I have had a rather frustratingly short attention span recently, but instead of trying to fix the problem, I have decided to embrace it and have turned to short stories for my reading pleasures. I started with the small short story collection within the young adult section of my library for easy pickings and came away with several books, one charmingly titled Willful Impropriety: 13 Tales of Society, Scandal, and Romance and edited by Ekaterina Sedia.
One of my favorite aspects about short story collections, whether by one author or loosely about a certain topic, is how they illustrate the range of imagination, how they can contain so many surprises. This one had more than its fair share of surprises for me. When I began reading the collection, I skipped the Foreword and Introduction, which I never do, and went straight into the first story. The back cover gave no hints to anything more thought-provoking than cute, straight, historical romance stories. Thus, I was blown away by the gender-bending protagonist of the first story, able to convincingly act and live the parts of both men and women in Shakespeare’s plays and in real life.
After reading the first two stories, both with queer elements, I went back to read the foreword and introduction. In Ekaterina Sedia’s introduction, I finally found a mention of the queer content in a book that gives no indication of that content on the outside. Sedia wrote, “So it seems to me that the Victorian age is a perfect medium to tell these stories of defying convention, of individuals chafing against the constraints of what was considered to be the unchangeable order of things. Against the expectation that one should know one’s proper place, determined by one’s race, class and gender, against the notion of marriage and binary gender constructs, against the expectations of strictly heterosexual attraction.” It seems to me like this is the type of material that should have been on the back cover. The cover sells the book short.
Around half of the stories include some sort of queer content, from cross-dressing to homosexual relationships to gender-bending and gender fluidity. Some of that content, particularly the two stories dealing with gender-bending and gender fluidity (the first story, “At Will” by Leanna Renee Hieber, and the second to last story, “Outside the Absolute” by Seth Cadin, respectively), is vital material. I personally have not encountered any other stories or novels containing characters that exist outside the gender binary. The only other nonbinary characters I’ve read are the Gethenians from Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
The best part of “At Will” is how it demonstrates that gender is constructed, rather than innate. When I first read the story, I was delighted by it, but the more I think about it, the less comfortable with it I am. I have never wished so intensely for a short story to be a novel before because it seems to me like the idea needs more space to make the story convincing, to resolve or explain the aspects of the story I find troubling. First of all, I don’t find it to be a believable romance because, spoiler alert, I feel like I don’t know anything about Mr. Smith, the main character’s love interest at the end of the story (end spoiler alert). Second, the story ends on the idea that living as both man and woman is complete freedom. Perhaps the intent was to suggest that living without people having preconceived ideas about what your body says about your gender is complete freedom. Either way, what the story illustrates to me is that the possibility of greater freedom from living as both man and woman is still limited by the binary gender construct of society. I think both the story and the characters themselves oversell what they have accomplished through the deliberate switching of genders. Finally, the main character Nightingale’s own sense of being a woman makes me uncomfortable with her playing both genders. The story narration is in third person limited and throughout the story only feminine pronouns are used to describe Nightingale, even when she is dressed as a man. Further, she talks about her “womanhood,” even right before the end of the story, even after living as both woman and man or neither for months. She is tormented and lonely because no one knows her first name, knows who she is under all the roles she plays on and off stage. I agree with the ideas being advanced but not the way in which they were advanced. I think gender-bending and challenging the binary gender system is powerful, but I don’t think it should be done at the expense of one’s personal identity, and that is what it feels like is happening in the story to me.
The best part of “Outside the Absolute” is that the main character Sam is gender fluid and Cadin switches the pronouns used to identify Sam between scenes, reflecting the gender Sam feels at any given moment. Sam describes her/his gender fluidity in the story, saying, “He thought of it that way, himself—not so much that he was the boy, or that, when so attired, she was the girl, but rather that Sam was always Sam, and which side emerged to be worn on the outside of Sam when the day began was an enigmatic matter with its own capricious agenda.” Cadin uses changes in pronouns and changes in clothing to illustrate Sam’s gender fluidity and it is simple yet powerful because it is so obviously there on the page and in the story. He was a boy and she was a girl and they were the same person and I believed it. As for the rest of the story, it deals with the important subject of working class access to and production of art. However, the language used to tell the story, as demonstrated in the quote above, is ponderous at times and I had a bit of difficulty following the action of the story.
All in all, Willful Impropriety is a book of cute, fun, historical romances with at least a taste of something for a broader range of readers than most romance collections. Sedia concluded her introduction by saying, “In collecting these stories, I was hoping to put together a collection that spoke to modern readers about the eternal themes: love and trespass, betrayal and loyalty, and above all the defiance in the face of disapproving society, and the sacrifices people will make to be true to themselves and to those they love. Because even though the times have changed, there are still restrictions, and there are many improprieties we are willing to commit for love—be it love for ourselves or for others.” I think she achieved her goal, and I think the comparison of the restrictions in place and what defiances were possible in the Victorian era with the restrictions in place and the defiances possible today serves to highlight the distance we still have to go to a place where none of us have to risk so much for love.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.