Section 5

Queer, Difference, Heresy: Salt Lane Witches in 'Rupetta' and Out

Daniel Hourigan

The queer at play in Sulway’s Rupetta reveals the tensions between the religious, heretical, and historical themes of the novel. Yet how deep does this rabbit hole go? A closer look at some of the novel’s fantasy coordinates—Fairy Tales Studies, the Salt Lane Witches fairy tale, The Winter’s Tale, etc—reveals that speculative Rupetta pushes the boundaries of what can be formalised as Queer Science Fiction. The axiom of this discussion is that the anti-normative stance that Sulway assumes with regard to the queer in Rupetta provides comment on the twists of Queer Science Fiction and its intertextuality more broadly.


Speculative Fiction; Queer Theory; Intertextuality; Fairy Tale Studies; Literary Theory



The queer at play in Nike Sulway’s speculative novel Rupetta (2013) serves to reveal a cadre of antagonistic forces at work between the religion, heresy, and history in the novel. As regards the queer, for the purposes of this discussion I choose to define ‘queer’ (as much as one can) according to the critical works of Alexander Doty, Lisa Duggan, and Jasbir Puar, separated as their works are by over a decade of critical debates. For Doty, writing in the early 1990s, queer was almost categorically defined as anti-straight sexualities (xv). Lisa Duggan’s critique of homonormativity in the 2000s aligns with Doty’s focus on mass culture. In The Twilight of Equality (2003) Duggan critiques the species of homonormativity that rests on what she viewed as the depoliticisations of north American gay cultures by neoliberal conditions of consumption and domesticity (2003: 50). For Duggan and Doty alike, queer sexualities are about pleasure and political agendas much like straight sexualities. Ultimately, this recent debate is centred on the mainstreaming of gay cultures, a political event so influential upon modern states like the United States of America that, today, the military and the police march at Mardi Gras and Pride alongside those they have a long history of violently oppressing. This historical tension may be one of many reasons why Duggan remains ambivalent about the growing conservativism surrounding this ideological development, particularly the inclusion of identities that have a long history of oppressing queer and gay people at the celebrations of gay culture that they now participate in (2003: 41). Since the turn to the 2000s, Puar has attacked this conservativism, arguing that the geopolitics of queer have come to define certain portions of gay culture as worthy of the protections of the state and others not, or, more strongly, excluded by the designation ‘terrorist’ (2013: 336). The axiom of the discussion below is that Puar’s anti-normative stance on queer in this brief sequence from Doty to Duggan to her work, accords with the queer motifs in Rupetta in such a way that it provides comment on the weirding and wending of Queer Science Fiction.[1]

Rupetta Out and About

At the level of the narrative, there are several queer, and sometimes weird, elements in Sulway’s novel that are connected to the novel’s portrayal of religious ideology: the homosocial and romantic relations between Henriette (Henri) and Miri in the straight shadow of the Oban and Elm Colleges; Henri’s intellectual passion for the heretical history of the Salt Lane Witches; the juxtaposition of immortality and organic life in the political tensions between the official religion of the Rupettans and the guerrilla heresies of the Oikos; and the fusion of immortality and organic life in the form of Rupetta’s child, Perdita. This range of elements, and the immense scale of Sulway’s intertextual layering, make it a challenge to summarise the novel in its totality. Suffice to say that as a reader of English literatures, European philosophy, and cultural legal theory, I saw a lot of subterranean jokes alighting beneath a serious story about political and theological upheavals in Gothic shadows, Romantic flux, and New Weird tenors.[2] The reading of Rupetta that I offer below is particularly interested in the strategies that the narrative employs to construct a recognisable queer discourse in the shadow of an authoritarian political theology. Central to my critical reading is how the Rupettan censure and repression of the heresy of the Salt Lane Witches and their—particularly Mathilde’s—support for the ‘psychotic leaders of the Oikos’ (Sulway 2013: 48) serves to expose the ideological frame of the Rupettans. This reification of Rupetta—from a curiosity and guardian of the Reni women to a god-like being for all post-humanity, told through both the psycho-historical narrative of Rupetta and Henri’s bildungsroman—spawns the colonial Oikos resistance yet also finds itself spurred onwards by the subsequent repression of the Oikos and its Salt Lane supporters as heretics. [3] This narrative line constructs an alternative historical vision of the past in order to tell the story of its central character in the tradition of some science fiction equally invested in political retellings such as Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (1962).

Sulway uses the queer politic of the censured and silenced stories of the Salt Lane Witches to clear a space for Henri’s disinterested scholarly gaze to transform itself into a passion for claiming a forgotten truth. This critical shift is carried out by Henri in distinction to the advice of her mentor Abel Jenon’s warning about the seductions of heresy for the historian. This shift is significant because it structures two thirds of the narrative in the novel. As I will argue below, this in turn shifts Henri’s regard for the Rupettan Annal and the validity of the grey literature that surrounds it: the ‘analogical and metaphorical embroidery of truth’ (Sulway 2013: 161) is not simply posited by the historical scholar but, and perhaps rather, it cannot not be written.

Rupetta is a novel with a queer sense of time about the untimeliness of individual passion and collective action in the face of an oppressive politico-religious regime. The geography of the novel is traced by Rupetta’s journeys from a surreal Languedoc to a parallel Moreton Bay, far away. Rupetta begins her existence in the novel as a mechanical guardian of the women of the Reni family gifted with sentience. Rupetta is ‘wound’ by successive generations of the Reni women who press their hands upon the innermost chamber of Rupetta’s chest. When wound by these ‘wynders’ Rupetta saps something of their life energy and comes to exhibit some of the wynders’ strongest traits and attitudes. This ‘hearts and minds’ construction of Rupetta’s winding (sic. wynding) takes on ever more predatory tones across the novel as her sentience and personal interest force her reassessment of the changing world in which she finds herself eventually venerated and taboo.

Rupetta ’s narrative carries two significant symbolic constellations in its novelisation: the miracles and the law. The seven miracles of Rupetta are testimonies of significant events in Rupetta’s existence that come to be known as the Rupettan Annal, a historical text with deep ideological revisionism marshalled at its core by the claim to show Rupetta’s history as it ‘truly’ was—with the exception of the seventh hidden miracle. These miracles align to the major chapter divisions of Rupetta’s narrative, which tends to subordinate Henri’s narrative arc—which we will turn to shortly. The dividing role of these miracles in the formal structure of the novel also cleverly mirrors, perhaps even allegorises, the gaps and lapses that arise between each temporal leap as a reader moves from one chapter to the next, and between Rupetta and Henri’s narrative arcs within each chapter. In this way, Sulway deploys allegorical alignments between the narrative arcs of Rupetta and Henri. And yet any attempt to use Rupetta’s narrative as an allegory for Henri’s arc must confront or playfully ignore the obscuring role that these miracles edit into the diegetic and non-diegetic textures of the novel.

The law is the second constellation of critical value in the story. In my first edition of the text, The Fourfold Rupettan Law is on the facing page to the Foreword after the Contents and, like the latter, has no pagination. (Sulway 2013) This formal position in the text posits the Rupettan laws in between the ambiguously defined knowledge and prejudices of the reader coming to the novel and the story told in the novel. In this way the intertextual links between Rupetta and the fairy tale and other ‘real world’ discourses that it presses upon, is conditioned by and read between, are complicated by a series of natural laws or presumptions of policy: “Life is Death. The Earth is a Grave. The Body is a Machine for Dying. Knowledge is the Path to Immortality.” (Sulway 2013: no page) I say ‘presumptions of policy’ here because the Rupettan laws operate not as rules deciding particular cases so much as policies for how to interpret the actions and events of scenarios demanding accountability to Rupettan judgment in the novel: the miracles of the Rupettan Annal and Henri’s unfinished dissertation most pressingly. The ideological fervour of the followers of the official Rupettan religion, such as the scholars and students of the colleges, is latched to this short-circuit between the law as both a policy of interpretation and the rules governing a discourse. This gives the world that Sulway has created a sense of etiquette, realpolitik, and, at times, a frightening absence of doubt.

Henri’s narrative arc persists in this categorical adumbration of the laws. Drawn to wonder about her dead mother’s and Great Aunt Grace’s missionary motivations in the reclaimed and to be reclaimed Oikos colonies, and against her father’s advice, Henri’s story begins with the causa sui that puts her on a scholarly path: “I want to be an Obanite … I want to be a Historian … It’s what my mother would have wanted.” (Sulway 2013: 26-27)

Where Rupetta’s narrative arc is constantly referencing her difference to human-qua-human relations, the narrative of Henri is far more affective, humanist even. The romance with Miri, sleeping in the stacks, and Henri’s fascination with the heresy of the Salt Lane Witches, serve to create crescendos and cascades of emotion that are anathema to the Rupettan way of life depicted in Henri’s narrative. Indeed, it is Henri’s faculty of desire that enables her to find more than erotic satisfaction with Miri; to find love. The desire of Henri does not play out in a linear fashion however. Often Henri is frustrated, sometimes admonished by her mentor Jenon, who does not enable Henri’s abilities as a historian through praise, only negation, limitation, and rejection. In spite of such negativity, Henri’s desire to be a historian continues on and diversifies, first to History, then to heresy, and then to Miri.

Rupetta’s narrative arc is often phrased as a story told to Henri that is in Henri’s interest, dislocating the local time and ‘making history’ of Rupetta herself. For the broader view of the novel Henri’s lesbian romance with Miri in the straight discourse of the Elm and Oban colleges is the most obvious of the queer and gay themes. Yet the forces that throw these lovers together are what let us delve further into Henri’s attitudes to law, heresy, and History. These views of Henri often put her awry and sometimes afoul of the Rupettan discourse, although not of Rupetta herself. To this extent it appears to my reading that Henri sees something of her own struggle—however distorted—in the fragments that she finds about or by the Salt Lane Witches, Emmeline and Mathilde, in her historical inquiry.

The Salt Lane Witches and the Politics of Wonder

The novel’s Rupettan revelry derives the political and theological repression of the Salt Lane Witches through a reinterpretation of a nineteenth century folktale from the English midlands. Since 2011 the folktale has been listed on tourist information websites such as Worcester People and Places for visitors to Cheshire County (Hinks 2016a). Earlier visitors may have heard the story told by local storyteller Edward C. Corbett, a solicitor who gave up his practice to promote Worcestershire sauce for Lea and Perrins in the interwar years (Hinks 2016).

So the Salt Lane story goes: two old women lived in a cottage by a particularly muddy track that was frequented by salt wagons. [4] When the wagons got stuck the wagoners would pay sixpence to one of the women, who would then gently coax the horses to move on. Eventually, the second woman would appear unannounced behind the wagon, seeming to coax the wagon to move also. One day a wagoner, hoping to avoid the sixpence fee, considerably lightened his load of salt before setting off down the muddy track in his wagon drawn by a team of horses. Nonetheless, his wagon became stuck in the mud and one of the women appeared by the door to the hut, calling to ask if he needed aid. The wagoner began to reply across the backs of his wheel-horse when he noticed a straw laying across the horse’s back. He tried to move it but it would not shift, so he cut it in half with his knife. As the straw was cut the horses screamed and leapt from their muddy footholds and the wagon, horses, and driver went careening onwards down the lane, leaving in their wake the body of the other woman, shorn in two.

This folktale has the enigmatic status of a fairy tale for two reasons. Firstly, the lengthier version listed on the Worcester People and Places website describes the women as being healers and known white, well-intentioned witches to the nearby villagers. In purely utilitarian terms, the website version of the witches’ tale ascribes a moral ground to them in contrast to the wagoner who wanted to cheat them of their main source of income through their magical deception—a deception unbeknownst to the wagoner we may assume given the bare level of psychological detail in the folktale about him. The witches’ curing of ailments and distribution of medicine also suggests that they are closer to nature than the wagoners atop their wagons, from which they never appear to dismount in the tale. The second curious feature of the Salt Lane Witches folktale is the silence about the domesticity of the pair or the fortunes of the surviving woman in the doorway. Although we might infer her future loneliness, at the level of the local narrative time of the folktale the surviving Salt Lane Witch is in an ambiguous, mournful space. Or perhaps the illusion is an all the more insidious magical deception: there is only one old woman. The politics of wonder in this folktale work to attract and withdraw our wondering, despite its critique of the wagoners’ mercantilism and the healing gifts of the witches.

It is popular to critique fairy tale magic as deception in Fairy Tale Studies today. Yet my cursory reading of the magic of the Salt Lane Witches folktale above seems to be in distinction to Bacchilega’s and Zipes’ arguments about the contemporary dissatisfaction with fairy tale magic as a deception. Bacchilega concurs with Zipes in her Fairy Tales Transformed?(2013) that the history of secularisation is complex but that the magic of these secular and post-secular fairy tales remains a tool at the disposal of the politics of wonder. By placing the magical deception of the witches at the centre of the tale, the fairy tale of the Salt Lane Witches provides a metanarrative for the politics of wonder that does not create a hierarchy of difference between the wagoners and witches so much as place them side by side. The interests of the witches, materialising through their magical deception, appears to be grounded in the same mathematics of guilt/blame as the wagoner who tried to cheat their fraud. The morality threaded with magic in this folktale therefore becomes a traditional allegory for deception writ large (Žižek 2002: 18). Therefore, although the folktale arrives at the same terminus of fairy tale magic identified by Bacchilega, the circuitous route that it takes distinguishes it from the reification of the magic trope that is supposed to evoke wonderment in the reader.

Where the Worcester folktale of the Salt Lane Witches presses the fraud and bad faith of its characters against one another, it remains a folktale that allegorises mercantilism in idea and practice. The Salt Lane Witches of Sulway’s Rupetta, however, are pushed outside the official Rupettan politico-theological discourse for their heretical insistence on living in distinction to the clockwork automation of the Rupettans’ hearts. As foreshadowed above, the Salt Lane Witches story is of two distinct characters: Emmeline and Mathilde. The Salt Lane Witches sub-narrative is largely told through the scholarly thread of Henri’s narrative as a tale of disenchanted educators and reformists retreating from the theological politics of the urban and technology-driven Rupettans to found the Salt Lane School in the far-flung Territories. Outside these official Rupettan channels, the school of Salt Lane stands as a hedge school.

The story of Emmeline and Mathilde’s school parallels and materialises the scholarly journey of Henri’s character arc in Rupetta. This parallel arc begins with snatches of archival fragments that Henri finds in the stacks of the academy library (Sulway 2013: 44-45, 62-63, 85 & 159) and culminates in the unfinished dissertation ‘Mathilde and Emeline Salt: An Account of Their Lives from 1895-1946’ (Sulway 2013: 284-307). Such incompleteness may be deduced from the second footnote on page 287 (Sulway 2013). The arrest and subsequent disappearance of Mathilde from the official history of the Rupettans—particularly that composed by Henri’s mentor Jenon (Sulway 2013: 161-162)—marks the beginning of the repression and silencing of the Salt Lane School, and the erasure of Henri and Miri’s miraculous child Perdita from the historical traces and ‘false narrative composed and distributed by the Consorts and Alazaïns since the time of Eloise IX’ (Sulway 2013: 306). This repression and silencing of the heresy of Emmeline and Mathilde by the Rupettans reveals the latter’s perverse manipulation of history as the zero-level of its ideology: in a plural and random universe of traditions, the Rupettan Annal is arbitrarily asserted as the Tradition and is rigorously enforced as such through the manipulation and sanitisation of historical records and artefacts.

This tension between Henri’s excursions into the silenced history of the Salt Lane Witches enables Sulway’s novel to tell us more about Henri’s relationship with this silencing of history than about its supposed contents, i.e. their heretical ideation of Life against the first line of the fourfold Rupettan law ‘Life is Death.’ This situates the allegorical effect of Henri’s investigation into the Salt Lane Witches in a modern genealogical way: it is about the relationship between those who write history and history itself. [5] The folktale of the Salt Lane Witches, by contrast, functions as a traditional allegory that evokes the ideal form of Deception through wonderment. This traditional allegorical mode is a structuralist sense of wonder. Rather than such anti-textual wonderment, the Rupettan historicisation of the Salt Lane Witches favours a silence about their history offering any deep lessons both as a heresy and as an ideological motor of Rupettan oppression. In Rupetta, history arrives in what Walter Benjamin called ‘a state of emergency’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). Sulway’s novel thus spins a post-modern narrative that offers its readers a reflexive accounting for how we may approach the tale of the Salt Lane Witches through Henri’s dangerous historical inquiry rather than traditional allegory, myth, or meaning-making (mythopoesis); as Robert Coover has quipped, ‘myth nice, tale naughty’ (in Bernheimer 2007: 57).

Gender and Rupetta

I now wish to turn from this allegorical difference to the questions of how gender features in the critical reception of fairy tales and why this may be seen to offer some guidance to understanding the queering of the Salt Lane Witches folktale in Rupetta, given its allegorical variation. This folkloric content may also be a contributing factor for why some decide that Sulway’s narrative is outside of science fiction; of course, to do so requires that we ignore important framing devices ing the novel such as alternative history that are themselves prominent tools of the genre. In the introduction to Brothers and Beasts (2007), Kate Bernheimer notes the dominant view that fairy tales are for girls and that boys’ interest in fairy tales generally always carries the risk of shame (2007: 7-8). However irrational such self-directed guilt may be, Bernheimer argues that this infantilising social attitude flows into the gendered critical discourse on fairy tales:

Nonetheless I received so many anguished correspondences in the process of gathering this book that I began to worry that I had asked something of these writers that was really causing them to suffer. “I can’t write the essay after all,” more than one told me in a painful phone call that would go something like this: “It is simply too personal an endeavour, I’m afraid. I’m awfully sorry.” I would murmur in compassion, express my regret.

[…] Of course, as evidenced by this collection, you may gather that days or weeks later I would receive a gorgeous essay from that very same person—it would just suddenly appear on my desk without explanation.

What magical agent had intervened? I think simply the magic of fairy tales (Bernheimer 2007: 7).

Bernheimer’s editorial insight here is that the literary quality of fairy tales, their politics of wonder and magical deception, enables a rupturing of the girl-boy gender binary to move each reader/critic to express their critical views. In his afterword to Bernheimer’s anthology, Zipes makes a similar claim, arguing that the magic of fairy tales is their potential for subversion and resonance within a reader’s psyche (Zipes in Bernheimer 2007: 184-185).

The Salt Lane Witches tale is one such example of subversion with the wagoner’s attempt to cheat the witches’ magical deception that is yet to be recognised as such—fraud against fraud. Rupetta, by contrast, offers an enlivening of these witches’ lives revealed through Henri’s historical investigations. If one takes a critical measure of the deceptive and the queer in Sulway’s recasting of the Salt Lane Witches tale in Rupetta some informative differences arise. The magical deception of Emmeline and Mathilde is not fraudulent in the sense of competing for money through duplicitous means. Instead, their heresy rests on the public and deliberate abrogation of the Rupettan laws. The practical effects of this heresy produce a familial and maternal domesticity written through with botanical labels, as evidenced by Henri’s excursions to the Salt Lane School that has in her time become a wunderkammer of disorganised and censored memorabilia, memoir, and an air of memento mori: things at odds with the historical revisionism that Henri’s colleagues and mentors at Oban College pursue for the Rupettan Annal (Sulway 2013: 111-113). The homosocial leadership of Emmeline and Mathilde ends in tragedy: according to the Hidden Miracle chapter of the novel and its rearticulation in Henri’s unfinished dissertation, Mathilde’s guardianship over Perdita restricts her from returning to Emmeline after the former’s interview with the Rupettan inquisition (Sulway 2013: 262-283 & 297-307). Henri’s dissertation notes that this tragic tension between Emmeline and Mathilde set the latter towards the gardening that she could teach to Perdita while Emmeline continued to tend to the garden that was the Salt Lane School.

The reimagining of the Salt Lane Witches in Rupetta creates a gay cultural reference that is also queer. The queer distinction here is necessary to highlight that the domesticity of Emmeline and Mathilde, which they enjoy prior to Mathilde’s arrest, is a terrorism and heresy—terrifying and heretical for the Rupettans. This domesticity is not the same domestic discourse evoked by Duggan’s critique of the neo-liberalisation of gay culture under laissez-faire capitalism. Rather, it is closer to Puar’s argument that queer is generated through decentration against the essentialist controls of patriotic and eidetic assumptions. For the narrative of Rupetta, this decentered queer is silenced, repressed, and manipulated; it remains outside the protections of the apparatus of the Rupettan state and its normativity, and remains a motor of history.

Rupetta and Intertextuality

The return to/departure of Mathilde from the Salt Lane School in lieu of the Rupettan Inquisition breaks with this queer domesticity of Emmeline and Mathilde by seeming to produce an intertextual commentary on the missing years of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale from Folio 1 (1623). In the play, Perdita is banished by her father Leontes as a result of his paranoia about his jealous imagining of her mother’s fraternising with the king of Bohemia. Perdita’s exile is marked by a change of act and scene. In 3.3 an old, kindly shepherd takes in the infant Perdita, who is abandoned with a letter explaining her royal lineage. The next manifestation of Perdita is in scene 4.4, set some sixteen years later, and begins the tale of her return to Sicily, the city and her father. We simply do not know what occurs in this gap of sixteen years. It is my contention that the story of Perdita in Rupetta exchanges the shepherd for Mathilde, and that the sequence of small snapshots of Perdita and Mathilde that Sulway gives to mark their exile works to make minimally visible Perdita’s sixteen year absence in The Winter’s Tale while at the same time giving an alternative to the alienation of Mathilde from Emmeline. It is this ‘minimal difference’ of the Perdita narrative in Rupetta that challenges the reader to think again.

How are we to take what we see of this minimal difference in Rupetta ? The traces that Henri works through in her unfinished dissertation position Perdita and Mathilde outside the Rupettan Annal. This decentration does not simply marginalise them: they are in cache, hidden from history. Yet the trace of the pair is not without substance, and this leads me to wonder if what is more important for Henri’s investigation is the anti-historical lurching from crisis to crisis that the Rupettan Annal represents late in the novel by way of Jenon’s rigorous repression of Henri; an intellectual violence which her dissertation seeks to address by unveiling the hidden miracle that is Perdita. The discursive field of Henri’s dissertation engages the queer figures of Perdita and Mathilde from its unfinished state and yet still offers some fragment of conclusive judgement: ‘From this and other evidence contained within the record, it appears Perdita is, then, the heretofore undisclosed eighth miracle; perhaps the only heresy Mathilde was a part of—a union of the Organic elements of the Natural World and the Mechanical elements of Rupettan Life’ (Sulway 2013: 306). This unity that Perdita represents late in the novel is not triumphant and over-determining. It is instead the minimal difference that spurs on the Oikos rebels and the Rupettans as they jostle and fight. Perdita is, philosophically speaking, an indivisible remainder of the Rupettans’ renouncing of the Salt Lane Witches and their school: a narratological element that is irreducible to either or both sides but nonetheless appears in the wake of their quarrel.

The conclusion of Rupetta stages the eclipse of the idolatry that supplanted Rupettan eschatology. For the Fourfold Law, immortality is wrought by knowledge and mechanics rather than life. As the sentiment of the novel suggests, life rather than death is the price for this Rupettan—note not Rupetta’s—immortality. In this dramatic closing chapter, Perdita has aged beyond the child uncovered by Henri’s investigations. Perhaps most pressingly for my minimal difference thesis above, it is in this chapter that Perdita assumes responsibility for herself for another: Rupetta. The update to present time in this final part of the novel coincides with this assumption of responsibility, collapsing the historical focus of the past chapters. Henri is at a distance from the drama of this chapter, squirreled away in the Territories while Rupetta and her conspirators search for Perdita. Perdita’s parting from Rupetta as she escapes maintains this present—out of history—time at play in the chapter:

Perdita shakes (sic.) her head. ‘You will go home, to Henri,’ she says. ‘But we cannot leave here together. They will be looking for us: a woman and a child.’ She smiles, wryly, her eyes shining with unshed tears. ‘A goddess and a monster’ (Sulway 2013: 345).

The wit of Perdita should give us pause here. The minimal difference that Perdita arguably maintains for the narrative of Rupetta and the intertext of The Winter’s Tale appears as wit for Perdita. This wit traces her selfless choice to part from Rupetta in the emptiness of present time. Thus where in historical recounting Perdita is one exceptional element among many it is in present time where she is rendered unhomely and made to find her own path. This is chorused on the closing page of the novel: “And each year she came, and each year she was lost to us again, as children are and should be” (Sulway 2013: 352).

What Remains…

Sustaining a critical gaze on a narrative as I have proffered above often evacuates humour and this, I feel, is a failing. This temptation to be all too serious when reading Rupetta tends to ignore the many jokes of the novel that engage with the revisionist mode of fairy tale narratives told by feminist speculative fictions of the 1970s and 1980s—Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Joy Williams, and others (Haase 2004: 22). The witches of Salt Lane are saucy, especially in Rupetta. The hedge school commanded by the informal instruction of Emmeline and Mathilde is heretical. The school itself is a site for the romantic tryst of Henri and Miri. The queer that is here is an intertext of the tale from Cheshire County. The intertextuality is itself a modicum of difference between both Rupetta and the folktale, read from the side of Rupetta. In the same way, reading Rupetta as a commentary on the missing years in the middle story of The Winter’s Tale relies on staring into the ontological abyss between the texts in some attempt to bridge this through interpretation that ruptures the Shakespearean work. Such intertextuality is political comedy insofar as it attends to the difference between the frames of the texts only to subvert these frames, i.e. history is propaganda in a state of emergency.

While the queer at play in Sulway’s Rupetta reveals the tensions between the religious, heretical, and historical themes of the novel, a closer look at some of its fantasy coordinates—Fairy Tales Studies, the Salt Lane Witches fairy tale, The Winter’s Tale, etc—show that Queer Science Fiction is a shifting literature. This literary motion is a twist of queer play, an airy whimsy that rustles the leaves of allegory and intertextual difference, with the chaotic swell to produce storms elsewhere. The heretic history of the Salt Lane Witches mirrors Henri’s academic and romantic struggle within the Oban and Elm colleges. In this era of deconstruction lessons, literary critics may be armed to see the force of such a mirror as a distorting tain. Within the boundaries of my reading of Rupetta however this tain is the politics of wonder, complicated as they are by the minimal difference to the missing years of The Winter’s Tale. The queer here is a motor for the Rupettans’ oppressive hierarchy and propaganda that masquerade as the History, the Rupettan Annal. And although this queer motive is repressed and desublimated in Rupetta by the coding of heresy and Henri’s scholarly rupture, its effects burn so brightly in the closing chapter that the temporal shift in the narrative becomes all the more shocking. Perdita is no longer lost but nor is she recovered: she is herself for another, self-conscious of untimely actions, a being in the throes of emergency. This, then, may be the insight that Rupetta offers readers of Queer Science Fiction who are trying to respect the genre as a literature in the modern sense of the term: literature is a shifting, political thing, that can have red planets and red witches. Sulway proves that even if a queer literature is political, it can still have a sense of humour about itself.


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[1] Moving beyond structuralism, we cannot read Queer Science Fiction as a genre without admitting its interweaving with the geopolitics critiqued by Queer Theory such as that above. Queer Theory and Queer Studies more broadly rarely take aim at speculative fiction, particularly the latter given its anti-theory empiricism so critiqued by Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons (2012), despite the literary field enabled by speculative fiction leading to many engagements with the queer “thingamabob.” (Jacgose 2013: 214)

[2] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is an obvious interlocutor for Rupetta in terms of the popular scientific themes that it covers. However as the queering in Rupetta removes Victor Frankenstein as a character type from the narrative altogether, and arguably reconstructs two ‘monsters’ in place of Shelley’s phallic monster, the link here tends to oversimplify the what Sulway accomplishes in her novel.

[3] This construction of heresy is the central feature of Henri’s scholarly inquiries in the novel.

[4] The cottage here likely infers a wich cottage, one of the sites used to refine salt from the nearby brine springs. Salt production in such a place was a common practice of Worcester into the 19th century, and the methods used distinguished its salt production from German or Roman methods. (Strickland 2001)

[5] This separation of traditional and modern allegory identified by, among others, Slavoj Žižek (2002) is helpful for understanding the different allegorical effects of the fairy tale. It also deploys a textualism that counters some revisions of George MacDonald’s ‘a fairy tale is not an allegory’ (The Fantastic Imagination 1893) such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1989) and Jessica Tiffin’s Marvelous Geometry: Narrative and Metafiction in Modern Fairy Tale (2009). But this is a debate for a different discussion.

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