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Lost Lesbian Lit: A Lesbian Novel From the 1950s and the Continued Importance of Maude’s Abortion Episode

Lost Lesbian Lit is a series of essays about lesbian literature from before 2010 with fewer than 25 ratings on Goodreads — mostly found at Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop. This month, Forbidden Fires by Margaret C. Anderson.


Last month, I started watching Maude.

My encyclopedic knowledge of the big screen has only recently been joined by an attempt to understand the small. Most of my homework has been catching up on queer shows of the 2000s like Buffy, Noah’s Arc, and Glee. But after a friend referenced Maude in conversation, something compelled me to go back to a sitcom from the 70s. Maybe with the barrage of anti-trans hate in the news, I just needed laughs packaged into 22 minutes.

For those who don’t know, Maude was a spin-off of All in the Family and focused on a liberal matriarch foil to Archie Bunker’s conservative patriarch. Running from 1972 to 1978 and starring Bea Arthur in the titular role, Maude was as groundbreaking as Norman Lear’s previous show. It pushed progressive values while poking fun at Maude’s liberal hypocrisies. The first episodes alone cover topics ranging from discomfort around mental health, racist tokenization, age gap relationships, and the 1972 election. With episodes nine and ten — its most famous — the show did something controversial even today. Maude has an abortion.

Talking to my friend about these episodes is what motivated me to watch in the first place. But I wasn’t prepared for how radical this overtly pro-choice television would still feel. While Maude is uncertain about her decision, the morality of abortion itself is not questioned. It is equated to vasectomies, and Maude’s daughter pushes her to let go of past messaging that has told her it’s wrong.

This was the year before Roe v. Wade was ruled. We’re now in the year after Roe v. Wade was overturned. The importance of this half-a-century-old episode remains. Were a similar episode to air on network television today, it would still inspire protest.

In the wake of our current backslide, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of history. While I haven’t trusted the narratives I was taught in American public school since, well, I was in American public school, I still find myself tempted into a more linear view. But the truth is history has not even been two steps forward, one step back — ours is a far more complex and ever-shifting reality.

Margaret C. Anderson wrote Forbidden Fires, her short novel of lesbian love, in 1958. It’s inspired by her lived experiences — a fancy way of saying a big gay crush she had — in the 1920s and 1930s. The current publication is from 1996 and is accompanied by a lengthy introduction and afterward from Dr. Mathilda Hills, who discovered this lost work while researching a potential biography.

The three-part story describes the decades-long anti-love affair — or, rather, love anti-affair — between the narrator, Margaret, and an older woman named Audrey Leigh. For both women, it is something like love at first sight, but only Margaret wants to act on it. Audrey is torn between her personal desires and her fealty to a religious code.

When reflecting on the literature and other media of the time, Audrey seems an obvious choice for a protagonist. But this book isn’t written by Audrey — nor her inspiration, the actress, Josephine Plows Day aka Tippy. This book is written by Margaret. Audrey’s reluctance is therefore viewed only through the lens of the woman who loves her, a woman comfortable in her lesbianism, lamenting to friends who are comfortable in their lesbianisms. To deny love for something as silly as religion is viewed by our narrator and her community as merely a foolish frustration.

Early in the book, Margaret describes the comfort she feels with her sexuality. “How strange girls were not to be like me! It never occurred to me that I was ‘strange’; I was merely different, had been born different. So much the better.” She goes on to say that had she faced backlash for her sexuality, she would have fought on behalf of herself. But, to her pleasure and my surprise, she didn’t. “My conviction of possessing personal authority was so rooted that I continued to pursue my life as if no one would ever dare to criticize me about anything. And in fact no one ever did.”

The reality is not that the 1920s were a queer utopia. Fictional Margaret and her real-life counterpart made choices to avoid critique. They lived in places like Chicago, New York, and Paris, and pursued lives in the arts. As children, they knew their experiences of love could not be shared in the same way as the girls who fancied boys. But these choices were available. It’s essential we hold these truths at once — we cannot gloss over the traumas of the past, but it’s as important we not deny our ancestors their many joys.

While editing The Little Review with her life partner and business partner — then just business partner, then nothing, then complicated ex, then friend — Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson faced criminal charges for the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even in the cities, America’s Puritan streak drove Jane to London and Margaret to Paris. But this encounter with the law was just one story in Anderson’s varied biography that is mostly concerned with art and dyke drama.

In the novel, Margaret’s friend Kaye laments the back-and-forth with Audrey Leigh, calling it a game of cat and mouse. “I love being a mouse,” Margaret replies. “I like a degree of la belle dame sans merci in the situation. Love — ‘love’ — as I know it has always been so… call it ‘domestic.’”

With Anderson reflecting on her younger years, much of the text reads as comical. It’s as if in an older age, Margaret relates more to the frustrated Kaye than her stubborn youth. The book is a beautiful testament to willful love — and an adoring mockery of those same feelings. There is never any question of Margaret’s lesbianism, only a question of that lesbianism being directed toward a woman who won’t fully reciprocate.

When Anderson shared the book with her friend, Janet Flanner, Flanner teased Anderson for how focused it was on this one aspect of Anderson’s life. We know, based on Anderson’s biography, that the decades she was pining away for “Tippy,” she had plenty of normal, mutual relationships with women. But Anderson wisely understands that the cat and mouse make for the best drama.

The book is relatable whether you’re currently in the clutches of a romantic feline or if you feel like looking back on a younger self with a loving chuckle. It’s a book that could be praised by saying over half a century later that it still feels contemporary — the truth of that statement is something that deserves examination.

During one of Margaret and Audrey’s many debates, Margaret says, “You’ve read the wrong books. I’ve never had that absurd ‘Well of Loneliness’ feeling of isolation and guilt.” Margaret is, of course, referencing the Radclyffe Hall classic that can be purchased at your local Barnes & Noble. While radical in its own right, and certainly influential, Hall’s book could break into the mainstream, because it still framed lesbianism as joyless. Meanwhile, even four decades later, Anderson could not find anyone to publish Forbidden Fires.

Our perception of history is shaped by who writes the stories and who publishes them. It’s fitting that the final text Mathilda Hills ends with is an appendix of a series of letters between Anderson and another lesbian writer lamenting their limited publishing options. These women existed — as people, as artists — their stories were just tucked away.

It’s tempting to read a book like this, to learn about a person like Margaret C. Anderson, and feel like nothing has changed. The more challenging work is to understand that a lot has changed; it’s just that the generalizations we make about an entire world, an entire country, or even just one city, erase the vast range of queer experiences.

While praising the freedom of being queer in France, Margaret says: “These tendencies were not regarded as aberrations but as non-conformities; the unusual, the rare — perhaps the unaccountable; singular, but not abnormal; anomalous, perhaps, but original; in any case, exceptional and interesting.”

But we know from Anderson’s biography that during the 40s she would have to flee France due to the rise of Nazism. Some people were unable to flee and died. We also know Anderson would later return.

There are people currently fleeing their states due to anti-trans laws. Other people will stay. Some who flee will return. Some will not. People will fight for who they are and who they love. Some will fight a lot, some will fight less. There will be suffering. There will be joy. There will be laws passed and laws overturned. There will be protests and art and sex.

There will be books that go unpublished for decades. There will be sitcom episodes that air when they’re needed most. Only to be needed once again.

Like Maude, I’m Jewish. And one of the things I was taught again and again as a Jewish child is that we must study history to prevent it from repeating. Forbidden Fires is a testament to the opposite: It is of equal importance that we study history so we can repeat it. If we let go of the myth that progress is inevitable, an arrogance that we are better today in every way than we were yesterday, then we can look to our ancestors for guidance.

We can see that sometimes amid homophobia, and even an impending Holocaust, there is still time — we should make time — for art, friendship, and an all-consuming crush.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 568 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Los Angeles Public Library has three copies of Forbidden Fires! Hooray! I feel so lucky–they had Matricide too. It’s not my local library, but I’m only 20 minutes away from the closest branch.

    Drew, I’m sure you have a whole backlog of wonderful novels, but I’ve been getting back into reading plays recently, and if you were to ever find yourself drawn towards the drama section of Glad Day I’d be interested to hear what treasures they have. (So far on this theatre kick I’ve read a ton of posthumous Lorraine Hansberry, and three explicitly lesbian plays: The Children’s Hour, The Killing of Sister George, and The Captive–from 1926!)

  2. Drew, this is such a rich essay on a rich topic. Thank you for doing this kind of “homework” and sharing your finds with the community. It’s such a gift and a service, and your writing is just superb.

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