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Monday, April 20, 2015

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell--A Broken Life

I've always been interested in historical novels about women who dress as men.  Their motivations may tell us about the period in which they lived.  These women usually didn't want to be men.  They wanted male freedoms--especially freedom of movement.  They wanted to engage in activities that weren't permitted for women.  In one novel I read, the protagonist simply wanted to disguise herself  so that she wouldn't be recognized by pursuers.   Yet in Revolutionary by Alex Myers the question of the protagonist's gender identity does arise.  The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber is another book where  we have to wonder whether the protagonist dressed as a man to overcome restrictions, or really did want to change her gender.

This is a novel that took place in Victorian America. It's undeniable that women had very limited options at that point in history. The whalebone corset is a good metaphor for what  the Victorian period did to women's lives. It constricted women in confining roles so that they could hardly breathe.  Lucy Ann Lobdell, the real historical personage who is the central character of this novel, didn't wear a corset.  Yet Victorian attitudes constricted her.  She spent her entire life trying to breathe freely.  In this novel, Lobdell did tell herself that she didn't want to be a man.  Yet when she was in circumstances where it was known that she was a woman and could continue to engage in activities that were considered taboo for women, she still chose to dress as a man and wanted to be called by a male name.  Had Lobdell  actually decided to try to become a man in every way that was possible at that time, or was it because she had internalized societal attitudes and wasn't comfortable being who she was while living as a woman?

The portrayal of Lobdell's sexual preference illustrates this issue.  Although the character did fall in love with one man and marry him,  this turned out to be an uncharacteristic choice.   Once the husband was out of the picture, which happened before the events of the novel began,  our central character only fell in love with women.  So are we looking at a lesbian or a heterosexual man?  What is the character's self-perception?  It's interesting that a case study about Lucy Ann Lobdell was apparently, according to this book, the first time that the word "lesbian" was used to mean a woman with a sexual preference for women.  Before that article about Lobdell, lesbian referred to a resident of the island of Lesbos, and women who loved women were "female inverts".

My own view is that Lucy Ann Lobdell was a lesbian rather than a female to male transsexual who perceived himself as heterosexual.   Other readers might have another opinion.  Yet it did seem to me that she wanted to legitimate her relationships with women in the eyes of society by using a male name and dressing as a man.

The social recognition that Lobdell  craved was only hers briefly in a locality where no one knew that she was a woman.   As a result, she continually struggled with depression and other mental disorders.  In the newly nascent profession of psychotherapy women who resisted conventional roles were thought to be hysterics.  Since psychotherapy was only available to wealthy women, Lobdell was just locked away.  Her condition always worsened when she was isolated and imprisoned.  She was driven crazy by cultural expectations and then abandoned.  I was saddened by this waste of human potential.

I was pleased to discover a research topic within the pages of this book.  Lobdell became a convert to the Church of the New Jerusalem which was based on the ideas of Emmanuel Swedenborg. My web search uncovered the fact that John Chapman, who was known as Johnny Appleseed was also a follower of Swedenborg.  I found a web page about John Chapman as a Swedenborgian missionary that also briefly discusses the ideas of Swedenborg.  See John Chapman and Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Although the author Klaber doesn't portray Lobdell as a Swedenborgian missionary,  there is mention of  it in the book.  I think that Lobdell was drawn to the Swedenborgian doctrine of true soul mates. Swedenborg believed that people will be with their soul mates in heaven even if they weren't married to them.  This would have been a comfort to her because she seemed to have only brief moments of happiness while she was alive.

I found The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell both gripping and informative, if not inspiring.  We need to know about the lives broken by Victorian oppression.  I am glad that William Klaber has brought Lobdell to life for us in fiction.



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