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Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900


Robert Craig and Ina Linge

The relationship between biological thought and literature, and between science and culture, has long been an area of interest by no means confined to literary studies. The Darwin Anniversary celebrations of 2009 added to this tradition, inspiring a variety of new publications on the cultural reception of Darwin and Darwinism. With a fresh scope that includes but also reaches beyond the «Darwinian» legacy, the essays in this volume explore the range and diversity of interactions between biological thought and literary writing in the period around 1900.

How did literature uniquely shape the constitution and communication of scientific ideas in the decades after Darwin? Did literary genres dangerously distort, or shed critical light upon, the biological theories with which they worked? And what were the ethical and social implications of those relationships? With these broad questions in mind, the contributors consider the biological embeddedness of human nature, perspectives on sexual desire, developments in racial thinking and its political exploitation, and poetic engagements with experimental psychology and zoology. They also range across different literary traditions, from Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, to Britain and the USA. Biological Discourses provides a rich cross-section of the contested relationship between literature and biological thought in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures.

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9 (Re-)Constructing the Boundaries of Desire: Sexual Inversion and Sapphic Self-Fashioning in Josine Reuling’s Terug naar het eiland (1937) (Cyd Sturgess)


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9    (Re-)Constructing the Boundaries of Desire: Sexual Inversion and Sapphic Self-Fashioning in Josine Reuling’s Terug naar het eiland (1937)


During the late nineteenth century, the Netherlands witnessed an unprecedented surge in discourses of sexuality and desire. Influenced by developments taking place in Germany, Dutch literary authors began to experiment with, and challenge, sexological paradigms in their writings. Josine Reuling’s Terug naar het eiland (Back to the Island, 1937) is one of the first literary attempts to subvert the binary designations developed by sexologists and to counter the image of the lesbian as a masculine ‘Other’. Reuling’s descriptions of a feminine lesbian protagonist challenge contemporary theories that suggested lesbian desires must be coded masculine in order to be perceived as ‘authentic’. Following a discussion of the development of theories on female homosexuality in the Netherlands, this chapter will explore the extent to which Reuling’s novel subverts the rigidity of contemporary sexological structures. It will be suggested that while Reuling’s writing appears to inscribe a new regime of gendered norms and boundaries on her protagonist, her novel can also be read as an entirely unique document of its time, one that attempts to offer alternative configurations of queer female identity and desire.

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