A Splendid Queen
Lost Books of Texas
Splendora, Edward Swift’s 1978 masterpiece, is probably the funniest novel you’ll ever read about an East Texas transvestite. It’s the only novel I know that gets the well-armed, Aqua-Netted folks of East Texas in all of their sweet, sublime strangeness.
On Splendora’s exquisitely written first page, Miss Jessie Gatewood, the new librarian of the fictional town of Splendora (not to be confused with the real town of Splendora northeast of Houston) arrives on the afternoon train. Nothing there is ever quite the same, partly because Miss Jessie is a spellbinding, attar-of-roses kind of person—the type who effortlessly sets fashion trends, founds ladies clubs and sends social circles whirling. It’s also because Miss Jessie is a man.
Not just any man. Miss Jessie Gatewood is, secretly, Timothy John Coldridge. As a young gay boy, he was tormented by the good people of Splendora, his hometown. As a teenager, Timothy John hopped a train to New Orleans, where he lived a sordid, sumptuous French Quarter life straight out of Tennessee Williams. Yet through his years of beignets and debauchery, he longed for home. He also longed for revenge. When his well-heeled grandmother, Esther Ruth, dies and leaves him her fortune, Timothy John returns in the guise of Miss Jessie and serves his old friends and neighbors their just desserts. Hilarity ensues—so does poignancy. The doyennes of Splendora start aping Miss Jessie’s “artistic” dress sense, which is to say they begin dressing like New Orleans drag queens (“pink-voile eyelet with ruffles going off in every direction”). Brother Leggett—a sad-eyed, sublimated Baptist preacher—falls in love with Miss Jessie and ends up eloping with Timothy John.
Splendora is a novel about the pleasure of donning artifice and the joy of casting it off. Its central metaphor is the town’s graceful, Gothic courthouse. When Miss Jessie arrives, it has long been hidden away by drab, workaday plaster. “The courthouse,” Swift writes, “was like somebody hiding something that he had no business hiding, but was made to feel like he had business hiding it, so he did.” By novel’s end, the courthouse is triumphantly restored to its Victorian majesty. This amounts to a bit of wish-fulfillment on Swift’s part, since the majestic Victorian courthouse of his native Woodville (the inspiration for Splendora) remains as hideously plastered as ever. Nevertheless, there’s something triumphant about the way Swift, much like Timothy John, returned in fiction with the purpose of restoration.