Article body

If the normative practice of biography is grounded, as James Clifford puts it, in "the myth of coherent personality,"[1] how can a life be written that is based not on identity but the subversion of identity? This is the question posed by the life of Mary Diana Dods, a woman with multiple names and genders. A brilliant but impoverished early nineteenth-century Scottish woman and an illegitimate daughter of George Douglas, the fifteenth Earl of Morton, Dods seems to have had all the advantages of an aristocratic upbringing until the earl married a much younger woman. Apparently uninterested in marriage and supposedly disqualified for it by physical deformity, Dods was then, apart from a small allowance from her father, thrown on her own devices to survive. Having had an excellent classical education, she tried the typical professions available to respectable intellectual women in early-nineteenth-century Britain: giving lessons, running a school for girls, and taking in lodgers. (Her sister Georgiana, who was also illegitimate, attempted the remaining option, being a lady's companion, when she became a young widow but never found a position.) Finding herself unable to live on the combined proceeds from these endeavors and her allowance, Dods began to supplement her income by writing for magazines, both anonymously and under the masculine pseudonym of David Lyndsay. The invention of the Lyndsay persona was a prelude to a more radical transformation under another authorial pseudonym, Walter Sholto Douglas. As Douglas, Dods eventually adopted masculine dress, passed as a man, and moved to France, where, hoping to join the diplomatic service, s/he played the role of husband to Isabella Robinson, a beautiful young woman who needed a father for her illegitimate child. Douglas's diplomatic ambitions remained unfulfilled, and he seems to have died between November 1829 and November 1830, of mental and physical ailments.[2]

Until recently, the conservative understanding of subjectivity and narrative in much biographical practice has converged with the social stigma and often severe punishments attached to gender crossing to keep stories like Dods's from being written.[3] In fact, these factors have tended to produce a curious situation where the requirement for coherency in a life story can be strictest precisely in those cases that radically put into question any notion of the subject as a unitary entity, comprehended by a single name and possessing a single life history and gender. This happens, for example, in the prescribed programs of counseling and training developed by the transsexual industry in the twentieth century for gender dysphoric persons who seek sex-reassignment surgery. The professionals who control access to this surgery and prescribe the shape of the entire transformative process define passing as its goal. Consequently, they teach pre-operative transsexuals attempting to live as members of the "opposite" sex to talk about their past histories in ways that conceal their gender change and future sex change.[4] The resulting narratives are even less flexible than the generality of normative biographies, because while in the latter wholeness is conventionally achieved as an end product, in the former it is asserted to exist from the beginning.[5]

Yet, the emergence of two new factors has changed this state of affairs significantly. The incursion of poststructuralist theory into biographical studies and the advent of transgender activist movements have recently given an unprecedented visibility to alternative biographical practices which in deliberately fragmentary and discontinuous narrative forms celebrate self-contradictory subjects, including those who change their sex and/or gender. These new generic models are epitomized by a different kind of transsexual narrative, in which the subject rejects the goal of passing and insists instead on being read as transsexual. Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us is perhaps the most famous example in this category. For Bornstein, her unconventional textual practice and her non-unitary identity go hand in hand: "My identity as a transsexual lesbian . . . [is] based on collage. You know—a little bit from here, a little bit from there? Sort of a cut-and-paste thing. And that's the style of this book. It's a transgendered style, I suppose."[6]

Given the major shifts in the sex/gender system from the early nineteenth century to the present, it would be anachronistic to call Dods a transsexual.[7] Yet as a subject whose multiple personas queer the network of relations among persons, gendered bodies, names, and signatures, she also demands a different kind of life writing if she is to be visible at all. In fact, she has already been the subject of one such effort: Betty T. Bennett's Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar, which records the author's serendipitous discovery of Dods's male personas and the difficult, slow, and frequently interrupted task of linking of these identities to a woman. For my own research into the case, I have followed in the tracks of Bennett's skilful literary detective work,[8] and I would like to acknowledge my debt to her at the outset, for my reading would have been impossible without hers. In what follows, I shall interpret Bennett's study of Dods along with primary documents relating to the case, because that study raises, with greater and lesser degrees of explicitness and self-consciousness, a host of paradigmatic issues related to writing an unconventional biography when the biographical subject is a gender-crossing woman. Most importantly for the present study, the speculations punctuating Mary Diana Dods as to whether or not Dods's gender masquerades are motivated by erotic desire for other women must be considered in terms of larger epistemological questions that persistently arise in relation to women's same-sex sexuality. For in Western philosophical, artistic, literary, and psychoanalytic traditions, sexual desire between women is persistently represented as an enigma that incites an obsessive desire for knowledge.[9] Bennett's work provides a convenient opportunity for considering the stakes of preserving these epistemological questions on the one hand or of seeking to resolve them on the other hand by finding one true, universal explanation for female sexuality.[10] Since these philosophical queries in turn render problematic the status of documentary evidence, they also open the way for a critique of the positivistic historiographical methods on which conventional biography depends. By exploring these issues in relation to Dods and Bennett's reading of her, this essay aims to intervene in the ongoing theorizing of life writing. In particular, I argue for the necessity of articulating questions of textuality and methodology with questions of gender, sexuality, and feminism to produce a genre that might be called queer biography.[11]

Dods requires a different kind of biography not least because her story depends on the technological possibilities of writing and more specifically the disseminatable letter. By sending her author's queries and manuscripts through the post, she was able, at this early stage in her transformations, to assume identities independent of her sexed body. In this way, she began a series of transgender careers so successful that they remained undiscovered for over 150 years, until Bennett discovered them in the process of preparing a new edition of Mary Shelley's correspondence. A member of the widowed Shelley's small circle of women friends in England, Dods appears in that correspondence in the form of coded references. Later, when Dods had to pass in person as a man, she added the disguise of clothes. These methods worked largely because they exploited practices in the specific historical, cultural, and social matrix in which they were deployed. She was able to find masculine attire that fit her female and deformed body because individual tailoring was the norm for middle-class and upper-class persons in her pre-mass-production moment. In addition, the fact that pseudonymous and anonymous publication and reviewing were common practices in the thriving magazine culture of this age gave her a ready-made and relatively unobtrusive means of keeping her own name a secret. Yet for all that, she was still able to and did draw on the new allure being attached to authorship. For as Robert J. Griffin has recently argued, pseudonymity and anonymity coexisted with signed authorshship over a long period that includes the nineteenth century, and under certain circumstances they could even fulfill what Foucault calls the author function. Dods thus reaped a double benefit from living at a time when the institutions and practices of authorship were in a state of flux. She could use her pseudonym as a tease to arouse a publisher's interest in her authorial persona without, however, attracting undue suspicion to herself or running much risk of discovery.[12]

Dods's first publisher, William Blackwood, of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, raises the issue of pseudonymity in his initial letter to David Lyndsay: "I have been so much accustomed with my Magazine Correspondents assuming names, that when I hear from a stranger I am always uncertain whether or not I see a real or an assumed signature. I never however ask farther than what my correspondents choose to communicate."[13] Despite this claim to discretion, the Blackwood-Lyndsay correspondence and Blackwood's letters to other contributors are full of questions and answers about the real names of pseudonymous and anonymous authors and references to well-known aliases, such as Christopher North (for John Wilson) and Elia (for Charles Lamb).[14] Dods offers one reason for the widespread practice of pseudonymity and anonymity in a letter to her father, which explains why she does not publish her reviews of others' works under her own name:

I sometimes, about once a quarter, write a criticism for the Reviewers upon some popular work, any that happen to be the fashion, for which, I am esteem'd one of the cleverest and keenest of that race of Vipers. I am paid tolerably well, ten Guineas per sheet, but this not under my own name I dare not acknowledge the Fact lest the angry Authors whose works I am compelled to maul in the course of my vocation should return the compliment and maul me in return.[15]

This explanation in terms of self-protection is a pragmatic reason based on the nature of reviewing as an institution, but, clearly, it is not Dods's reason, since she did not write her literary compositions or essays under her own name either. Thus it is unlikely that anyone could have connected the author of the reviews with the author of the other works. The institutional feature provides not an explanation, then, but a plausible cover story for Dods's experiments with identity. And experiment she did, developing even the unembodied Lyndsay persona much further than practicality required. In fact, for Blackwood, it took on a life of its own. In a letter to his fellow publisher Charles Ollier, he expressed his desire "to hear anything you know about David Lyndsay" and confided that he thoroughly enjoyed his correspondence with the young man.[16]

Dods's pseudonymity is part of a much larger and much more complex project than a simple avoidance of vengeful criticism of her compositions. Since no materials have been found in which Dods goes into her motives more fully, and since what follows will show that we could not be sure how to take them if they did exist, much about those motives will remain inaccessible to us. In particular, we have no way of determining the precise role her sexuality or gender identification played in her male impersonations. Of course, this means that we have no more reason to think she was heterosexual than we do to think she was queer.[17] The evidence we have is incomplete and indirect, but Dods seems, on one level, to have been trying to escape at least partially from the many severe limitations on women's lives and earning power. Her letters to her father, full of accounts of her debts and pleas for money under threat, sometimes of imprisonment, from her creditors, create the image of a woman pressed to the limit, whose utmost exertions cannot earn her a living (although her style never loses its panache).[18] A statement in a positive review of her Dramas of the Ancient World, the book she published with Blackwood at his invitation, suggests the incentive she had, under these circumstances, to assume a masculine authorial persona. In the course of a disquisition on the current state of drama, the anonymous reviewer pronounces judgment on one of the most admired playwrights of the day, Joanna Baillie: "Joanna Baillie is a woman, and thence weak in many things," although he then goes on to give her qualified praise.[19] One of the most intriguing documents in the Dods/Lyndsay/Douglas materials reads as if it responded to the issue raised in this statement. In a letter to Blackwood signed "Isabel Douglas" but whose authorship Bennett finds good reason to question (Bennett 166), the author explains her use of male pseudonyms for her literary works in light of prejudices like those expressed by the reviewer, who sees a causal relation between being a woman, no matter how esteemed, and being weak: "You are not to think it strange that I always assume the person of a gentleman in all I write, but in truth I do not think women gain much by being known as authors even in this age of universal charity."[20] As a whole, the evidence implies that one reason (but not necessarily the only one) Dods and/as the (perhaps partial) author of this letter wrote under men's names was to avoid automatic and unwarranted judgments of inferiority.

The Lyndsay pseudonym allowed Dods to accomplish this goal. Blackwood extravagantly praised Lyndsay's first submission to Maga, which later formed part of Dramas. Speaking of the "high gratification and honor of receiving" Lyndsays's manuscripts and the "lustre" they would add to his magazine, Blackwood writes: "It would be absurd to say anything in the way of praise to the Author of such scenes, for the mind that was capable of conceiving and so admirably executing them, must be conscious of its own powers, and feel that the world must do them justice."[21] Blackwood also had great expectations for the commercial success of the volume: "It is impossible for any one to predicate with certainty what may be the sale of a Book, only this I will say, that if it is not a successful publication I shall be more mistaken than I ever was in my life."[22] Yet, as Bennett notes (182), Blackwood was wrong; Lyndsays's Dramas never sold well, and this financial disappointment led the publisher to begin rejecting Lyndsay's submissions and proposals, despite holding them in critical esteem, for Blackwood always maintained that Dramas deserved to be more appreciated than it was.[23]

This qualified, literary versus commercial success is dwarfed by the spectacular achievement of Lyndsay's—and Walter Sholto Douglas's—transgender performances, which, according to all available evidence, were universally and unquestioningly accepted as the real thing. No mixed reception here; all smash hits. On the few occasions on which Lyndsay shows that he does not completely master the code of gentlemanly behavior, Blackwood suspects nothing. The most revealing instance arises after the two disagree about the merits of Peter George Patmore, who had published his private correspondence with Blackwood without the latter's permission, unbeknownst to Lyndsay.[24] When the publisher by return mail rages against the man who thus betrayed him, Lyndsay attempts to make amends by implying he would fight a duel if Blackwood remains unsatisfied with his apology:

I lose no time in making this explanation and apology—if it be not sufficient to satisfy your feelings, pray command me. I will offer it in any way you please. I deserve a Bullet at ten paces for my thoughtlessness at least in appearing to offer an impertinence when God knows nothing of the kind was intended.[25]

In his subsequent expression of regret that Lyndsay was "so vexed" by his letter, Blackwood tacitly registers the hyperbolic character of Lyndsay's response; the offer of fighting a duel is out of all proportion to Blackwood's condemnation of Patmore. Yet Blackwood does not see the hyperbole for what it is: a sign that his correspondent is treating him to a slightly imperfect gender masquerade. In fact, the publisher assures the author: "Unknown as we are personally to each other, I have always in corresponding with you felt the fullest confidence that I was writing to a gentleman."[26] That Blackwood thinks only the "gentle" part of "gentleman" is in question makes his acceptance of Lyndsay as a man all the more striking and ironic.

A more complex irony lies in an anonymous review of Dramas in Maga. The reviewer declares David Lyndsay, who is not a real man (that is, neither real nor a man) "a man of talents and of genius," while vilifying actual men—the Cockney dramatists—as "mollies" and "eunuchs":

What an emasculated Band of dramatists have deployed upon our boards! A pale-faced, sallow set, like the Misses of some Cockney boarding school, taking a constitutional walk, to get rid of their habits of eating lime out of the wall. Shiel, Howard, Payne, Molly Procter, Virginia Knowles . . . . How prettily the sentimentalists simper as they go! The tear is in every eye, and the drop at every nose! 'Pray who is that smock-faced eunuch, mincing his way in the procession? The author of THE SUCCESSFUL TRAGEDY!!' We can no more.

But the procession of Misses Molly has past by—and we again look upon men. Now men do not come forward at the Cockney cry.[27]

One doesn't have to be Judith Butler to see that, as Lyndsay, Dods performs gender. S/he is playing to an audience, whom s/he would mislead; in other words, she is attempting to pass. Her success in outscoring actual men on the reviewer's masculinity scale unsettles the equation between maleness and masculinity, and between sexed bodies and gender that her audience assumes. The paradox of the situation emerges most strongly from the fact the reviewer invokes Lyndsay's supposedly unambiguous masculinity to police gender categories and boundaries by disciplining a species of improper men: "the adult passive transvestite effeminate male or molly" who comes into existence in early-eighteenth-century Britain and constitutes a "third illegitimate gender."[28] Thus Dods's cross-gender performance is ironically a site where challenges to proper gender are negotiated.

But the real gender trouble begins when we take into account that Dods herself was perceived as ambiguously gendered by her contemporaries. The writer Eliza Rennie describes in glowing detail what she calls Miss Dods's "queerness":

. . . certainly Nature, in any of its wildest vagaries, never fashioned anything more grotesque-looking than this Miss Dods. She was a woman apparently between thirty and forty years of age, with a cropped curly head of short, thick hair, more resembling that of a man than of a woman. She wore no cap, and you almost fancied, on first looking at her, that some one of the masculine gender had indulged in the freak of feminine habiliments, and that "Miss Dods" was an alias for Mr. —. She had . . . a complexion extremely pale and unhealthy, with that worn and suffering look in her face which so often and so truly—as it did, poor thing, in hers—tells of habitual pain and confirmed ill-health; her figure was short, and, instead of being in proportion, was entirely out of all proportion—the existence of some organic disease aiding this materially. Her dress, by its singularity, accorded well with her physical peculiarities and disqualifications, and only tended to heighten and exasperate, so to speak, the oddity of her tout ensemble. She was habited thus:—Her dress was of some white fabric—cambric, I think—and though the fashion of the period sanctioned "gores," and robes were then, in contradistinction to the present amplitude of width, scanty in their allowance of "breadths," yet hers was of such a very lean description, that it had something the resemblance of a close-fitting pillow-case. On it was a row of little successive tucks, which reached to the knee, as if to have body and skirt of one material was of too ordinary a character for her toilette. She wore a tight-fitting green silk spencer, like what one of the jackets now worn would be without a "basque." My astonishment at her appearance was unbounded, and I had some difficulty to keep myself from betraying this, and to control the laughter I longed to indulge in; but the charm and fascination of her manner, the extraordinary talent which her conversation, without pedantry or pretence, displayed, soon reconciled me to all the singularities of her appearance, and checked all inclination to mirth; and I quickly ceased to wonder at "Doddy," as she was familiarly termed by Mrs. Shelley and her intimate friends, being so especial a favourite. She was a great linguist, being thoroughly versed in almost every European language, and, taken together, a person of very remarkable mental endowments. She was a contributor, she said, to "Blackwood's Magazine," and announced herself as the author of a book called "Tales of the Wild and Wonderful."[29]

This passage wreaks havoc with the genetic relationship usually assumed between gender masquerade and presumably "true" gender, and it does so all the more subversively because it describes Mary Diana Dods in propria persona and under her own name. Here, Dods is indeed performing in Butler's radical sense, in which gender is not a "core" or stable identity or even a "noun," but "a performative, . . . always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed." Following the anthropologist Esther Newton, Butler suggests in Gender Trouble "that the structure of impersonation reveals one of the key fabricating mechanisms through which the social construction of gender takes place." Thus a pastiche practice like drag, "in imitating gender, . . . implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency." In impersonating herself, then, Dods supports Butler's contention that all ways of inhabiting a body, including so-called original gender, are performances, because they invoke or resignify pre-existing conventions. Indeed, Butler turns to drag in order to deconstruct the originariness of original gender: "The notion of an original or primary gender identity is often parodied within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities."[30] Yet gender performance does not require the staginess of these practices, and, in fact, Dods's self-impersonation is more radical than they are precisely because it is not deliberately theatrical, but rather unintentional. Since Dods's original gender appears put on, in this case the original is itself a parody. At this point, there is no non-travestied body, and the whole idea of an original is subverted. By appearing to be in drag while wearing her usual clothes, Dods not only disjoins sex and gender but also makes the arbitrariness of gender coding glaringly obvious. Striking the observer as a cross-dressed man, she eventually becomes a cross-dressed woman, and it is very telling that once she makes that change, she is no longer perceived as "queer," but just "a little deformed and very clever," and no longer inspires laughter but sympathy.[31] In going from Mary Diana Dods to Walter Sholto Douglas, she thus goes not from gender-appropriate dress to cross-dressing, but from one kind of cross-dressing to another, less visible kind. For her masculine disguise surprisingly raises less suspicion than her more gender-appropriate clothes, and her performance as a man is more easily naturalized and less easily pathologized than her performance as a woman. In this vertiginous spiral of masquerades, the very difference between the natural and unnatural is deconstructed. To be sure, this kind of disjoining of sex and gender is not automatically subversive in the sense of remaking the map of social power, as Butler concedes in Bodies That Matter (126), where she somewhat qualifies her position in Gender Trouble. Indeed, we have seen that Dods is unable to fulfill her goals as Lyndsay and Douglas alike. Nonetheless, although the two male personas offer no permanent solution, they provide her with temporary and precarious possibilities for continuing to negotiate a subjectivity and to survive materially and socially when she runs out of options as Mary Diana Dods. Finally, the effects of Dods's gender travesties cannot be limited to the policing and consolidation of proper gender, despite the use that the Maga reviewer makes of the Lyndsay persona. On the contrary, we shall see that they act as a kind of refracting mirror in which the other characters in Dods's story begin to look somewhat "queer."

The proper name undergoes a subversion similar to that of original gender when Rennie jokes that Dods's real name is an alias. Indeed, there is some truth to what Rennie says. In a sense, "Mary Diana Dods" is at least as false a name as "Walter Sholto Douglas," for "Douglas," the family name of the earls of Morton, reveals a true blood relationship, the paternity that the name of Dods is designed to hide (Bennett 242). Finally, "Mary Diana Dods" itself functions as anything but a single name in the entire Dods/Lyndsay/Douglas story. In the family circle, she is called Mary. Acquaintances, like Rennie, call her Miss Dods. She signs herself M D Dods. To her close women friends, including Mary Shelley, she is Doddy, and in Mary Shelley's letters she is simply D. Lest it seem like splitting hairs to insist on these distinctions, let me point out that the gender neutrality of "D" is part of the cover-up of the Douglas-Robinson marriage in Mary Shelley's letters, where the story is encrypted. Bennett devotes one entire chapter of her work to the discovery that this initial refers to a woman (Bennett, "The Question of a Pronoun," 74-85). Bennett's first big breakthrough comes when she is able to confirm that D is Doddy is Miss Dods (Bennett 85). In addition, the equally gender-neutral signature "M D Dods" misleads Bennett for a while into thinking she is dealing with a man, Reverend Marcus Dods the elder, who turns out to be a red herring and drops out of Bennett's account without comment. Thus Mary Diana Dods's so-called real name is itself many aliases, and it renders visible what we all know but also all forget: that normally there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between a proper name and a person. Already multiple, the proper name is no longer the origin from which the pseudonym departs, and Dods's pseudonyms are no longer secondary to a primary name. At this point, there is only a chain of pseudonyms that cannot be traced back to an original, real name or identity as its support and ground, for they are themselves not unitary.

Since Dods deconstructs the concept of the origin with respect to name and identity, it is clear that we cannot discover her real self among or behind her multiple names and personas.[32] But her "queerness," to use Rennie's word, can shed light on the complexity of identity, even in cases where it does not seem obviously problematic. For the most cursory examination shows that all the actors who come into Dods's orbit, from the most eccentric to the most conventional, exhibit some peculiarities of embodiment, dress, and/or name in common with Dods.

Here, we shall follow a trajectory that goes from the exceptional to the staid in order to follow out a certain logic of identity subversion. Thus we begin with one of the eccentrics, Dr. Kitchener, whose Tuesday evening salons were attended by Dods, Isabella, Mary Shelley, and Eliza Rennie. Rennie describes the doctor in terms that recall her description of Dods:

. . . I must give you an outline of the doctor's personal appearance.

This was very remarkable, stamping him with individuality and originality at least, if it challenged for him no more unfavourable judgment. . . .

. . . his figure, dress, and gait were alike, and altogether most outré. He was tall, bony, angular; his body always looked of most disproportionate and unnatural length—and there was a gaunt, ungainly look about him, which at once arrested your attention. An attack of paralysis, which affected one side, gave to his gait a halting movement almost painful to witness. To the same calamity also, I believe, was attributable the loss of sight in one of his eyes. But this deficiency was not observable, as he wore glasses—of his own invention, by the way. His complexion was dark, but not unhealthy-looking; his features good, and the expression of his indicating shrewdness of mind combined with kindliness of heart.

At the time I knew him, I guess—for he never spoke of his age—he must have been between fifty and sixty years of age. Had he condescended to dress in an ordinary mode, he might have passed without comment; but imagine a man, lean, long, and queer-looking, exasperating these defects by wearing a coat of a cut in total discordance with those of everyone else, black, of some material that was shiny—'continuations,' long gaiters, buttoned up to the knee, and superadded to all—a spencer! And then his hat! Who shall describe his hat!—who shall describe its shape and fabric? On some of the Frenchmen who frequent Leicester Square and its precincts I have seen the nearest resemblance to it. It was low-crowned, broad-brimmed, and napless. He seldom indulged in pedestrianism, his lameness obliging him to use his brougham. But I never did see him in the street without observing that he fixed the gaze of every one he came in contact with. He had been brought up as a physician, and in early life followed it as a profession. But having succeeded to a good fortune, he abandoned it as a pursuit, only giving advice gratuitously to occasional patients, and surrendered himself up to the prosecution of his favourite hobbies and follies, it may be.

Rennie 1:199-201

Like the "queer" Dods, the "queer-looking" Dr. Kitchener has a deformed, disproportionate body, and its "defects," like hers, are "exasperated" by strange, unfashionable clothes, and the overall appearance of both is so out of the ordinary that it irresistibly captures the observer's eye. In each case, that appearance has been materially affected by illness. Perhaps because of the combined influence of oddness and disease, the age of each one is difficult to guess and can be specified only to within ten years. Both sport a short jacket called a spencer, which, since in one form it was worn by women and children and in another by men, confuses gendered dress codes.[33] Kitchener and Dods also resemble each other in additional ways. Both have learning and intelligence; she has impressive linguistic knowledge and writes clever pieces, while he is an inventor and generally shrewd. Both also have multiple careers. Where she gives lessons, runs a school, writes reviews, tales, and dramas, and takes in boarders, he first practices medicine and then becomes an amateur astronomer, a culinary experimenter, and an author, whose cookbooks earn him fame. Finally, Kitchener, like Dods, experiences a shift in economic status, although in the opposite direction. Upon inheriting money, he no longer has to work for a living; upon her father's marriage and the accompanying decrease in his financial support, she is forced to find employment.

Despite being conventionally feminine in many ways, Isabella Robinson (Douglas) unsettles the proper name and singular identity almost as much as Dods does. First, Bennett finds Isabella, like Dods, baffling in terms of sexual orientation, because Bennett takes it as a contradiction that Isabella could have enough sexual interest in men to become pregnant while unmarried and yet live as the wife of a woman (Bennett 251). As Walter Sholto Douglas's supposed wife, Isabella is an equal partner in the gender masquerade and fictional marriage. Both women are actresses, and, it must be emphasized, both pass, despite the pervasive and, in my opinion, unfortunate tendency in the primary and secondary literature to see only the cross-dressed woman in any couple as doing so.[34] But presenting oneself as a woman in a conventional marriage to a man when that man is not a man and there is no legal marriage is passing. Furthermore, Isabella takes on a pseudonymous identity when she passes as Mrs. Sholto Douglas and especially when she presents herself as an author. In the letter to Blackwood that bears her assumed "married" name, she indulges in an elaborate play on signatures: "you are mistaken if you imagine as your letter seems to insinuate that I am the author of the pieces you have done me the honour [honor?] to insert. I know that all sorts of fiction are usual, and permitted in this kind of correspondence, yet I told you my real name and situation—and I will hold to the simple truth in every thing I communicate," she writes, before narrating the fiction of her marriage to "a Scotsman by name Sholto Douglas."[35] When she later says: "I have placed the signature 'Lilla' to all I have written merely to distinguish them from the more spirited and better written pieces of my husband" (f. 253v), she creates a mise en abyme of pseudonymity in which the "original" of a false name is another false name, that is, if she is indeed the author of this letter. If not, there is a new complication, in which the writing hand and authorship belong to two different—pseudonymous—people. For Bennett suggests that Isabella is perhaps only the scribe of the letter and that the two authors "Lilla" and Mr. Sholto Douglas are both Mr. Sholto Douglas (166). Under this arrangement, Dods could continue to submit materials to Blackwood's without being identified through her handwriting as the unwelcome David Lyndsay, whose epistolary style "Isabella's" recalls. But if Isabella is not necessarily the author of the letter or the manuscripts signed "Lilla," she nonetheless produces fictions as do Dods and her alter egos. For Rennie reports that the author Lord Henry Augustus Dillon condemns Isabella as an inveterate liar who "tell[s] . . . stories" (Rennie 2: 203), and others accuse her of creating masks to serve her self-interest. According to the testimony of Frances Wright, Isabella plays the role of intimate friend to Mary Shelley, all the while painting unflattering pictures of her to their Parisian circle.[36] On December 1, 1830, when Dods/Douglas was almost certainly dead, the fictional marriage dissolved, and Isabella's perfidy revealed, Mary Shelley writes: "Good heavens—is this the being I adored—she was ever false yet enchanting—now she has lost her fascinations—probably, because I can no longer serve her she take[s] no more trouble to please me—but also she is surely not the being she once was."[37] By this account, this switch from one being to another is a radical type of multiple identity, in which Isabella does not simply hide her true self behind a false role but is two different people. Finally, Isabella assumes yet another name when, around 1840, she becomes the Reverend Mrs. Falconer, perhaps again without benefit of marriage (Bennett's extensive research could turn up no marriage certificate; 233).

Jane Williams Hogg, another member of Mary Shelley's female circle of friends, shares the trait of fictionalizer with Dods and Isabella; she, too, "tells stories" about Mary Shelley. Furthermore, like them, she uses assumed names. Having fled an alcoholic and abusive husband whom she could not divorce, she first passes as Mrs. Edward Williams and then Mrs. Thomas Jefferson Hogg (Bennett 29). But the use of assumed names does not necessarily indicate a deliberate falsification of identity or status. All the married women in the case, regardless of their honesty or dishonesty, go through name changes. Thus, in addition to those already mentioned, the earnest Georgiana Dods becomes Mrs. Carter; the unreliable writer Rennie, who fictionalizes her memoirs by claiming an intimacy she never had with the celebrity Mary Shelley, becomes Mrs. Walker; and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who by 1828 boasts of her virtue, in her unconventional youth becomes Mrs. Shelley before she can be legally wedded to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like Dods's assumption of the Douglas pseudonym, Mary Shelley's name change is associated with sexual scandal. Thus at this time marriage is, so to speak, a socially instituted pseudonymization of women, because it customarily requires them to take their husbands' surname. As a result, married women are often almost as difficult to trace through documents as the masquerading Doddy and, for this reason, like her, tend to drop out of history.

More unexpected is the echo of Dods's gender travesty on the part of the said Mary Shelley, whom Rennie describes as perfectly feminine,[38] and whose beauty contemporaries often remarked on. One would thus expect her to be the antithesis of the deformed and mannish-looking Mary Diana Dods. In fact, however, Mary Shelley at one point describes herself as symbolically transgendered. When she gets smallpox in France, her descriptions of her "clipped" and "cropt" [sic] hair[39] recall Rennie's description of Dods's cropped hair, "more resembling that of a man than of a woman." In addition, Mary Shelley's letters praising the beauty and perfections of her "dearest Jane" Williams Hogg echo the lover-like letters Mary Diana Dods writes to her "pretty" Mary Shelley.[40] Both women write in the conventional idiom of female romantic friendship, and Bennett speculates on the possibility of lesbianism in both cases (248-49).[41] To top it all off, Bennett presents Mary Shelley as a case of multiple personality. While most studies of her portray "a diffident Mary Shelley, with little life-force beyond her extraordinary first novel, Shelley and their children, and her parents," Bennett sought and found in her subject's letters "a far more complex woman" (Bennett 11)—in fact a transgressive woman and even a criminal, for those documents reveal Mary Shelley's central role in arranging the false marriage between Doddy and Isabella.[42]

That even the staid publisher of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine turns out to have more than one identity might seem incredible, but in his very first letter to David Lyndsay, he writes under two personas, publisher and merchant: "Having now spoken for myself and my friend Christopher [North, a renowned Blackwood's reviewer], permit me to say a few words for myself as a Bookseller."[43] But perhaps the most astonishing case of multiple identity is that of the legitimate members of the Douglas family who hold the Morton title. Morton family portraits present the possibility of a metaphorically transgendered earl. A painting of a small boy in a dress, who is either Doddy's father or, more likely, her grandfather, suggests cross-dressing, or, more accurately, given that in nineteenth-century England and America, dresses were normal clothing for both boys and girls until the age of five or six, gender ambiguity, again, as part of a social institution.[44] The significance of the child's dress is enriched by another portrait of the thirteenth earl and his wife and children, in which the sons and daughters all look exactly alike (Bennett 241). In these paintings, common nineteenth-century British sartorial practices, aided by family resemblance, indicate a completely conventional and routine suspension of gender dichotomy at a certain life stage, childhood. Doddy is able to exploit such moments in an unconventional way; for her they represent openings in which the possibility of her gender performances can be glimpsed and seized.

Similarly, her father's many names and titles, all properly conferred, can provide the model for Dods's pseudonymy. "He was George Douglas, fifteenth earl of Morton, Representative Peer of Scotland, Baron Douglas of Lochleven, chamberlain of the household to the queen consort, Knight of the Order of the Thistle, lord lieutenant of Fifeshire and of Midlothian, vice-president of the Royal Society, Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland" (Bennett 242). Furthermore, he, too, is a case of mistaken identity. According to the English Burke's Peerage, he is the sixteenth Earl of Morton; while according to The Scot's Peerage, he is the fifteenth, and the confusion results in Bennett's getting the wrong document at a crucial point in her investigation (Bennett 70-71).

Against this background, where seemingly "normal" characters exhibit anomalies of gender and name, it is clear that Mary Diana Dods's transmogrifications [45] take on their full significance only when we realize that Dods's identity does not first become a mystery when she begins to use false names and, later, pass as a man. As Bennett concludes in her study, who Mary Diana Dods is is a very real question, both before and after David Lyndsay and Walter Sholto Douglas come into consideration: "Doddy's life insists on the mysteries and complexities of existence that are so often oversimplified in the name of order and control" (269). With "the very noblest of old Scotland's blood" in her veins and educated "under the best of Masters," she is sometimes recognized as a daughter of the aristocracy before her father's marriage,[46] but thereafter she lives as precarious a life as any single middle-class British woman in the early nineteenth century, given the limited and low-paying employment available to them. In sum, due to the uncertainty of her class-position as a reputed daughter and to the so-called oddities that keep her out of the marriage market and thus a conventional woman's life (perhaps by her own choice), she alternates between being somebody and nobody, between being visible and invisible. What better training for taking on false identities than this condition of not quite having a real, socially recognized self in the first place?

Let us now consider the implications of Dods's case for historiographical and biographical methodology. Normally, the identity of historical and biographical subjects, presumably comprehended under a proper name and single gender,[47] is established on the basis of primary documents, such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, passports, and letters, which give such fundamental facts as sex and age. Indeed, some of these facts are such basic and ubiquitous aspects of identity that it is impossible to speak of human subjects without knowing them. In the Dods case, all of these are at some point falsified, incorrect, and/or contradictory with respect to one or another of the characters. For example, the age of Isabella Robinson's daughter Adeline on her death certificate conflicts with the age on her marriage certificate (Bennett 231). There is no wedding certificate for Isabella's supposed second marriage (to the Reverend Mr. Falconer), although that marriage, and, for that matter, the one between Walter Sholto Douglas and Isabella Robinson Douglas, are listed in that most authoritative of reference works, The Dictionary of National Biography (Bennett 233, 76). Finally, the signatures on the passport of Walter Sholto Douglas and Isabella Douglas are false. Mary Shelley sent physical descriptions and sample signatures of both to her friend John Howard Payne so that they could be impersonated and their handwriting forged at the London passport office.[48] Mary Shelley comments on the success of the impersonation and forgery: "All seems admirably managed—and the double of my pretty friend [Isabella] deserves infinite praise—the signature alone is a miracle."[49] The forged signatures are particularly troubling, since it is on the basis of handwriting that Bennett establishes Mary Diana Dods and David Lyndsay as one and the same (Bennett 169).[50] In fact, the Dods story shows, in these examples and others, that the authority of all forms of historical and biographical evidence can be undermined. Participating in the nature of writing, they are structurally constituted, as Derrida has shown, by iterability, which is to say, by the possibility of being repeated outside their original context, by a different sender and to a different addressee. Thus iterability opens the empirical possibility of forgery,[51] which, as we have just seen, plays a large role in the Dods case. No wonder that at various stages in her search to identify the characters in the drama, the more documentary information Bennett finds, the less she knows:

I had reached a new degree of uncertainty about Lyndsay and Douglas. At the beginning, I was searching for biographical information about one writer and one husband. Now there were at least four men, David Lyndsay, Walter Sholto Douglas, M. D. Dods, and Marcus Dods, plus one woman, Doddy. They could all be the same man—or woman. At this point, after fourteen months of hunting, reading, reviewing; after dozens of letters and countless books, I didn't know either the name, the origins, or the sex, of David Lyndsay or Walter Sholto Douglas.[52]

Bennett 85

Although Bennett does not thematize the methodological difficulty that the problematizing of so-called factual evidence poses for her own work and even reaffirms her faith in "dusty documents," she can be seen none the less to develop a new investigative method. She solves the case not by confirming facts from document to document but by reading the contradictions between them. And, at least as important, she recognizes that facts alone do not provide a solution. The most stunning illustration of this point occurs when, against the seemingly established account of the DNB, she entertains, gradually and against great resistance, the possibility that certain feminine pronouns in Mary Shelley's letters refer to Doddy (or D), who would then be Isabella's female husband. At this point, Bennett declares: "[S]uddenly, the illogical [that Isabella Douglas could be married to—or passing as the wife of—a woman] became the logical," and "As I read, I saw for the first time, what was there all along" (Bennett 76). To see what is there (i.e., the facts), one must see differently. Without the proper modality of vision, which is to say, without the proper frame of understanding, one renders the facts invisible; for grasping their basic information requires interpretation. Here, to see at all means seeing outside the assumptions of compulsory heterosexuality, seeing that there is an outside to them. It is the frame of compulsory heterosexuality that renders all unions except those between a man and a woman illegible (whether or not that union is sexual).[53]

Concomitant with this radical shift in reading and vision, Bennett produces a different kind of biography. Instead of composing a single magisterial narrative with a unified subject, she gives us a multiple subject and a narrative that works on two different but intertwined registers: on one level, we get the story of Mary Diana Dods and her alters, and on the other, the story of Bennett's detective work on them. Both stories proceed as a series of re-readings, often in the most literal sense, as in the case of the feminine pronouns in Mary Shelley's letters I have already cited. In addition, the seemingly most transparent and obvious documents change radically in meaning when they are read in light of other documents. For example, initially reading Lyndsay's letters by themselves, Bennett gets the impression of a self-confident, somewhat boastful young man-about-town who drops hints about his noble blood and friends in high places. However, when she rereads them with Blackwood's responses, and with Dods's and her sister's letters to their father, what formerly seemed like bragging comes to look like a desperate effort to renew Blackwood's interest after the commercial failure of Dramas (Bennett 184-88; 206-18).

To be sure, this emphasis on multiplicity coexists with regressive attempts to discover the real Dods. Throughout most of the work, Bennett is obsessed with finding the truth of Dods's sexuality. In this quest, she acknowledges as her expert guide "regarding aberrant sexual characteristics" the sexologist John Money (Bennett 289n42), who himself relies on Robert J. Stoller's concept of a core gender identity, although the two researchers differ on other matters.[54] Money and Stoller and their brand of sexology in general espouse liberal and enlightened attitudes toward gender variation and sexual variation, but Bennett's reference to sexual aberration reveals the normative assumptions behind this allegedly benevolent approach. In practice, the concept of a gender core tends to be used to enforce strict adherence to traditional and often stereotypical gender roles in an effort to ensure heterosexuality, on the grounds that anything else will meet with social hostility. In Money's work, it is a small step from here to justifying gendered power hierarchies: "If you're a woman with passive dependence bound deep in the core of your female schema, you will be as uncomfortable wielding authority as if you grew a full beard."[55] During the heyday of gender clinics, this notion of a deep, constant, and ineradicable gender "schema" allowed Money and other sexologists to act as gatekeepers to sex-reassignment surgery by claiming to have a protocol for discerning who was really a transsexual and, by implication, who a man and who a woman. In this perspective, there are only two, dichotomous possibilities, and everyone, including transsexuals, must be one or the other.[56] Since this view also sees gender (re)assignment as determining who does and does not 'wield authority," Money is deeply implicated in maintaining the "order and control" that Bennett has already identified as oversimplifying "the mysteries and complexities of existence" upon which "Doddy's life insists" (269). Therefore, by accepting Money as an authority, Bennett goes against her own deepest insights into Dods's case. In fact, her discoveries are much more in line with the work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Sandy Stone than with any kind of sexology. This is particularly so with regard to the extraordinary degree of autonomy that Bennett grants to Dods's alter egos. Upon discovering Dods's letters to her father and her letters as Lyndsay to Blackwood, Bennett writes: "Finding out more about a person sometimes means finding a new person" (174). This statement looks forward to the radical and depathologizing position that Stone, writing as Allucquère Rosanne Stone, takes on multiple personality, when she argues that the possibility that more than one person can inhabit a body should be taken seriously (A. R. Stone 58).

Viewed in this light, Bennett's efforts to discover Dods's truth, driven as they are by a desire-to-know that Bennett herself recognizes as voyeuristic and thus libidinal, yield a result that is both ironic and telling, for they produce a dizzying array of potential sexual characters. After a veritable orgy of prurient speculation where in the space of five pages she asks whether Dods was a lesbian or transvestite or both (256, 258), a hermaphrodite (258), a "genetic," "biologically based" [sic] transsexual (259-60), or a practitioner of romantic friendship (260), Bennett is forced to give up this line of inquiry as inconclusive. She then decides that sexuality should be subsumed under the "far more significant question" of self-image: "If she [Dods] was a lesbian [Bennett's favorite speculation], the necessarily clandestine nature of that preference reinforced what was a far more significant question central to her life: In her own eyes, who was Miss Mary Diana Dods?" (Bennett 261). The search for Mary Diana Dods's 'true sexual self' ends (256; emphasis added), but Bennett's search for the ultimate truth does not. In fact, both quests share a common theoretical orientation, dictated by the metaphysics of substance that underlies any notion of a deep, inner essence. Thus the basic project does not change but merely takes on a new form, in which Bennett now interprets Dods's life as a search for a stable personal and social self: "an existence where she could be recognized for what she was; where she could see her self [sic] in the mirrors that are other people's eyes" (268). Bennett ultimately restores the notion of real identity (and, by implication, the true motivation of Dods's masquerades) that her narrative has interrogated.

Yet if Bennett attempts to resolve Dods's contradictions, she nevertheless lets the contradictions of her text stand. The deconstruction of identity remains side-by-side with the recuperation of identity, and even the latter is achieved through masquerade: by going to France, Bennett writes, Dods 'could become, however disguised, herself" (266, emphasis added). Bennett's study thus includes a record of its theoretical contradictions, false starts, blind alleys, breakthroughs, and the slow, frustrating process of linking Dods up with her pseudonymous identities. A work that deliberately shows its seams, it exhibits a quasi-poststructuralist textuality. Thus Bennett's method is in keeping with the fractured and split subjectivity of Mary Diana Dods, which, in the end, brings to light the splitting of all the subjects in the story, as a condition of subjectivity itself. In fact, although Bennett does not explicitly identify herself as a feminist (of course, this does not stop her from raising numerous women's issues) or a deconstructionist, Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar fulfills most of the criteria that biographer, feminist scholar, and theorist of biography Sharon O'Brien sets out for a new kind of feminist deconstructionist biography. First, Bennett "find[s] ways of interrupting her own voice" and, as shown above, extensively "incorporate[s] into the text a record of the shifts and developments in her own construction of the subject." In this connection, she also resists allowing "the 'last' self" of all the selves the biographer discovers in the subject to "become[] the final one, the only represented one, [as] the former selves disappear, fading away in the biographer's memory as the first, second, and third drafts go into the wastebasket." Second, Bennett does not follow the traditional practice of ending the work "with the death of [her] subject" (O'Brien 129-30). In contrast to this strong closure, we have seen that she emphasizes the uncertainty of the date and circumstances of Dods's death and, by insistently telling of her fascination with Dods, endows her with a kind of afterlife or effectivity in the present. By the same token, Bennett inscribes herself in the narrative, not as a magisterial subject of knowledge but as a situated, limited subject of desire.[57] Finally, she "takes into account the possibility that the female subject may occupy many "subject positions" in a life—positions that vary according to class, race, sexual preference, family status, and age," not to mention gender. In fact, Bennett goes O'Brien one better by showing that Dods occupies multiple positions in relation to most of these individual identity categories. With Mary Diana Dods, Bennett thus exceeds O'Brien's model of feminist deconstructionist biography to write a queer biography.