A Florida Enchantment (1891)

Archibald Clavering Gunter’s 1891 novel A Florida Enchantment presents the story of New York socialite Lillian Travers, who transforms into a man after consuming a magical seed from a box found in a St. Augustine store of peculiar Florida treasures. This mysterious box, Lillian discovers, belonged to her great-grandfather Captain Oglethorpe, who was shipwrecked at the end of his slave trading voyage to Africa and learned of the existence of a tribe composed entirely of men. Fascinated, Oglethorpe sought to uncover the secret of the all-male community—first through bribery and then through physical torture—from the leader of the community. Upon gaining knowledge of a tree, sacred to this African culture, that grew seeds once every thousand moons that could turn men into women and women into men, Oglethorpe’s greed drove him to further cruelty.

Imagining the fortune he could gain by selling these seeds, Captain Oglethorpe had his men torture the location of the tree out of the tribe’s leader so they could steal its seeds and burn down the tree, preventing any other Europeans from undercutting his profits. It is with the surviving seeds from this ill-gotten treasure, that Lillian Travers transforms into Lawrence Talbot after learning that her fiancé is cheating on her. The rest of the story follows the newly minted Lawrence as he learns how to be a man, falls in love with a woman—initially while still pretending to be a woman—and tries to avoid being framed for his own murder. Almost immediately upon introducing the seeds the novel creates a distinctly misogynist schism within its gender play and transgression by establishing the belief that all women would choose to become men, if given the opportunity, but no men would ever choose to be women. This idea is one that echoes the scholarly notes of George Sandys—written over 200 years earlier—and inspires the label upon the vial containing the four seeds: “For Women Who Suffer” (Gunter 49).

Scholarship around A Florida Enchantment has offered a variety of distinct ways to explore the text. For many scholars, the 1914 film adaptation of the novel is considered an important early example of gay and lesbian visibility within cinema. This is in part because, rather than using different actors for each character before and after their transformations between sexes, the three characters who experience these changes are played by actors who utilize crossdressing to portray their changes from women to men or men into women—in the case of Lillian’s unfaithful fiancé Fred. These crossdressing performances are not, by any stretch of the imagination, meant to be believable, as gender impersonation in theaters and on the screen had significantly lost popularity by the early 20th century. Notably, the film adaptation made changes to the story, eliminating Lawrence’s marriage to Bessie—a friend of Lillian’s who is immediately smitten with Lawrence/Lillian once the sex transformation has begun—and ending the film by utilizing the “it was all a dream” trope. However, the film did not change the sexual fluidity within the narrative as the newly masculine Lawrence/Lillian finds himself attracted to women, while still being perceived as a woman by people around him. It is the extant glimpses of bisexual and lesbian possibility that have made the novel, and the silent film, notable to queer studies research.

Gunther’s works were published in his own periodicals, and A Florida Enchantment contains advertisements for many of them in its final pages.

To discuss a story like A Florida Enchantment an ethical queer studies scholar must also be willing to look and acknowledge the less attractive parts of the narrative. The racism within the novel cannot be avoided or ignored. We can clearly see an example of the long and difficult relationship between racism and queerphobia. Between the exotification, with arguably trans-masculine gender identity practices being attributed originally to the native people of Africa, and the racial objectification and demonization of Black masculinity in the third character whose gender is swapped in the main narrative, race is central to the story’s handling of queerness. Lillian’s serving girl, Jane, does not choose this transformation for herself, but rather is duped into it by Lillian—who thinks a gentleman needs a valet—in a scene that has been posited as a symbolic rape. But in contrast to the emerging white masculinity seen in Lawrence/Lillian, Jane/Jack’s depiction of black masculinity paints an uglier picture, heavily laden with stereotypes that cannot be overlooked in good faith. It raises questions about how our modern perceptions of masculinity across racial lines might impact the experiences of transgender individuals from the black community, or other non-white groups, and how their identities at the intersection between marginalized groups might place them in a vulnerable position.

Further Reading

Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Duke University Press, 2000. [click to view this book in the UF Library Catalog]