Stephens College, 1200 E Broadway, Columbia, MO 65215
In 1939 Frances V. Rummell, an educator and a teacher of French at Stephens College, published an autobiography under the title Diana: A Strange Autobiography; it was the first explicitly lesbian autobiography in which two women end up happily together. This autobiography was published with a note saying, "The publishers wish it expressly understood that this is a true story, the first of its kind ever offered to the general reading public".
For many years "Diana Frederics" remained the pseudonym for an author whose real identity was a mystery. Her only known book is Diana: A Strange Autobiography, published in 1939 by the Dial Press. On July 26, 2010, the PBS television show "History Detectives" revealed the real name of the author of Diana; A Strange Autobiography (1939): Frances V. Rummell, an educator and a teacher of French at Stevens College, who died in 1969.
Frances V. Rummell is also the author of the novel Aunt Jane McPhipps and Her Baby Blue Chips (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, First Printing, September 1960).
Though the autobiography would seem to provide clues about the writer's life, the book was published in France in 1946 under the title Diana; roman, which translates as Diana; a novel. Thus, not only is the author's identity a mystery, but the authenticity of her "autobiography" is even more uncertain than that of other autobiographies.
Diana went out of print in the 1940s, and was reprinted in the 1975 Arno Series on Homosexuality. Few historians or literary critics have paid Diana any attention, notable exceptions being Jeannette Foster and Lillian Faderman.
Although the printing history of Diana is relatively inconsistent, and it has received little attention by scholars of gay and lesbian studies, it seems to have had a rather international appeal. In addition to the French edition of 1946, there was an edition published under the English title in India in 1939.
Diana: A Strange Autobiography is the story of a young woman who, after reading a medical text on sexuality, begins to suspect that she is a lesbian. She decides to put aside this new information until she is strong enough to deal with it and, while at college, avoids intimate contact with those women to whom she is attracted. She lives in a "trial marriage" with a young man until she decides that she has been living a lie.
The narrative follows her involvement in several relationships with women. In the concluding chapter, entitled "Fulfillment," Diana and her lover Leslie decide to stay together, remarking that "there's such a thing as vows meaning more just because they are secret."
The book is significant for several reasons. Diana is a self-identified lesbian who, though initially ashamed, develops into a politically aware and self-validated woman who is happy and fulfilled at the end of the book.
Written in the late 1930s, a period often considered a "wasteland" for lesbian literature, Diana is, as Lillian Faderman suggests, an "oasis."
But Diana is also significant because of the complicated issues it raises about the relationship of autobiography to truth, and the relationship between lesbian writers and the male-dominated medical profession, especially sexology.
The book contains an introduction by Victor Robinson, a prominent sexologist, and the autobiographical narrator also uses sexological language. Despite this medical context for the book, the narrator uses sexological language and the case history model in complicated ways that occasionally serve to validate lesbian self-representation over medical representation and to naturalize lesbianism as one possibility along a spectrum of equally valid identities.
Of course, the mystery of the real identity--and especially the gender and sexual identity--of the author complicates readings of the text. Is "Diana Frederics" a lesbian writer who appropriates medical language for her own validation and self-representation? Or is "she" really a male physician, well-versed in sexological theory, validating lesbian identity while also maintaining the control of the male physician over what gets said about lesbians?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, Diana is an interesting book that chronicles the relationship between lesbians and the larger culture, and between lesbians and the medical profession, in a narrative many will find far more satisfying than Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness.