Translating transvestites

Wednesday 6 April 2005

Academics are to explore why writers attempt to take on the persona of the opposite sex at a unique conference in Edinburgh today.

The ‘Vested Voices’ conference will examine the phenomenon of ‘literary transvestism’, where a male writer writes from a woman’s point of view and vice versa. The two-day event, starting today (Thursday 7th April 2005) is organised jointly by Rossella Riccobono and Federica Pedriali of the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh respectively.

Academics from the US, UK, Italy, New Zealand, France and Switzerland will explore possible societal or personal reasons behind the style of writing whether it be as a form of rebellion or a way of expressing hidden desires.

Famous British writers who wrote in the character of the opposite sex include Virginia Woolf (‘Orlando’), Emily Bronte (‘Wuthering Heights’), Daniel Defoe (‘Moll Flanders’). George Eliot is best known for assuming a man’s name in order to get her works published. Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ placed him at the centre of the world of a young girl. Contemporary novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Pale View of Hills’ and Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ are novels written in the female first person by a male author. The conference, a collaboration between the Italian Departments of St Andrews and Edinburgh, will focus on transvestism in Italian literature.

Co-organiser Dr Riccobono of the University of St Andrews said: “The academic study of literary transvestism is relatively new but it is a field which is very interesting and steeped in history. We look at why authors choose to possess the body of the opposite sex, whether it be for personal or literary reasons.”

Historically, it was initially done for practical reasons – Mary Ann Evans took on the name George Eliot in 1858 in order to publish her first collection of stories ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’, because in those days writing was very much a man’s occupation. She followed the most famous French writer of the 19th century George Sand (formerly Aurore Dupin), who went as far as dressing as a man to launch herself as a professional writer in 1832.

At the turn of the 20th century however, writers penning novels under their own name used the method as a way of breaking societal codes, especially in countries such as Italy, Spain and France.

Dr Riccobono explained: “In the first half of the 20th century in Italy, writers took on this mode of writing as a way of shocking the establishment. Husband and wife team Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante were anti-fascists and took on the role of the opposite sex when writing. Before then Italian literature was very stale and modern writers brought literature closer to the people.

“Writing intimately from a woman’s point of view was shocking to Italian readers, whose literary tastes were tightly kept in control by the censorship of an overpowering church. This experimentation of writing style was a good way of modernising literature in Italy, making society more open to new ideas and readers more independent.”

Transvestism in art can be found in many humorous forms from satirical plays by Shakespeare to light-hearted movies such as ‘Tootsie’ and ‘Victor Victoria’, but during her research into the subject, Dr Riccobono found that literary transvestism was a more serious and political mode.

“Literary transvestism arises during special social and historical moments as a way of rebelling against the Church or law, going against social codes or simply to trick readers. There were increases at the turn of the 20th century, and particularly in France when laws on real transvestism were tightened,” she explained.

Of all the writers who have attempted the writing style, Dr Riccobono believes that Virginia Woolf was particularly accomplished in taking on the guise of both male and female narrators equally successfully and that women writers are in general more successful at it.

“I think women are more able to penetrate the male psyche and create more believable male narrating voices and characters, whereas men tend to create more stereotypical female objects,” she said.

‘Vested Voices – Literary Transvestism in Italian Literature’ is at the National Library of Scotland (7-8th April 2005).



Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- Ref: Translating Transvestites 060405 View the latest University press releases at

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