May 2019

(Re)recovering Victorian Queer History: Death Wore a Diadem (1989) and Feminist editing practices

Death Wore a Diadem’s editorial in particular is rich in its detail. It records the labours of care and attentiveness performed by a feminist publisher, to an act of lesbian historical narrative creation, itself written in a thoroughly genre-fiction mode.

By Rosy Mack

Queer archivists, historians, and legal scholars spend years plumbing the depths of the historical record for evidence of queer presence or in extrapolating it from telling moments of absence. But sometimes, these methods are insufficient for producing narratives of past lives which might give a sense of hope for the present to queer publics. They may not provide us with examples of queer experience beyond the punitive gaze of the law. Sometimes we write ourselves into history, using the literary as a speculative and reparative form of reckoning with what has not been handed down to us. This paper examines the editorial correspondence of one such narrative, Iona McGregor’s novel Death Wore a Diadem, published by the feminist publisher, The Women’s Press, in 1989.[i] McGregor describes her novel as an attempt to ‘show how an attraction between two women might manifest itself in 1860, pre-gay consciousness, and pre-doom and gloom of the Radclyffe Hall variety,’[ii] contrasting her own revisionist narrative with early twentieth century lesbian fiction, which often ended in tragedy for its sapphic protagonists.

Image 1: Iona McGregor’s novel Death Wore a Diadem.

In examining editorial archival material, rather than primary sources from Victorian Britain, we are able to trace the activist cultural labour of producing queer history, allowing us to re-recover queer histories and history-making. This meta view – looking at archival material which has, in turn, been produced through an engagement with earlier archives of sexuality – allows us to be attentive to influence and exigency, at the same time as keeping in mind the situatedness of the text. The influences, exigency, and records, drawn upon here in an attempt to write queers into history are, necessarily, different in their constitution, than they might be in a 2019 context.

Death Wore a Diadem’s editorial in particular is rich in its detail. It records the labours of care and attentiveness performed by a feminist publisher, to an act of lesbian historical narrative creation, itself written in a thoroughly genre-fiction mode. It also records a lively intellectual dispute between McGregor and her primary editor at the press, Jen Green, over the construction of queer women’s sexuality in the nineteenth century. Their correspondence, concerning the probable level of visibility and recognition of a fictionalised ‘lesbian’ romantic relationship alludes to, and directly cites histories of sexuality, from 19th century case law to scholarly works published that decade, inviting us to consider how more recent research might have altered this narrative.Through the traces of Green and McGregor’s collaboration, we can learn a great deal about the values of feminist publishing, second-wave political editing practices, and the interconnections between academic labour and cultural production with a wider audience in mind. This editorial project, engaging with the dual temporality of an (imagined) Victorian Britain and the context of “Second Wave” feminism in the UK reminds us that constructing history is an endlessly reiterated process, involving different stakes and commitments. It asks us to complicate easy generational characterizations of feminism and lesbian activism and to pay close attention, even to artefacts which might be overlooked as ‘escapist’ or ‘leisure-reading.’

Death Wore a Diadem is a heady combination of a thoroughly researched historical novel, a comedy of manners, a melodrama, a lesbian romance and a cosy crime whodunnit, which McGregor owns is a ‘rather maverick’ generic mixture.[iii] The Empress Eugenie of France is set to visit a prominent Edinburgh girls school, to which she is loaning a paste diadem for a tableau the girls are putting on. One fateful night, however, the diadem is lost, and Peggy, a young woman employed by the school is found dead in the street. To solve this dastardly crime, and to unseat the autocratic headmistress, Mrs. Napier, 16-year-old rebel Christabel MacKenzie, and her student-governess lover Eleanor, team up with hardened Edinburgh policeman, James McLevy. Their investigations take them from the well-to-do parlours of Edinburgh’s New Town, to the tenements of the old city, and round the minutiae of Scottish Presbytarian doctrinal dispute with Catholicism. 

What first struck this reader on glancing through the records of the novel’s production, is the level of labour, on the part of the author and the editorial staff, that brought it to publication. McGregor herself provided the press with a major re-write before they committed to publication. This included additions and subtractions in plot and characterization. The expansion and contraction involved here therefore left a substantive task for editors in reconciling drafts and retaining consistency. In the file, there are two separate plot chronologies, mapping out day-by-day and hour-by-hour each event which occurs, to ensure continuity in the final draft and to limit any possible plot-holes.[1]

As a scholar of late twentieth century feminist activism and culture, I am invested in rethinking what we inherit from pervious manifestations of the movement. These documents represent the remnants of lively contestation between political women over the context and content of representational politics. Peggy, Death Wore A Diadem’s murder victim, is the site of ideological dispute in this case history. Readers and editors puzzled over the first manuscript – uncomfortable with what some of them perceived to be an overly hasty, quickly glossed over murder of a working class woman, who, at the time of her death, happened to be returning from an illicit rendezvous with her middle class lover[2]. What this sort of archivally overheard conversation gives to me as a scholar is a sense of the awareness of, and attentiveness to, the interplay of forms of oppression, and how most responsibly to represent them, even in the case of a manifestly genre text, which some might consider to be undeserving of such diligent editing.

The letters which this article examines in more detail, from this vastly fascinating editorial file buried deep in the bowels of central London, is McGregor’s contestation with her primary editor, Jen Green, over the possibility of anachronistic illegibility of the primary lesbian relationship in the novel, between protagonist, Christabel and her young governess Eleanor. This correspondence displays their in-depth knowledge of pre-1970s understandings of Victorian attitudes toward homosexuality – a punitive, legislated repudiation of male to male practices or ‘sodomy,’ with lesbian invisibility as the corollary to this gay extra-visibility.

Both McGregor and Green had read Lillian Faderman’s book, The Scotch Verdict, published earlier in the decade which reconstructed a 1811 libel case brought by two schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods. Dame Helen Cumming Gordon, the influential grandmother of one of their students, Jane Cumming, had encouraged other parents and guardians to remove their girls from the school, that the two had been seen, in Faderman’s words, ‘in bed together, not only kissing and caressing, but going through motions that resembled sexual intercourse.’[iv] Faderman’s book, which provided analysis of a fairly obscure piece of case law[3] which made the potentiality of women’s sexual relationships with one another visible, challenged historicizations of nineteenth century sexuality which presumed invisibility. At stake here, is the sense of the extent to which feelings of lesbian vulnerability to the gaze of others, and to the law, was duplicated in earlier times. It also questions the category of ‘romantic friendships.’ Lesbian and feminist literary critics were, at this time, arguing over whether they were or were not the only category through which intimacies between women were judged.

Faderman’s analysis is cited by Green as evidence that the obliviousness of other characters to Christabel and Eleanor’s intimacy might be historically anachronistic. Pirie-Woods, though temporally situated nearly half a century before Diadem is set, concerned a girls’ school in Edinburgh specifically. Green states, ‘I suspect that there would have been less naivety and possibly more prejudice around at the time in view of this, and I’d like to know what you think.’[v] To Green, the lack of suspicion toward Christabel and Eleanor from Mrs. Napier, the headmistress might be improbable in the post-Pirie-Woods context.

McGregor, for her part, argues that despite the local nature of the scandal, and its publicity, having been brought before the House of Lords, it would not have been likely to radically alter the characters’ (mis)perception of Christabel’s relationship with Eleanor,

My own feeling is that the eruption of scandal from time to time, e.g. the Pirie-Woods case – would not greatly affect the way most people would interpret the life-styles around them.[vi]

McGregor rejects legal discursive manoeuvres as the guiding rubric by which Victorians perceived the interactions and relationships they were surrounded by. Later in the correspondence, she goes further, in response to Green’s explicit prompting with regard to sleeping practices in girls’ schools in the post-Pirie-Woods context. She contests that sexual deviance, as a site of Victorian moral panic, was largely directed in another direction:

the sharing of beds in boarding schools… was just a duplication of what went on in the adult world. The great mid-Victorian obsession was not that homosexual practices might break out in female dormitories, but masturbation. (notes on Ch 3 of Mary Hartman’s “Victorian Murderesses”.) I think the possibility that two women could have sex together just wouldn’t rise above the horizon, unless something drastic forced it into people’s minds.

For McGregor, an individual scandal would be unlikely to unsettle widely held opinions about female sexuality, or lack thereof, and that the accepted, homosocial space of the girls’ school was so well-established at this time, as to not be easily disturbed. To support this conclusion, she cites a ‘double muffle on the idea [of sex between women]– ignorance or at least low-level consciousness of the existence of lesbianism, and the opinion, if there was any, that it was rare.’ Though she does own that it is difficult to come to a satisfying conclusion on this issue, given changing linguistic, conceptual and societal shifts in consciousness:

In assessing any written evidence…we have a threefold barrier to get through: change in public attitudes since 1960 (doesn’t apply to me!); post-Freudian concepts of sexuality; and the language barrier (same feelings expressed in a different way, same words having quite different connotations).

McGregor, with Green, attempts to sift through what available evidence there is, bearing in mind this three-fold obstacle to translating from the archive. This complex task is all the more impressive in the service of a text whose genres – crime, romance, melodrama – are often thought of as ‘leisure-reading’ – illustrative of the seriousness with which this ‘unserious’ project was taken. The lengthy correspondence over a possibly anachronistic portrayal of sexuality is testament to the attentiveness and seriousness with which both take the work of bringing the text to publication, and in the stakes of lesbian representation more broadly. It is clearly not enough for a book to be an entertaining romp of a mystery novel with lesbians in a historical setting. It must be a thoroughly researched historical lesbian mystery romp. It also makes clear the engagement of both author and editor with developments in lesbian literary criticism, and thus the interpenetration of academic and creative practice – distinct areas of study, from legal to historical scholarship, influenced by recent trends in revisionary histories of Victorian sexuality, are united here with a commitment to representational accuracy.

It also attests to the interpenetration of queer work done within existing records, and in the invention of new alternatives. Though one approach to historicizing ourselves is to search the record, to mark the absences and the inadequacies – most evident in legal cases in which the punitive gaze of the law is brought to bear on behaviour, practice and affiliations of queer bodies. [4]   Another approach to the paucity of antecedents, of course, is to creatively engage with their possibility. Here, McGregor and Green are working together to sharpen such a narrative, both on its own terms: as a fiction narrative conforming to certain conventions and norms; and as a  writing of the existing record, necessitating all the research, consideration and knowledge required for a historical narrative with the same commitments.

In this spirit of re-historicization, I think it is also crucial to note queer scholarly work on the Pirie-Woods trial after Faderman’s influential book. What this fascinating consultation between a movement cultural worker and producer does not engage with is the racialization on which the verdict of this important trial is dependent. For Green and McGregor, the trial’s interest with regard to this text is largely in what it tells us about the thinkability of lesbianism. It is concerned with visibility and with the punitive gaze. But another aspect of the trial – the determination of Pirie-Woods’ respectability – is dependent upon the exclusion, from this state, of Jane Cumming, a young woman of South-East Asian heritage. Lisa L. Moore comments upon the complexity which the case held for the House of Lords-

This impasse, in which establishing the sexual passivity of the two teachers logically requires the recognition of the sexual awareness of a young girl, threatens to disrupt a system of cultural authority in which women’s sexually passive virtue held in place and legitimated the very forms of gender, class, and national power that authorized the court’s investigation as the mere safeguard of such virtue.[vii]

In order to reconcile their belief in the heterosexual sovereignty of the nation, the impossibility of both thought and deed of women’s sexual practices with one another, deviance had to be situated in the figure of the most convenient other. Jane Cumming must have made it all up out of malice, inventing the experience from knowledge she had gained outside of the United Kingdom. As Moore puts it, ‘Sexual relations between women becomes not only the cultural but also the bodily property of the colonial Other.’[viii]

Colonialism, and its relationship to the elite imagined lives of Edinburgh’s New Town, in Death Wore a Diadem, is largely present only in its absence. This is not to say that McGregor and Green’s collaborative labour, the care with which this manuscript was brought to publication, or the intricate discussions of construction of sexuality detailed above should be invalidated by this in-attendance. Rather, the rich bustle of Edinburgh society in the 1850s, might also benefit from an interrogation of what made such a society possible, both on the level of economics – what financed the development of the bustling New Town[5] and on the level of social mores; which bodies became the excess through which the respectable was able to constitute itself. It poses an additional question to us as queer historians and historiographers. It asks us to consider not only the absences and injustices of our situation within the historical record, but also the necessity of reckoning with multiple histories of identity, class, whiteness as well as sexual practices.


Rosy Mack is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of English. Rosy’s PhD project is a history of The Women’s Press as a site of feminist culture making. Other scholarly interests include 20th century women’s genre fiction, queer theory, and critical race theory. 


[1] The minutiae of these continuity edits extends to the very lay-out of the school building, with out-of-house editor taking a whole page of edits to detail and correct geographic inconsistencies e.g. ‘Art studio must be (at least) second floor because it is immediately above the library (129) which must be at least first floor as (73) boarders trooping downstairs for lunch, from library to which Mrs N had to go up.(67)’Copy Edits of Death Wore a Diadem, Enclosed in Correspondence from Jen Green to Iona McGregor, 25th September 1988, Box 15, Folder 5, The Records of The Women’s Press, The LSE Women’s Library, London, United Kingdom.,  To solve these conundrums, McGregor draws out a floor-plan of the school including both standard English and Scottish floor designations.

[2] In the novel, Peggy, a working-class woman in service, is unceremoniously bludgeoned to death after she is found carrying the diadem. One of the press’s readers vehemently objected to this characterization and plot development,  citing a) the absence of a narrative necessity for the murder, making the classed and sexualized problematics more egregious, b) the choice of a servant as the most fungible character combined with McGregor’s choice of socio-linguistic choices in her prose, and c) the possibility of the victims’ sexual exploits, followed by her murder, being read as cause and effect.

[3] Though an important one in the history of lesbian historiography and literary criticism; Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, borrows heavily from transcripts of the Pirie-Woods trial, and is, itself an important artefact of early 20th century queer representation.

[4] Examples in case law and policy include One Inc., Vs. Olesen (1958) Bowers vs. Hardwick (1986)in the US context, and the Labouchere Amendment (1885), Regina V. Wilde (1895), and Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, in the US context.

[5] For recent journalistic work on New Town’s relationship to the slave trade, see: Darren McCullins, “Charting Edinburgh’s Slave Trade History,” October 31, 2018, sec. Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-46030606; Shan Ross “Edinburgh’s New Town ‘Built on Black Slavery,’” accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.scotsman.com/regions/edinburgh-fife-lothians/edinburgh-s-new-town-built-on-black-slavery-1-4819492; Molly Lambourne Edinburgh’s Historical Association with the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” The Student (blog), January 23, 2019, http://www.studentnewspaper.org/edinburghs-historical-association-with-the-transatlantic-slave-trade/.


Further Reading

[i] Iona McGregor, Death Wore a Diadem (The Women’s Press, 1989).

[ii] Iona McGregor, “Correspondence from Iona McGregor to Jen Green, 21st February, 1987, Box 15, Folder 5, the Records of The Women’s Press, The LSE Women’s Library, London, United Kingdom.,” n.d.

[iii] McGregor.

[iv] Lillian Faderman, Scotch Verdict*: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon (Morrow, 1983). P. 18

[v] Jen Green, “Correspondence from Jen Green to Iona McGregor, 25th September, 1988, Box 15, Folder 5, the Records of The Women’s Press, The LSE Women’s Library, London, United Kingdom,” n.d.

[vi] Iona McGregor, “Correspondence from Iona McGregor to Jen Green, Undated [Likely October, 1988], Box 15, Folder 5, the Records of The Women’s Press, The LSE Women’s Library, London, United Kingdom,” n.d.

[vii] Lisa Moore, Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel (Duke University Press, 1997).p. 79

[viii] Moore. P. 79

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