Sylvia Martin reviews 'Unnamed Desires' by Rebecca Jennings

It is almost twenty-five years since Garry Wotherspoon's City of the Plain (1991) was published. In his ground-breaking history of Sydney's gay subculture, he stated that the 'history of life for lesbians in Sydney ... is more properly part of women's history'. Rebecca Jennings seeks to redress that gap in Unnamed Desires. She offers a nuanced understanding of Sydney's lesbian history from the 1930s to the late 1970s, one that remains alert to the interconnections between gender and sexuality in shaping lesbian experience.

Central to the complex and sometimes contradictory narratives that emerge is silence. This problem has been examined by, among others, Terry Castle in The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), where she aimed to 'bring the lesbian back into focus'. But, says Jennings, 'less scholarly attention has been devoted to analysing the meanings and nature of the silence surrounding lesbianism'. In this lively and fascinating study, she examines how silence has functioned as a disciplinary mechanism to keep unacceptable female same-sex desire out of cultural discourse, but also how women themselves have negotiated that silence to create meaningful and emotionally productive lives. She draws on interviews with lesbians and some drawn from archives, articles in gay and lesbian newspapers, scholarly literature from Australia and overseas and, in one case, from an extraordinary unpublished memoir by a woman who came of age in Sydney in the 1950s, Sandra Willson.

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