Please note: this review is a repost from August 2014 for my regular ‘Character of the Month’ series on this blog, and is in honour of Transgender Awareness Week 2016 (14-20 November 2016.)
I’d see her clothes and hair, and then look with disgust and confusion at my own plain, woollen clothes, at my own cropped hair, my flat chest, my spindly legs and arms. The thing between my legs like a hideous lump. It seemed wrong, somehow. Surely I should be the one in the bedroom, looking into the spotted looking-glass, combing and curling my hair, pinching my cheeks, feeling gowns flow over my curves. But I had none. I was bereft, and barren, and hollow. – Extract from ‘The Ghosts’ Feast’, copyright Eleanor Keane.
In honour of the publication of The Ghosts’ Feast, for this month’s Character of the Month I have chosen a character from The Ghosts’ Feast. Coquettish, compassionate and sometimes cryptic, Dolly is very much a vampire with a difference.
When we first meet Dolly in The Ghosts’ Feast, she is a young, neglected boy with burgeoning homosexual inclinations, a love of fairy stories and a fondness for his mother’s clothes and jewellery. The crux of this obsession is Dolly’s mother’s corset, a frivolous but oh-so-important second skin that provides all the allure of femininity beneath its silken laces.
But, for poor Dolly, the real tragedy is that in the 1800s both homosexuality and transvestism was a dangerous taboo, and trans-sexuality was nothing short of a fantasy for many young people struggling with their birth-gender. Up until 1861, the penalty for homosexuality was punishable by death, and male homosexual acts were still punishable by imprisonment. (In fact, homosexual acts were only officially decriminalized in 1967, through the Sexual Offences Act.)
This world of repression, oppression, ignorance and misery is the world Dolly inherits. Biology, not psychology, really is destiny, and man and all his mighty maleness is king. Our young hero/heroine is trapped within a hated male body, with only the thin second skin of a dress, pearls and dainty shoes to act as a barrier against violence, prejudice and hatred. No matter how long Dolly grows her hair or how many times she steps into her mother’s dainty shoes, she still cannot change the male body into which she was born.
But all is not lost, for Dolly is more than just a victim- she is a survivor, a rebel, and a fighter. Her naturally androgynous looks make her something of a siren in London’s grubby backstreets, and by the time her story ends we see her born again from the ashes of an old life, with a new name and a new sense of power.
Firmly content to stand alone in high heels and frothy floral dresses, Dolly is never afraid to be herself, even in spite of horrific and sustained adversity. After fighting tooth, nail, claw and fang, Dolly ultimately chooses something much more beautiful, much happier, and much more different for herself.
It is her story which (hopefully) proves that- no matter what skin or body we are born into- it is what we choose to put in our minds and in our hearts that truly set us apart.
All images via Tumblr