Book Review: A Scarlet Pansy by Robert Scully (Edited by Robert J Corber)


A Scarlet Pansy is an amazingly vivid depiction of American queer life in the early twentieth century, that traces the life of Fay Etrange. The book was first published in 1932 and using 2016 lens to assess Fay’s experiences and emotions, Fay is obviously transgendered, though the word is never used in book.

Born in small-town Pennsylvania and struggling with her difference, her eventual estrangement from her family, Fay eventually accepts her gender and sexual nonconformity and immerses herself in the “fairy” subculture of New York City.

This story is character rather plot driven, it is about Fay and all of her life experiences. The narrative starts with Fay lying in the arms of the man she loves and she is dying and then the third paragraph of the story goes back to Fay as baby. The reader is told all of Fay’s life.

I have no idea how accurately or sympathetically the LGBTQ community is portrayed in the book, however, I think some persons may be sensitive to the portrayal of Fay as promiscuous, self-deprecating and of the eventual death of the queer heroine.

However, I enjoyed the story of Fay’s coming of age, her gender bending and seemingly confounding mannerism, Fay is feminine and very masculine at the same time. The pronoun “she” is affixed to her from the beginning to the end of the tale.  But the questions of her gender, her family relations, her brother’s insistence that she change her voice, and the jobs she takes after finishing high school as a miner,  her work on the farm instead of being in the home with her mother, all point to Fay not being born a woman.

Fay became a self-proclaimed “oncer”, she believes that her state of being will never be accepted as normal and that all her loves must be fleeting. She immerses herself in the nightclubs, theatres, and street life of New York. She meets many kindred spirits including female impersonators, streetwalkers, and hustlers. And as such A Scarlet Pansy has many  gender nonconforming characters.

What I admired about Fay is just how dynamic she was, Fay is a fully developed character, perhaps the only fully developed character in the story, but I do not fault Scully for this, A Scarlet Pansy is Fay’s story, she is the story. And so while her exploits and parties with the NYC and eventually the European gay community is entertaining, the reader gets to watch Fay grow. She becomes a successful banker and later attends medical school, where she receives training in obstetrics. There she also develops her life’s ambition to find a cure for gonorrhea.

I got book via NetGalley and its official publication date is slated for tomorrow, September 1, 2016. An interesting point about the book is the questions about who the author is, there have been discussions among book bloggers that Robert Scully was a pseudonym. However, in the extensive introduction and analysis of the novel by editor, Robert J Corber, this claim is refuted.   



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