pain of the spurned lover. The association between sexuality, performance and role-playing become more explicit, however, in Nancy’s description of having sex with Kitty:

[...] making love, and posing at her side in a shaft of limelight, before a thousand pairs of eyes, to a script I knew by heart, in an attitude I had laboured for hours to perfect – these things were not so very different. A double act is always twice the act the audience thinks it: beyond out songs, our steps [...] there was a private language, in which we held an endless delicate exchange of which the crowd knew nothing (TTV: 128)

Nancy joins Kitty in her drag stage-act, which coincides with the blossoming of their sexual relationship. If one accepts Butler’s argument that drag performance exposes the artificiality of all gender roles and exemplifies processes through which gender can be constructed differently, there are some important issues raised in the above quotation. The hetero-normative gaze of the audience is queered, both by the spectacle of the women performing a ‘script’ of masculinity and, though covertly, by the dynamics of Nancy and Kitty’s private love-making. The direct connection made between stage performance and sexual performance mobilises a queer subtext within the ostensibly heterosexual gaze at women-as-spectacle; in this context, performance provides a space for queer sexuality.

There are numerous other associations to be made between Teleny and Tipping the Velvet, such as the significance of the figure of Antinous, the motif of the same-sex lover spurned for a heterosexual partner, and the protagonists’ refusal of suicide as avoidance of dealing with the ‘shame’ of same-sex desire.[11] This article does not seek to simplistically appropriate Teleny within a twenty-first century theoretical framework, but I hope that it has suggested just one way in which the text could be perceived as relevant to contemporary sexual politics.


Return to the Table of Contents imc  |Return to hub page imd |Return to THE OSCHOLARS home pageime




[1]  See, for example, the summary provided by Robert Gray and Christopher Keep, 2006. ‘“An Uninterrupted Current”: Homoeroticism and Collaborative Authorship in Teleny’, in (ed.) Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson, Literary Couplings, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 194-195.

[2] Will Cohu, ‘The BBC make it sound quite filthy’, in The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 8th October 2002, p. 23.

[3] See John McRae’s introduction to the 1986 edition of the text (London: GMP Publishers Ltd.) for a discussion of the likelihood of Wilde’s contribution, and a summary of other potential contributors, pp. 21-23.

[4] It is important to justify and define my usage of the word ‘queer’. Neil Bartlett has described Teleny as ‘London’s first gay porn novel’ (Bartlett, 1988. Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde, London: Penguin, p. 83), and what the modern reader would term gay desire is obviously an integral aspect of the depiction of sexuality in the novel. Following Foucault’s argument that the ‘homosexual’ became a recognizable sexual identity in the late nineteenth century, critics such as Alan Sinfield (1994. The Wilde Century, London: Cassell) and Ed Cohen (1987. ‘Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation’, in PMLA, Vol. 102, No.5, pp. 801-813) have suggested that subsequent to Wilde’s trial and conviction in 1895, Wilde became the first publically recognized precursor of twentieth-century gay identity. As Sinfield has noted, however, Des Grieux cannot be identified as ‘homosexual’ in the modern sense of the word; he desires men, but does not consider himself to be a ‘sodomite’ until he has explicitly acted upon his desire (Sinfield 1994: 18). Though I certainly do not seek to detract from the political significance of reading Teleny as a specifically gay novel, I suggest that there is a range and fluidity of sexual activities/desires/pleasures exemplified within the text that it potentially benefits from a reading that does not solely revolve around a homo/hetero-sexual dichotomy. Additionally, the novel’s publication date places it within the context of the evolution of sexological definitions of sexual identity, yet the naming of same-sex desire remains ambivalent. My  usage of the term ‘queer’ is in accordance with David Alderson and Linda Anderson’s definition: ‘As a reappropriation of a term of abuse, ‘queer’ has been used to valorize those forms of sexuality which are not merely resistant to the ‘norm’ but which carry the potential to subvert the very ground on which normative judgements might be made in the first place by refusing or rendering incoherent homo/hetero-sexual and – often at the same time – masculine/feminine binarisms’ (Alderson and Anderson, 2000: 2). Though it may be considered anachronistic to apply late twentieth-century theoretical vocabulary to a late nineteenth-century text, I propose that the multiplicity/instability of sexual desires/identities in Teleny has interesting resonances with Alderson and Anderson’s definition of ‘queer’. By applying the term ‘queer’ to Waters’ depiction of same-sex desire I do not seek to conflate the terms ‘queer’ and ‘lesbian’, and admittedly Waters’ work is frequently categorized as having a clearly lesbian focus. The scenes in Tipping the Velvet discussed in this article occur when the protagonist first experiences same-sex desire, and she has no name (or identity) to put to her feelings. Coupled with the issues of ‘gender trouble’ that are depicted in the novel, I suggest that my use of ‘queer’ is appropriate in terms of encapsulating the difference represented between Nancy’s experiences and heterosexual desire/ gender roles.

[5] Laura Mulvey, 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Screen, 16:3, Autumn, pp. 6-18. As acknowledged above, Mulvey’s theory is specifically in relation to cinema, and so applying this concept to a text is obviously a shift in context. Some critics have also remarked upon the concept of audience members-as-spectacle in relation of the social/public context of theatrical performance, exemplified by Nova Myhill, 1999. ‘Spectatorship in/of Much Ado About Nothing’, in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring), pp. 291-311. Myhill argues, however, that the female spectator was still generally more ‘looked-at’ than her male counterpart (Myhill 1999: 294). The power of male spectatorship was still a heterosexual male provenance.

[6] The exclusively heterosexual focus of Mulvey’s essay has been noted by numerous critics, initially in terms of lesbian and gay scopic pleasure, and subsequently in relation to queer theory. See Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman, 2004. ‘Reviewing Queer Viewing’, in (ed.) Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, New York: Routledge, pp. 209-224 for an extended discussion of these arguments. My understanding of the ‘queer gaze’ is informed by the work of Anne Cranny-Francis et al, 2003, Gender Studies: Terms and Debates, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: ‘Queering the gaze is a play with the normative practice of the gaze, as defined by Mulvey. In place of the male gaze that is often identified as the normative practice in scopic regimes in Western societies [...] the queer gaze works as a kind of tactical reading. It does not focus on how the gendered and sexed images in a text construct the narrative or arguments in terms that assume heterosexual desire, although it acknowledges that this will most often be the case. The queer gaze identifies moments in a text that unsettle that regime’ (174).

[7] All page references to Teleny are taken from the edition of the text edited by John McRae, 1986, London: GMP Publishers Ltd.

[8] Antinous was the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (circa. 124 AD), and frequently functions as a signifier of male-male desire in late nineteenth-century homoerotic texts (see Sarah Waters, 1995. ‘Wolfskins and Togas: Lesbian and Gay Historical Fictions, 1870 to the present’, PhD thesis, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, pp. 73-107).  The reference to the angels that appeared to Lot is taken from Genesis chapter 19, whereby the citizens of Sodom sought to rape the angels (in some versions of the story). These references are, therefore, significant representations of male-male desire. Crucially, however, these are ambivalent representations: Antinous and Hadrian’s relationship ended in tragedy, and the non-normative lusts of the residents of Sodom are thwarted.

[9] Judith Butler, 1990, 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, p. 10. All further page references to Butler are taken from this text.

[10] All page references to Tipping the Velvet are taken from the 1999 edition of the text, published by Virago, London.

[11] See Elaine Showalter, 1990. Sexual Anarchy, London: Virago, for her comments on suicide as the conventional denouement of homosexual love plots in fin-de-siècle fictions, p. 113.