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'Lost' lesbian author found
by Marie J. Kuda
2010-09-08

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Seventy years after the publication of "Diana: A Strange Autobiography" ( NY, Dial Press, 1939 ) by Diana Fredericks ( a nom de plume ) the author has been identified as Frances V. Rummell ( 1907-1969 ) an educator and author. "History Detectives" a PBS series out of Oregon Public Broadcasting has tracked the book said by historian/author Lillian Faderman to be the "first explicitly lesbian autobiography where the two women end up happily together." She notes that there were other autobiographies that ended unhappily. [ Two such have local connections: "The Stone Wall" by Mary Casal, published by Eyencourt in 1930 when the author was in her sixties, and "I, Mary MacLane" whose books were published in the early years of the last century by Stone, both Chicago publishers. ] Faderman was interviewed for the "History Detectives" segment by Tukufu Zuberi, the PBS "detective" assigned to the case. The program tracks down the stories behind artifacts presented by owners curious to know or verify their histories. The format includes three segments each show and features three other detective/researchers including Wes Cowan who doubles in brass on "Antiques Roadshow."

Zuberi also spoke with Julie Abrams professor of LGBT studies at Sarah Lawrence College who wrote the introduction to the 1995 reprint of "Diana" published by The Cutting Edge in their Lesbian Life and Literature Series. Abrams theorized about the need for anonymity for a lesbian publishing in the 1930s. She noted that "The Well of Loneliness" which was not sexually explicit was banned in Britain and censured in the USA as obscene merely because it was about a lesbian.

The doyenne of lesbian literature, Jeannette Howard Foster writing in her 1956 pioneering opus "Sex Variant Women in Literature" while noting that the "narrative is certainly no literary masterpiece" it is a step forward from the "emotional pleas for tolerance" in Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness" ( 1929 ) . She states that the author of "Diana" makes a coolly logical case and a "strong argument for the validity of variant love." Foster equates the book in importance with the better written novel "The Price of Salt" ( 1951 ) by Patricia Highsmith writing as Claire Morgan, generally credited with being the first work to present lesbianism in a positive light. Novelist Valerie Taylor addressing the 1974 Lesbian Writers Conference in Chicago said of the Morgan novel that two women in love eventually overcome all obstacles ( including a resentful husband who has his wife and her lover trailed by detectives so that he can get custody of their child ) to make a lasting relationship.

Zuberi traced "Diana" through the Library of Congress copyright catalog ( not the bibliographic catalog ) ; all pre-1977 records are retained in old card files; those since have been digitized. His extended search ( which can be followed in the program transcript ( www.pbs.org/opb/history detectives/pdf/806 diana.pdf ) eventually turned up Jo Markwyn, a niece of Frances Rummell living in Northern California. Markwyn had never read the book but confirmed that her aunt was indeed a lesbian with a similar history to the protagonist. She also verified that her 32-year-old aunt had been in New York City in 1939, adding that she met Eleanor Roosevelt that Summer who wrote of their meeting in her "My Day" column.

Interestingly, the post-program online chat, among other things, notes that the Library of Congress and Dewey classifications accorded the book and its 1995 reprint should be altered to reflect the new information—it should no longer be classified as a novel under headings of "lesbians in fiction" but "lesbian biography" and its call letters changed accordingly. It's a pity this information did not come to light in time to be noted in the 1995 reprint.

A search of online booksellers has original 1939 "Diana" hardcovers going from $10 to more than $100; paperbacks from the pulp era at a median of $45; and the current reprint from under $20 in paper to $55 in hard cover. Interest in her other books and prices all around may rise now that Frances V. Rummel has been "found" to be Diana.

  Copyright 2010 by Marie J. Kuda


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