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Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 07:00

As I emphasized repeatedly in my podcast about Charlotte Cushman, the community of women discussed in this chapter deserved to have an entire historical mini-series created around them. There are so many personalities, so much drama, you could easily fill several seasons of tv. If you're writing sapphic historical fiction in the Victorian era you need to know about this milieu, if only so you are aware of the range of possible lives for those willing to do the work of slipping through the blind spots of society. I've read entirely too many stories where a female protagonist is isolated in her experiences because of the author's mistaken impression that the public myths of the Victorian era were the universal everyday reality.

There are also too many stories where women place an enormous load of guilt and shame on romantic and sensual interactions between women that--in actual fact--were part of everyday life at the time. You're a nice 19th century girl, you "kissed a girl and you liked it"? Congratulations, you're enjoying an experience that a plurality of your contemporaries consider a normal part of your emotional life. You visit your friend and spend the night cuddling and kissing in the same bed? Of course, you do. That's what best friends do. You fantasize about being able to set up a household and spend the rest of your lives together? Well, naturally. For most it will only be a fantasy, but those who achieve it will be admired and envied. And if you do, you refer to your arrangement as a marriage, and to your partner as your spouse or "other half" and no one blinks an eye. What you don't do is expect or demand legal recognition for that relationship, or rub people's faces in the full range of what you might be doing in your shared bed. And if you're active in male-dominated spaces, you can expect to be the subject of rude jokes or sly innuendo (whether or not your relationship is sexual).

I want to see more historical fiction that is aware of and uses these understandings as the framework for f/f relationships. It not only opens up a lot more possibilities, but it counters the myth that any historical era that wasn't as open and public about same-sex relationships as our present time was necessarily devoid of happy endings.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 2: The Rome Community

The community of independent women in Rome and their wider connections in England and the USA are a fascinating subject that would seriously disrupt many people's image of the possibilities for western women in the later 19th century. But one of the things that made their lives possible--lives that involved relatively open same-sex romantic and sexual pairings, the free pursuit of artistic and literary professions, and an intellectual community that recognized their talents--was the sepration from the scrutiny and expectations of "regular" society. Not that there weren't women pursing those same things back in England and the USA, but they spent more of their energy struggling for space and against legal systems that hampered them.

The freedom of an expatriate community wasn't available to everyone. Even though part of the attraction of Italy was the relatively lower cost of living, one still had to have some means of living as well as the means to travel. (One also needed the ability to leave one's home situation, and a freedom from the bonds of family responsibility, whether self-imposed or externally imposed.) Charlotte Cushman was a successful actress with a very keen financial sense. Harriet Hosmer had a supportive family and a wealthy patron. Edmonia Lewis depended on the fundraising of a community in Boston who recognized her talent and wanted to give her the opportunity to succeed as a sculptor. Some members of the community moved in and out as companions and lovers of someone willing to support them. The community wasn't all "big names" but there were many, many women who were prominent intellectuals in their own day, even if they're more obscure today. (I only know about Emily Faithful because of Emma Donoghue's novel The Sealed Letter.) They deserve to be better known, and not only for the lesbian history embedded in their stories.

While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

It has been something of a long tradition for women (and men too) living non-normative lives to go abroad, outside the constraints of the society they were divergent from. (Note: There likely was also an aspect of disregard for the mores of the place they moved to, which puts a slightly uglier colonialist shadow over the practice.)

The private correspondence of these women make it clear that the public face of non-sexual romantic friendship was deliberately created and maintained in contradiction to their private lives. Rumors and gossip often told the truth, but there was public deniability. This deliberate concealment indicates that they did not view their loves as innocent in the eyes of the world, even when they took advantage of the forms and language of romantic friendship. Disapproval was coded in gendered terms against “mannish women”, or in terms of lost opportunities if a woman shunned marriage in favor of a female friend.

Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was the usual end goal of a Grand Tour on the continent, as well as being a destination for artistic study and practice, due to the classical and baroque art available as models. Socially, the Anglophone community in Rome didn’t mix significantly with the Italian upper classes, but formed an independent cultural milieu. The rollcall of famous names is long.

Women sculptors were particularly attracted to Rome. Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd and her friend, journalist Francis Power Cobbe. Americans Louisa Lander and Edmonia Lewis, who--as a biracial black and Native American woman--found professional opportunities impossible to come by at home. And especially Harriet Hosmer.

Cushman’s fame on the stage made the home she shared with partner Matilda Hays a social nexus. Her large circle of female friends included many romantic couples, with a certain amount of regular “musical chairs” going on among them. Cushman’s circle also attracted some men of ambiguous sexual orientation.

Cushman had an extensive overlapping series of female lovers. She may have arrived in Rome with Matilda Hays, but Hays, impatient with the role of wife, began a flirtation with Hosmer, then stormed back to London. Cushman was then courting sculptor Emma Stebbins and the two maintained a partnership until Cushman‘s death, though not without challenges, especially from fan-girl Emma Crow. Her passionate relationship with Crow was eventually disguised by marrying Crow to Cushman‘s nephew and adopted son, while continuing as lovers. It was complicated. (I did an entire podcast on Cushman.)

Harriet Hosmer formed another nucleus in the Rome circle. She was famous for her boyish presentation and refusal to conform to feminine roles. Cushman took her as a protégé, but Hosmer always seems to have been wary of getting entangled with Cushman romantically. Cushman arranged for Hosmer to have the patronage of Wayman Crow, father of Emma (well before Cushman and Emma Crow were a thing). Though Hosmer enjoyed flirtations early in her career, it was a while before she settled into a long-term partnership with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a widow with a history of passionate friendships with women. It was a somewhat loose and open partnership, which may account for its longevity and relative lack of drama.

Time period: 
Monday, October 26, 2020 - 07:00

The “meat” of the chapters in this book are detailed biographical sketches of specific couples or women. This leaves me with the dilemma of whether to skim lightly over the details of their lives, or to dig deeply. For my own survival, I’m going to have to go with the first approach. I’ll summarize the introductory material in each chapter, which situates the biographies in the larger discussion, then mention just the essentials about the couples themselves.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage

In examining the performance or perception of female couples as including one with a more "masculine" air, there's a strong sense of societal expectations being imposed. If people expected one of the two to "be the man" then whether or not the couple themselves sorted out into masculine-feminine polarities, those roles might be assigned externally (as in the case of Ponsonby and Butler). The roles might also emerge from the economic or social roles within the relationship. If one woman were perceived as a more public figure, as a bread-winner, as a professional, then there would be pressure on the other to be the "helpmeet", the supportive wife. When both women had professional lives (as we'll see in the next chapter with Cushman and Stebbins), the desire to have "a wife" (as defined by gendered roles) could cause friction.

But this assignment of gendered roles within the relationship was not universal at any timepoint, and its prevalence varied in different eras. Although romantic friends might engage in masculine nicknames for each other, or see professional or creative activities as being "masculine" and therefore affecting their interpersonal relationships, I think it's a mistake to interpret those as necessarily mapping to an internal transgender identity. People work to make sense of their identities and experiences with the concepts and language their society offers them.

Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling

The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.

In addition to the couples discussed in detail in chapters 1 and 2, the introduction to this section also mentions Vernon Lee & Mary Robinson, Elma Stewart and George Elliot, Anna Seward and Elizabeth Cornwallis, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (writing together as Michael Field).

Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage

This chapter begins with Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby  who eloped in the late 18th century and, after some difficulties, established a household together in the north of Wales. They helped create the ideal of rural retirement for female couples and skirted the moral disapproval shown to the more overtly sexualized homoerotic relationships of the French court.

The framework of romantic friendship was already well-established at the time Butler and Ponsonby got together. It had its own rituals of expression and recognition. These included a courtship involving gifts, letters, and intimate conversation. A shared love of writing and books was common. The two women might thrill in covert meetings and communications. These interactions then moved to plans for a future together, whether on a practical level or only in fantasies.

The use of nicknames--especially androgynous or masculine ones--was popular. If the two were able to establish themselves as a couple, they might refer to each other as spouses, or with endearments normally indicating marriage. If a clear masculine/feminine contrast in presentation was not something a couple chose, they might choose to dress in an exaggeratedly identical fashion, and this was taken as a symbol of their couplehood.

Long-term fidelity was an ideal, and often there was an effort made to conceal tensions and jealousies within the relationship to maintain this image.

The second part of the chapter comprises detailed biographies. The first is Ponsonby and Butler, showing how they became a byword and icon of female romantic couplehood. The next biography is that of 19th century French artist Rosa Bonheur, who fell in love when she was hired to paint a portrait of Natalie Micas. Natalie’s parents became Bonheur’s patrons, and on his deathbed Monsieur Micas gave them his blessing as a couple. The final biography in this chapter is Anne Lister, with her sequence of courtships finally settling down with Ann Walker.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 24, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 181 (also 51d) - The Anandrine Sect - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/10/24 - listen here)

The Anandrine Sect

Among the more curious myths of sapphic history—and I say “myth”, but let’s keep an open mind while reviewing the evidence—is the late 18th century French Anandrine Sect. I don’t have the resources to trace the earliest appearance of the term “Anandrine” to know whether the word predated this particular context. “Anandrine” is a neo-Greek compound from “an” meaning “without” and “andros” meaning a male person. Thus, Anandrine, “without men”. This is, of course, an annoyingly male-centric way of thinking about sex between women, though it fits with the attitudes of the times. But before we enter the temple of the Anandrine Sect, we need to put together the background to its entrance on the stage.

Political Context

French politics of the 18th century used sexuality and gender stereotypes as tools for representing and attacking political opponents or targeted populations. While homosexual activity featured in these debates, this was not an era of sharp divisions in sexual preference. Those accused of sexual irregularities were typically depicted as being generally libertine. Homosexuality might be a part—but only a part—of politically-charged innuendo. At the same time, for both men and women, we see a recognition that some people might have a clear preference for sexual partners of a particular gender, and that this might be taken as indicating some more general aspect of their personality or character.

Sexual libertinism was ascribed to the aristocracy, as well as to the demi-monde of performing artists and sex workers. These groups were set in opposition to the rising influence of middle class thinkers and influences. Sexual continence and marital fidelity were being claimed as signs, not only of personal morality, but as essential attributes of particular social classes, and as essential for the strength and stability of the state.

From the point when lesbian tastes were first being recognized and discussed in public as an identifiable concept—certainly at least by the 16th century--every western European culture seemed to associate female homosexuality with its political rivals.  In the later 18th century and even more so as the century turned, English and German discussions depicted it as a decadent French practice, while French texts framed it as quintessentially English.

As we’ve noted, Sapphic relations were also attributed to specific social classes—always as a negative judgment—aristocrats, artists, and actresses. These groups were the  “other” for the rising bourgeois movements that challenged their influence and prominence. In France, some familiar names raised in this context included Queen Marie-Antoinette and her close companions the princess de Lamballe and the duchess de Polignac, but many others as well. The lists are long. At the center of the artistic side in France was the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt, of whom more later. One of the more unusual figures assigned to the sapphic camp was the transgender Chevalier d’Eon. (I can’t really get into that topic without an entire show.) Women who had genuine political power were a popular target for rumors of lesbianism, regardless of the solid evidence available.

One feature of this era is that women were not simply rumored to engage in lesbian relations as individuals, but increasingly they were depicted as being part of clubs, associations, or simply private social circles organized around a shared sexual preference. And, in turn, woman-centered societies attracted sexual innuendo as a means of critiquing and denigrating women who dared not to subjugate their lives to men.

The Culture of Pamphlets and Societies

It was not only female organizations that provoked social and political anxiety. The 18th century was a time when people at all levels and of all types were coming together in affiliation groups to further their common interests, whether it was the male political clubs in the coffee houses, the literary salons, professional academies, commercial associations, or fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons. Marginalized political interests came together in secret clubs and these were often the foundation of revolutionary movements, about which more in a moment.

Similarity of interest and purpose was a common organizing force. For women’s organizations to be part of this rise of affiliation groups, women needed to view being female as an identity, as something separate from and perhaps more important than their class, national, political, and occupational affiliations. In an odd way, this understanding was enhanced by two philosophical shifts that might otherwise be viewed as anti-progressive. One was the growing prominence of the “two-sex” model of gender. There had long been parallel attitudes toward the nature of gender: the one-sex model in which women were a variant (and deficient) type of man, and the two-sex model, in which men and women belonged to distinct categories. The second and related movement was the rise of the “separate spheres” philosophy in which society was divided into those activities, interests, and experiences belonging to men and those belonging to women.

Taken together, these philosophies depicted men and women as functionally separate species with entirely separate natures and interests. This created a conceptual space in which women might find common cause across social barriers. It led to exploration of feminist thought and even ideas of female separatism. Separatism, in turn, raised the question of lesbian practice as a natural consequence of women-only societies.

From another angle, the sensational literature of political and erotic pamphlets that focused pointedly on sapphic themes must have spread the imagery of lesbian relations far more effectively than the earlier references in medical manuals had. Whether the veritable explosion of references to sex between women in printed literature was accompanied by an increase in the actual practice is difficult to guess. But the idea was there for the taking.

The evocation of female same-sex relations as the organizing principle for secret societies stands in for a general concern with the influence of women in politics, and especially a concern with the subversive power of female alliances, as well as the anarchic and disruptive power of women who were not under male control. Female power destabilized the hierarchies of the state in the same way that secret societies did. How much more so, when the two ideas came together?

Of all the secret societies that were popular in the 18th century, one of the most prominent and enduring was the Order of Freemasons, and consequently it provoked some of the strongest reactions from critics. It wasn’t the secret exclusivity that bothered those in power so much as the group’s leveling ideals--in theory seeing members from all classes and ranks of society as equals. And while Freemasonry was, in general, an exclusively male province, France took the lead in the 1770s in expanding those leveling ideals by authorizing female masonic lodges. These “lodges of adoption” were not independent and sovereign from male authority, but some seem to have embraced sororal solidarity as a unifying principle. In some cases, these female lodges featured ceremonies and rhetoric that may be what is being satirized in descriptions of Anandrine rites. One female Freemason lodge titled its leader the “Queen of the Amazons”. Though the actual female-centered social organizations never entirely excluded men, they raised the image of women forming self-authorizing communities independent of male authority.

Mademoiselle de Raucourt

But before we move on to the Anandrine Sect itself, we need an introduction to a key player, the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt. Françoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte, known by her stage name Françoise de Raucourt, or Mademoiselle de Raucourt, followed the family trade of acting from an early age. By the early 1770s, she became famous playing roles with the Comèdie Française, though her career was slightly disrupted by her profligate habits, when she spent several years in prison for debt. She won the patronage of Queen Marie-Antoinette in the late ‘70s, which was not entirely a benefit when the Revolution broke out. As a result of her Royalist connections, she was absent from the stage until the early ‘90s, spending some of that time in prison, after which she regained official favor and continued a patchy stage career until her death in 1815.

De Raucourt was notorious for her female lovers during the height of her popularity in the 1770s. In her later years she may have settled down to a long-time relationship with a fellow prisoner under the Revolution, Henriette Simonnet de Ponty. De Raucourt’s public fame, her confirmed preference for female lovers, and her association with Marie-Antoinette were likely what made her an ideal mouthpiece in fictional depictions of the Anandrine sect.

The Lodge of Lesbos

Social concern about secret societies, a rising interest in images of lesbian sex, and a general anxiety about women coming together in radical organizations. These are the background to a 1775 entry in the underground journal Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique: “They say there exists a society known as the Lodge of Lesbos, but whose meetings are even more mysterious than those of the Freemasons have ever been, with initiations into all the secrets that Juvenal described so frankly and openly in his Sixth Satire.” The entry goes on to identify the leader of this lodge as the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt.

Even given the gossipy nature of this publication, note that the attribution is “they say”, triangulated with the name of a prominent actress known for her lesbian relations. This information predates the earliest reference (at least the earliest one mentioned in my sources) to the Anandrine Sect, though the parallels between the two are very close, down to the connection with de Raucourt.

The Anandrine Sect as Lesbian Separatist Commune

The Anandrine Sect itself is first introduced—as far as I can find—in the pornographic work L’espion Anglais (The English Spy) written in 1778. This is a collection of salacious anecdotes, one of which involves an adolescent country girl who, having inclinations toward sex with women, is sent off to Paris to be initiated into an Anandrine sect. Her sponsor describes the group thus:

“A tribade,” she told me, “is a young virgin who, not having had any relations with men, and convinced of the excellence of her sex, finds in it true pleasure, pure pleasure, dedicates herself wholly to it, and renounces the other sex, as perfidious as it is seductive. Or, it is a woman of any age who, having fulfilled the wish of nature and country for the propagation of the human race, gets over her mistake, detests, abjures crude pleasures, and devotes herself to training pupils for the goddess.”

She tells the young woman, “You already seem worthy to me to be initiated into our mysteries. I hope that this night will confirm the good opinion that I’ve formed of you, and that we’ll lead an innocent and voluptuous life together for a long time. You won’t lack anything. I’m going to have dresses, finery, hats made for you, buy you diamonds, jewels. … I’ll show you the beauties of Paris one after another. I’ll take you frequently to the theater in my box seats, to balls, to strolling places. I want to shape your education, which, making you more pleasant, will save you from the boredom of being often alone. I’ll have you taught to read, write, dance, sing. I have mistresses for all these subjects at my disposal. I have them for other subjects, as your tastes or your talents develop.”

The young woman eagerly agrees, and we get a description of the initiation ceremony. It takes place in a classical temple featuring statues of the goddess Vesta, of Sappho, and other symbolic figures. There are black marble altars, and stoves that burn incense. The members of the society take their places in pairs, reclining entwined on pillows in the Turkish style. The new initiate and her sponsor enter dressed in loose gowns with symbolic colors. Then a welcoming speech is given by the society’s president, Mademoiselle de Raucourt, after which the members vote on the acceptance of the candidate.

In the overall form and shape of the ceremony, one might think of any number of private formal social clubs. Masonic rites come easily to mind.

In a separate entry in L’espion Anglais, a supposed initiation address to the Anandrine Sect is given by Mademoiselle de Raucourt. The address is purported to have been given in 1773, but this should be understood as a literary invention.

“The Anandrine Sect is as old as the world. One can’t doubt its nobility, since a goddess was its founder. And what a goddess! The most chaste, whose symbol is the element that purifies all the others. However opposed this sect is to men, the authors of the laws, they’ve never dared to proscribe it. Even the wisest, strictest of legislators sanctioned it in Lacedaemon Lycergus had established a school of tribadism where young girls appeared naked, and in those public games they learn tender and amorous dances, postures, advances, embraces. Men bold enough to look in there were punished with death. This art is found reduced to a system and described energetically in the poetry of Sappho, whose name alone awakens the idea of what was most amiable and enchanting in Greece. In Rome, the Anandrine Sect received, in the person of the vestal virgins, almost divine honors. If we believe travelers on the score, it spread to the most distant lands…”

This explanation and introduction to the society goes on at great length and moves on to more explicitly sexual matters. It becomes clear that the description of pure and noble pleasures is only the beginning, and there is a reference to flagellation as part of the standard repertoire of their sexual practice. The structure, as laid out in this address, is one of age-differentiated relationships, where an older, experienced woman takes on a young, inexperienced student. They form a bond based on this mentorship, and then eventually, in turn, the student graduates to being a mentor to a new initiate herself.

The titillating hints at the sexual rituals of the group contrast oddly with the utopian commune that is described. Here’s how the fictional de Raucourt sets out the arrangements:

“It’s not enough that a structure be built on solid and lasting foundations, that it be kept away from destructive elements, and protected from dangers that can threaten it. It’s necessary, in addition, that it offer the eye fine proportions, a sense of harmony, a whole, the great merit of masterpieces of architecture. It’s the same with our moral structure. Tranquility, unity, concord, peace should constitute its principal support, its praise in the eyes of outsiders. May they see nothing in us but sisters, or rather maybe, admire in us a large family, in which there is no hierarchy other than that established by nature itself for its preservation, and necessary to its administration. Benevolence toward all unfortunates should be one of our distinctive characteristics, a virtue flowing from our gentle and sociable manners, from our essentially loving heart. But it’s with respect to our sisters, our pupils, that it should be deployed. Complete community of property, so that no one distinguishes the poor from the rich. May the latter, on the contrary, take pleasure in making the former forget that she was ever impoverished. When she is brought forth into society, may she be noticed because of the sparkle of her clothes, the elegance of her adornment, the abundance of her diamonds and jewels, the beauty of her horses, the quickness of her carriage. May those who see her recognize her and exclaim, “It’s a pupil of the Anandrine Sect! That’s what it means to make sacrifices to Vesta!” It’s thus that you’ll attract others, that you’ll plant in the heart of others like you, who will admire you, the desire to enjoy your fate by imitating you.”

The Anandrine Sect in the Sex-Pamphlet Wars

The description of the Anandrine Sect in L’espion Anglais is decidedly tame compared to the next significant representation of the group, which again sets up Mademoiselle de Raucourt as the leader of the group. This pamphlet from 1791 entitled Liberty, or Mademoiselle Raucourt to the Whole Anandrine Sect can best be understood as part of a connected series of raunchy political satires featuring a mythical “Committee on Fuckery” which has taken on itself the application of revolutionary principles to the sexual underworld of prostitutes, sodomites, and tribades. The prostitutes have aligned themselves on the side of the revolutionary government and used seduction to gain the upper hand over their rivals, the buggers. The Anandrine pamphlet in the series takes up the story when de Raucourt is warned of the prostitutes’ legal triumph over the buggers and she goes to the Comedie Francais to rally the tribade troops to the side of homosexual solidarity. While one purpose of the pamphlet series may have been to satirize the over-the-top polemical language of the genre, another purpose may have simply been the joy of seeing how many times one can say “fuck” in a paragraph. I won’t be quoting from this particular text, not so much out of prudishness, but frankly because it's tedious and boring. A translation of the entire text can be found in Merrick and Ragan’s Homosexuality in Early Modern France, listed in the show notes. You might find it useful for research purposes regarding types of sex acts that the writer envisioned women engaging in with each other.

The Anandrine Sect of this post-revolutionary pamphlet is a foul-mouthed, working class, sex-obsessed rabble, compared to the pre-revolutionary Anandrine Sect of L’espion Anglais, with its formal, classically inspired rites and emphasis on sensual pleasures. But in both cases they represent a dangerous, uncontrolled female sexuality that is disruptive by its very existence, while at the same time being controlled and managed by being presented and filtered through a male pornographic gaze.

Queen Marie Antoinette and the Anandrine Sect

There is not a direct connection between the Anandrine Sect and Queen Marie-Antoinette, but many of the same themes are present. She is worth discussing here for those parallels.

The hostility toward Queen Marie Antoinette in France focused around a number of themes. She was foreign. She was financially profligate. And she was sexually licentious with both men and women. Given the king’s sexual issues, there might have been a certain amount of understanding offered for her looking for satisfaction—and for a means of getting pregnant—elsewhere. But a common satirical image of the queen settled on depicting her as preferring sexual relations with her female favorites and viewing this as a symptom of her general character.

If we were looking for solid historical evidence for Marie Antoinette’s actual sex life and sexual inclinations, we’d probably be left with the same sorts of vaguely suggestive data that we have for figures like Queen Christina of Sweden, or Queen Anne of England. But when our topic is how her political enemies depicted her, the documentary evidence is solid, unambiguous, and explicit.

An anonymous pamphlet published in 1793 titled “The Private, Libertine, and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette” consists largely of a chronological catalog of all the women and men she was claimed to have engaged in sexual relations with, starting with her sisters at age ten and continuing through most of her closest friends and supporters in the court, including the duchess de Polignac and the princess de Lamballe.

The language is not as coarse as that of the Anandrine pamphlet. “[The duchess] was very pleasing in amorous diversions… the spirited and lustful Guémenée…was secure for a long time. There were continual tete-a-tetes. The sessions lasted for more than two hours. Antoinette’s eyes sparkled with the most passionate fire. The two women gave each other the lewdest caresses in public. … the excesses to which she surrendered herself with the tribades, her favorites … revolting acts of lewdness that she took pleasure in relishing with her own sex … Marie-Antoinette continued her hot caresses. Excited by the teasing of the royal finger, [she] was soon sharing her mistress’s rapture.”

Though the list includes both sexes, there are regular references to Marie Antoinette’s “taste for women…passion for [her own] sex…her natural inclination for women…”

Adultery was not the only point of the accusations. Her lovers were claimed to have influence over her decisions, to be given extravagant presents or the right to distribute favors or positions for profit. Women were said to use Marie-Antoinette’s bed as a means of gaining legal judgments and be granted pensions.

Pamphlets were not the only context for these claims. A comic opera of 1791 titled Le Branle de Capucins depicts Marie-Antoinette as sexually voracious with both sexes even while under house arrest by the revolutionary government.

The legacy of this queer sexualization of a powerful woman for the purpose of problematizing female power in general can be seen in the early 19th century rise in both France and England of the cult of female domesticity and the emphasis on female modesty and purity as a symbolic metric for the health of the state. Look at what politically powerful women become! See what they’re like! The state is only secure when women are properly chaste, modest, and motherly!

The Anandrine Sect Spreads

The use of realistic literary conventions in depictions of the Anandrine Sect, and the incorporation into those depictions of real women known to have sapphic inclinations meant that the Anandrine Sect as presented in L’espion Anglais was taken as factual by contemporary people, and was referenced by later writers as being an actual phenomenon. The term “Anandrine” as a synonym for “tribade” appears in the 1789 novel La Curieuse impertinente, where a convent is depicted as a branch of the Anandrine organization. In another 1789 novel, Les Chevalières errantes, ou les deux sosies femelles (The Female Knights-Errant or the Two Twin Girls), although the word Anandrine is not used, a close double of the Anandrine initiation ceremony from L’espion Anglais is depicted.

Was the Anandrine Sect Real?

This leaves us with the question: was the Anandrine Sect real? Was there an actual secret society of sapphic women in the 1770s in France that initiated young women with orgiastic rituals in a classical temple?

For me, the strongest argument against these being depictions of reality are the nature of the texts in which the sect is depicted. L’espion Anglais is very overtly pornography. The motif of a young woman confessing her journey into a sexual underworld was common, and understood as a literary technique. All references to an Anandrine Sect, by that name, trace back to that one source, though it in turn may have been inspired by the slightly earlier description of the “Lodge of Lesbos”. I’ve run across one modern historian who seems to take references to the Anandrine Sect at face value, but the majority opinion is that it was entirely fictitious.

But we can ask a different question as well: is the description of the Anandrine Sect plausible? There was definitely a tradition of secret societies in France in the 1770s. And groups such as the Freemasons did engage in formal initiation rituals using classical symbolism and imagery. There were certainly loose networks of women with sapphic interests who supported each other in finding partners. So if someone were to use a similar motif in a fictional setting, I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker.

Show Notes

A look at the motif of the 18th century French “Anandrine Sect” purported to be a lesbian sex club.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, October 20, 2020 - 07:00
Book cover - Girl, Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Not only did my reading get thrown for a loop this year, but I still have a bunch of reviews to write for things I finished in the past. This one is jumping the review queue because I just finished it and figured it was best to write something while fresh in my mind. I know, I know, I'm the one who made the rule about reviewing everything I read. But I know how important community reviews can be to a book, so I do my best.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian-based historic fantasy with casually queer relationships that felt very integrated into the cultural setting. The fantasy elements are drawn from Persian mythology and Zoroastrian motifs, backing up a coming of age story involving curses, family secrets, and the desperate ends to which loneliness will drive you. The writing style fits well into a YA classification, focusing on themes of self-knowledge and finding one's place in the world. The imagery is delicious and the characters all feel solid and well motivated. I'd love to say something more lyrical about the book, but I"m just coming out of my quarantine-driven reading slump, so "I picked up this book and read it all the way through and enjoyed it" is pretty high praise for the moment!

This is one of those books where it took some independent confirmation to clarify the queer content. (The blurb leads one to expect a m/f romantic thread.) Glad I didn't miss a lovely story because of the coyness of the publicity!

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Monday, October 19, 2020 - 07:00

The five people who read this blog regularly may have noticed that I skipped a LHMP post last week. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my "assignment" to do an entire series of dense books in a row, so I took a brief vacation before plunging in again. I'll try to find a balance between covering these next two book in a reasonable amount of time versus burning myself out. Especially because I'm thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year, since I have a project that will be just at the right "detail outline but not started" stage. I'm also trying to clear out my backlog of reviews--not so much the reviews I've committed elsewhere, but simply things I've read any haven't posted about yet. I look back at the years when I've done a lot more non-LHMP blogging on this site and it's hard to remember how I was managing it. I'm hoping that the less intense podcast schedule starting in January will help me manage my creative time in a more balanced fashion. Speaking of which, as of the next podcast, I'll be releasing new shows in parallel on the TLT site (which is closing down soon) and on my new independent site. Links to subscribe to the new version of the show on your favorite podcatchers can be found on the Podcast Index page. I'm very nervous about how many of my listeners will follow me to the new site. I really appreciate everyone who subscribes and listens, and especially if you recommend the show to others and rate or review it. And what really floats my boat is if you spontaneously reach out and let me know what you like about the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, either the blog or the podcast.

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Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.


This book addresses the question of why, given the attention paid (if patchily) by historians to women’s friendships, the subject of erotic F/F friendship is strikingly absent from study. This erasure makes it possible to argue for the absence of lesbians in the past, but the erasure goes beyond the erotic. In 1867, a male-authored book on The Friendship of Women took for granted “the small number of recorded examples of the sentiment among women and… the commonness of the expressed belief that strong natural obstacles make friendship a comparatively feeble and rare experience with them.”

Vicinus traces the period from 1778 when Eleanor Butler eloped with Sarah Ponsonby, to 1928 when The Well of Loneliness was published, to identify those obstacles, and how women’s friendships of all types were marginalized and erased.

These forces included economic barriers to establishing an independent household, expectations regarding family obligations placed on unmarried women, and the expectation that marriage would supplant same-sex friendships.

This book focuses on the women most likely to leave a documentary record, so: white, educated, and (perhaps due to the author’s resources or intetests) Anglo. Vicinus looks at representative examples of several different modes of F/F erotic couplehood, including the place of gender presentation.

The 19th century saw an ongoing debate about normative sexuality, which shows the effort required to maintain the primacy of heterosexual marriage. The approved nature and place of women’s friendships was only one part of that. But the trajectory was never as simple as a correlation of increasing visibility producing increasing suppression. There was a sense of division across women’s friendships between the acceptable sensual, sentimental, romantic friendship, and the more dangerous sexual sapphism.

Women’s sentimental friendships were considered more solid and lasting than heterosexual passion. 18th century novels exploring the elevation of sensibility and feeling touched on the possibilities of marriage-like relationships between women as, perhaps, superior to those between men and women, as in Julie: ou la Nouvelle Heloise. This was the case even when the novels turned away from those possibilities to resolve in a conventional marriage plot. Even pornography intended for male consumption depicted F/F relations as having an extra closeness and tenderness not possible when a man was involved.

But only when desexualized could women’s friendships be safely integrated in respectable society. The contrast to this was the licentious sexual freedom of the French court in the late 18th century. Expressions of F/F friendship in bourgeois circles begin to avoid celebrations of physicality, in favor of sentiment. (A parallel shift was happening in representations of M/F relationships.) The rhetoric of friendship shifted to a focus on the spiritual, a view that both elevated and trivialized same sex friendships. F/F friendships came to be depicted in the 19th century as “practice“ for marital love, rather than taking its place, as it often had in earlier eras. But the very emphasis put on this distinction suggests that the divide between spiritual and erotic love was seen as dangerously permeable.

Vicinus looks at how specific women took elements from both romantic friendships and sapphic sexuality to create identities and relationships that rejected that barrier. Whether or not they used a specific label such as “lesbian” to identify themselves, they recognized and analyzed the erotic component of their relationships.

"Erotic" did not necessarily mean that they acted on their desires in terms of what we would consider sexual acts. And a choice not to name their desires didn’t mean there wasn’t language available. In many cases, it could be a deliberate protective strategy. We know they used codes. They left instructions regarding the destruction of private correspondence and memoirs. A refusal to apply stigmatized labels was another part of those strategies. Definitions of what constituted sex or sexual fidelity could be another part of that strategy. A woman could remain sexually respectable despite romantic relationships with women as long as society defined women’s activities as inherently non-sexual. In this context, buying into the position that “what women do together doesn’t matter” can be seen as self-protection rather than self-denigration. The gender-segregated nature of society provided many opportunities for homoerotic flirtation, teasing, and acts of affection.

Lesbian historiography has spent a lot of energy on defining exactly what falls within lesbian sexuality. Arguments about categories and definitions have sometimes dominated the discussion. At the same time, historians outside the field of queer history have often worked to deny or erase lesbian possibilities to “protect“ their subjects. A subject could not have been a lesbian, because lesbians didn’t exist then. And lesbians didn’t exist then, because historians successfully found reasons to exclude lesbian interpretations. The deliberate destruction of counter-evidence--either by their subjects, or by those who came after them--makes the denial easier. Given this (perhaps deliberate) avoidance of category labels by historical subjects themselves, is it presumptuous for a modern historian to categorize them as lesbian?

Historians have often focused exclusively on a mythic moment when a self-aware, self-proclaimed “lesbian identity“ became evident, and each historian identifies the mythic turning point in terms of the focus of their own study. While the avoidance of the word “lesbian” by historians such as Judith M. Bennett helps destabilize the idea of a single monolithic concept of sexual identity, or implications projected by modern usage and definitions, these hedges tend to prioritize the “unknowable“ aspect of women’s lives. And yet, using the term “lesbian“ for a wide variety of relationships, behaviors, and experiences prioritizes the modern focus on anatomical similarity in a way that may be far less relevant in the historic context being studied. Less relevant than things such as age difference, gender performance, or class membership.

The terminology that was used, especially in the context of unmistakably erotic relationships, reminds us of the coded and judgmental nature of the boundaries to acceptable behavior. Words such as “mannish,” “morbid,” “languid.” The use of a broad-brush application of words like lesbian can create a false coherence out of a diversity of identities, but the avoidance of words invoking unifying concepts can create a false erasure of the common experiences those terms circle around.

Rather than seeing identity as unstable and contextual, Vicinus argues for it as complex and layered. These layers and complexities can be explored from a variety of angles--as Halberstam does with performative masculinity--without defining one aspect as paramount, or even defining sexuality as the most important aspect of an individual’s identity.

Vicinus focuses on connections and commonalities, rather than timelines or defining moments. this book looks at exemplars--specific complex intersections in which women who loved women created “family.” Though society might view such arrangements as “a substitute for love” or as a matter of making do, it’s clear that the participants didn’t usually view it as such. That “family” might be expressed in the language of sisters, without that word excluding in a erotic component. But it might be expressed in the language of husband and wife, or that of mother and daughter, again without excluding the erotic. [Note: There are heterosexual marriages in which partners refer to each other as brother and sister, or as mother and father without any sort of implication of incest. So I think it’s important to allow a similar freedom of reference to same-sex couples.]

Each of these metaphorical framings comes with its own implications and hazards. The use of mother-daughter language could reflect or encourage a view of F/F relations as a transient life-stage experience. The use of husband-wife language might reflect or encourage power differentials between the partners. What other models were there for female homoeroticism outside the familial? The 18th century featured the female rake, but similar figures are harder to find in the 19th century, certainly in any respectable form. Some individuals might fit this model at certain stages of their life—Anne Lister and Natalie Clifford Barney come to mind--but usually among women with class privilege. All these roles were mutable, and women might shift between them even within the same partnership.

The remainder of the introduction outlines the content of the book and discusses the nature of the source materials.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 17, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 180 (previously 51c) – Book Appreciation with Samantha Rajaram

(Originally aired 2020/10/17 - listen here)

Transcript Pending.

Show Notes

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Samantha Rajaram Online

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Saturday, October 10, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 179 (previously 51b) - Interview with Samantha Rajaram

(Originally aired 2020/10/10 - listen here)

Transcript Pending.

Show Notes

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about:

  • How the anti-miscegenation policy of the Dutch East India Company inspired the story
  • Starting with characters and finding their stories
  • The experience of finding your place in the world
  • The difficulty of researching sexuality in the 17th century
  • Samantha’s complex professional history and how it feeds into her writing
  • Growing up as the only Indian family in a Wyoming town
  • Samantha’s experience in Pitch Wars and finding/being a mentor
  • Differing expectations in different genre cultures
  • Books mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Samantha Rajaram Online

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Tuesday, October 6, 2020 - 19:51

This isn't part of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, as such. It's more of a digression into historical methods and sources. I'll link this from the LHMP entry that inspired it, and it I dig futher on the thread, I'll continue to link. For What Came Before, see here.

We left off with a summary of the claims that Burford makes about lesbian bordellos and lesbian relationships in 18th century London, and a note that he doesn’t clearly support either concept in his text. (I’m not saying that either of these is a false claim. Only that Burford gave us no basis for accepting their truth.)

 So, let’s see what else we can turn up with a bit of online research.

The place to start would be the Caroline Harrington, since a countess seems most likely to have left a trace in the historic record. And here we are: the Wikipedia entry for Caroline FitzRoy Stanhope, Countess of Harrington. (It doesn’t say much for Burford’s historic accuracy that he’s turned her title into a surname. But never mind.) “After being blackballed by the English social group The Female Coterie, she founded The New Female Coterie, a social club of courtesans and "fallen women" that met in a brothel. Known for her infidelity and bisexuality, she was nicknamed the "Stable Yard Messalina" due to her adulterous lifestyle.” Wikipedia has a footnote for the claim “she had male and female lovers” (Linnane, Fergus (Oct 24, 2011). Madams: Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London. The History Press. ISBN 9780752473383.) but on checking the cited passage (via Google Books), the details regarding her lesbian relationships are so exactly parallel to Burford’s text that I’d be surprised if he weren’t the source. (Burford is cited elsewhere in Linnane’s book.) Which brings us full circle.

Caroline’s Wikipedia page cites three historical studies that include her as a major focus. It’s possible that one or more of them has some more solidly cited evidence than “she was part of a social club of adulterous women who held their events at a brothel.”

Elizabeth Ashe doesn’t seem to have her own Wikipedia entry, so we’ll leave her for now. Trying to do a broad-scope search on “Mother Courage” runs into a lot of interference from the Bertolt Brecht play of that name and a NYC restaurant. Frances Bradshaw has no Wikipedia entry, but Thomas Bradshaw does and it rather undermines Burford’s suggestion that he seriously proposed marriage to Frances, given that he was survived by his wife of 17 years.

So taking this back to the footnote in Rizzo, it was in the context of noting that Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress and then wife to a duke) had, in her 20s, been intimate friends with Lady Caroline Fitzroy Petersham* (later Caroline Stanhope, Countess of Harrington) and Elizabeth Ashe, and that this raised the possibility that Chudleigh’s rather strictly jealous attitudes toward her companions may have been sexual in nature.

(*Not sure where the “Petersham” come from. Caroline’s father was a FitzRoy and her mother was a Somerset, and her only husband was a Stanhope. Ah, here’s a clue. “Viscount Petersham” was a subsidiary title to the Harrington title. So, again, shouldn’t be treated like a surname.)

But while Chudleigh and Lady Caroline were much of an age (only a year’s difference) Elizabeth Ashe was eight years younger. So… ah, but a Google search on “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” + “Elizabeth Ashe” turns up the text of a 1911 biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh by Charles E. Pearce, which places all three women together. This source may also be where the styling of “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” comes from. The text calls her “then Caroline Petersham” in reference to an event in 1750 when her husband had not yet succeeded his father as Earl of Harrington, and therefore might have been styled “Viscount Petersham”. But it’s still confusing to treat it as a surname. Her married name was “Caroline Stanhope” regardless of title.

Anyway, in chapter 8 (Elizabeth's associates Gay ladies of fashion, The frolicsome Miss Ashe, The friendship and wrangles of Miss Ashe and Lady Caroline Petersham, A merry night at Vauxhall…) we find the following descriptions.

p. 136: It is related that while Miss Chudleigh, the free-and-easy Lady Caroline Petersham, afterwards Lady Harrington, and the latter's inseparable friend one equally free and easy Miss Ashe, were at Tunbridge Wells they were somewhat incensed by the intrusion into their circle of a Mrs. Wildman, a rich widow of low origin, who wished to pose as a lady of fashion.

p.139: One biographer, writing in 1789, asserts that Miss Chudleigh "ran the career of pleasure, enlivened the Court circles, and each year became more ingratiated with the mistress whom she served. She led fashions, played whist with Lord Chesterfield; visited with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe; figured at a masquerade, and laughed at the lover whom she chose not to favour with her smiles, with all the confounding grace of a woman of quality.

p.144 "Her intimacy with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures, and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgencies." As this was written in 1780, thirty years afterwards, it is purely conjecture. It is certain, however, that Lady Harrington, then Lady Caroline Petersham, and the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton, was one of the most-talked-about beauties of the day. About her intimate friend, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, there is a little mystery. She is stated indirectly by Wraxall and directly by Mrs. Piozzi (who describes her as “a pretty creature, but particularly small in her person”), to have been of very high parentage, her mother being no less a personage than the Princess Amelia Sophia Eleonora, second daughter of George II, and her father the gallant (in more senses than one) Admiral Rodney. The Princess, it is said, displayed the same partiality for Rodney which her cousin and namesake, the Princess Amelia of Prussia, manifested for Baron Trenck. Miss Ashe was as frolicsome as she was adventurous, and her escapades included a Fleet wedding, and an elopement with the scapegrace Edward Wortley Montagu, of which more later on. [Note: A “Fleet wedding” was of questionable legality, and Montagu’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the marriage, though it is quite brief and may not be exhaustive.]

p.146: Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper.

p.153: …[in reference to a notorious highwayman] at his trial the court was crowded with ladies of fashion, among them the inseparables, Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, "like Niobe, all tears."

p.199: a passage merits quoting, if only for its reference to one of the never-ending series of quarrels between Lady Caroline Petersham and her bosom friend, "Pollard" Ashe… "Your friend, the eldest Miss Gunning, carries on her negotiation in all public places with Lord Coventry. The treaty must surely be near a conclusion one way or another, but whether it will be final or only a ‘provisional’ one is not yet clear… Miss Ashe is happily reconciled to Lady Caroline Petersham, who had broke with her upon account of her indiscretion, but who has taken her under her protection again upon the assurances that she is ‘as good as married’ to Mr. Wortley Montagu, who seems so puzzled between Le Chatelet in France and his wife in England that it is not yet known in favour of which he will determine”

p.204: In the early part of 1751 Lady Caroline had her last quarrel with Miss Ashe, for in July the little lady ran away with Edward Wortley Montagu, and the two were married in Keith's chapel, Mayfair. The lively associate of Elizabeth Chudleigh in many a frolic both in London and Tunbridge Wells had very ill-luck in her marriage. Poor little "Pollard" Ashe deserved a better fate. She was probably not vicious, though she enjoyed life to the full, as it was presented to her, and, like all the ladies of the Court, took no thought of the morrow. Her scamp of a husband forsook her, and, to quote Elizabeth Montagu, "Poor Miss Ashe, like the forsaken Ariadne, wept on a foreign shore." After his death she found consolation in a marriage with a captain in the Royal Navy. [Note: as Wikipedia indicates that Whortley Montagu died in 1776, that would have been a 20+ year wait for “consolation.”]

Lady Caroline's temper was easily upset, but we hear of no more escapades in company with Miss Chudleigh. So far as the ladies of the Court were concerned Elizabeth's exploit at the Jubilee masquerade* did her more harm than good, and it is highly probable her former friends looked at her a little askance. Lady Caroline no doubt thought a private intrigue was nothing so bad as open public indelicacy, and as she never hesitated to speak her mind, it can be easily imagined that Miss Chudleigh heard some very candid criticism. One may be sure, however, that the latter could take care of herself in a verbal encounter, and that her ladyship got as good as she gave.

[* This would be a reference to Chudleigh’s scandalous appearance semi-nude in a Jubilee masquerade in 1749. So this fits the general time-frame of the reference to 1751 in an earlier paragraph.]

p.215: Elizabeth's pleasant holiday at Tunbridge Wells over, she returned to London with the Duke of Kingston dangling at her heels, to find the town still agog with the doings of the Gunnings, a little variety in the way of piquant gossip being furnished by the obstreperous Lady Caroline Petersham and her lively friend, little Miss Ashe. For the time being the frivolities of these fair dames provided ample material for the diarists and polite letter-writers. The wrangles of Lady Caroline always made a dainty dish of scandal, and we learn that she and "Pollard" Ashe quarrelled about reputations, while a little later she has her " anniversary quarrel with Lady Townshend."

While this biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh is a secondary source and (consistent with the date of publication) doesn’t bother with close footnoting, many of these references attributed to Horace Walpole, and one of the references was to prolific diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi, so I’m going to consider the general tenor of the information well-sourced. As a summary, Pearce’s biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh seems to solidly support an image of Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe as “inseparable” “intimate” friends with licentious reputations. In this era, the fact that their licentiousness included men doesn’t exclude the possibility that they were also lovers (or rumored to be such). Since Piozzi was known to have strong negative opinions about homosexuality (in both men and women), her writings might be a good place to look for a more explicit accusation, but I don’t have an electronic edition of her writings.

The suggestions that Elizabeth Chudleigh’s close friendship with them might indicate sapphic leanings on her part is more conjectural, and I’d put it down as “suggestive, but far from proven.”

So, we’ve gotten as far as accepting a “probable” lesbian relationship between Stanhope and Ashe, but what about the suggestion that Caroline Stanhope was a “frequenter of Covent Garden stews” which, if one reads very carefully, is the only point at which Burford actually intersects named lesbians and houses of ill repute? Pearce’s text contains no examples of “Covent”, no relevant examples of “garden” and no examples of “stews”. So, he can’t be the source of this accusation.

And we haven’t yet touched on the characterization of Mother Courage’s and Fanny Bradshaw’s brothels as places that catered to lesbians. But we’ll save that question for another day.

Major category: 
Tuesday, October 6, 2020 - 07:00

There is a valuable place in the world for "popular histories". Books that get the non-specialist reader interested in a particular topic, era, or person by presenting information about it in an informal "sound-bite" fashion, and especially by focusing on images or claims that will catch the imagination.

The problem comes when those sound-bites part ways with the documentable facts and yet are passed along from hand to hand as "historic truth." (Internet memes aren't the origin of this problem.) Once a factoid has taken off across the fields of the audience, wild and free on its own, it can be extremely difficult to track it back to its inspiration. It's much harder to prove a negative than a  positive. If the factoid did have a documentary basis, it may be possible to establish the actual truth and show how it was stretched to make a better story. But if the factoid came entirely from someone's imagination (or from misunderstanding the historic context, or from a string of "what-ifs" and "probablys") then it can take a lot of work to demonstrate the underlying lack of substance. And if the factoid took off precisely because it captured the popular imagination, then the audience you're trying to convince of its lack of substance may be actively hostile to your project.

This is what I face in trying to establish the historic facts and sources behind Burford's offhand claim that there were houses of ill repute in 18th century London that catered to women having sex with women.

(Go follow the link at the end of the entry to the "Charlemagne's Cheese" article. It will demonstrate all these problems a lot more clearly.)

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Burford, E.J. 1986. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons - London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale, London. ISBN 0-7090-2629-3

Publication summary: 

A salacious popular history of the Covent Garden neighborhood in the 18th century.

A footnote in Rizzo 1994 (chapter 4) about some friends of Elizabeth Chudleigh being known (or perhaps rumored) to frequent a lesbian bordello in London certainly caught my attention and curiosity, even though Rizzo noted that there was no solid citation given for the information. Such is the speed of book delivery (plus the two weeks it took me to get through Rizzo) that I now have the source of that footnote in hand. So as a brief appetizer before plunging into the next scheduled book, here’s what the source has to say. [Narrator: it was not a brief appetizer.]

Burford’s book is a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally.

The vast majority of the sexual content is focused on heterosexual interests, of course, though there are a dozen index entries relating to male homosexuality, some of them covering multiple pages. I’m not interested in reading though the whole book, so I’m going to focus on the three index entries under “lesbians”, plus cross-references to the women mentioned by name in those discussions.

In chapter 7 (The Places of Resort, discussing various specific taverns with significant reputations), the discussion of the Rose Tavern makes a passing reference to how all sexual appetites were welcome at the Rose including: “homosexuals and lesbians (the latter’s activity called ‘the Game of Flats’)…” No specific source is given for this information, but the tag for that phrase in this blog will turn up several known sources from the 18th century.

In chapter 11 (The Heyday, which is sort of a hodgepodge of anecdotes from the mid century), after a discussion of an attack on a well-known “molly house” (a gathering place for male homosexuals), the discussion segues into:

“Lesbianism is seldom mentioned. It was colloquially known as ‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street. The best-known practitioners were Lady Caroline Harrington and her friend Elizabeth ‘the Pollard’ Ashe. It was regarded as an aberration – indeed, it was not even a misdemeanour.”

There are no references to primary sources in this section that would appear to be relevant to this passage, however the listing of specific names and locations provides a thread to follow.

Finishing up the index listings for “lesbians”, we have in chapter 12 (The Theatrical Connection, discussing the overlap between actresses, courtesans, and noting both licit and illicit intersections with the aristocracy) a second mention of Ashe and Harrington. Once again, there is no reference to a specific primary source in this section of the chapter that would appear to give a clue to the story’s origins, though what appears to be a verbatim quotation from some source might provide a thread. [Note: further research determines that the quote describing Ashe is from Hester Thrale Piozzi, although her diaries are not listed in the bibliography for this book.]

“One of the most bizarre actress-courtesans was Elizabeth Ashe, ‘a small pretty Creature…between a Woman and a Fairy’, daughter of Jon Ashe, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs – although she always claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Lord Rodney and the Princess Amelia. When very young she was often in Covent Garden mixing with the haut ton. In 1751 she married the scapegrace Edward Wortley-Montague but he left her a year later because of her promiscuity. Ten years later she married Captain Robert Falconer RN but before long she was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the equally profligate Lady Caroline ‘Polly’ Harrington (also a frequenter of Covent Garden ‘stews’). The friendship was broken when Miss Ashe became the mistress of Count Josef Franz Zavier Haszlang, Bavarian Envoy to London, who was very well liked in all circles in London Society as a pleasant, helpful and compassionate man Lady Harrington, one of the most powerful Society hostesses, claimed that ‘her character was demolished’ by her friends actions. Despite her two marriages, Elizabeth was always known as ‘Little Ashe’, and Horace Walpole nickname her ‘the Pollard Ashe’, observing that ‘she had had a large collection of amours’ before she died, still gay and happy, at the age of eighty-four.”

So now we have some cross-references to follow up in the index. Elizabeth Ashe only references the two items above.

Caroline Harrington, in addition to the two items above, cites in chapter 17 (The Nurseries of Naughtiness, discussing a shift in the types of attractions in Covent Garden in the later part of the century): “The other competition [i.e., for the traditional houses of prostitution] came from the marvelous concerts and balls given by Mrs Cornelys at her mansion in Soho Square, which royalty occasionally attended and where the most refined and elegant assignations could be made by such powerful ladies as the Countess of Harrington and her clique, who acted as unpaid procuresses.” So, no direct reference to f/f relations in this one. But Harrington being a countess, we may be able to find other information on her.

Frances Bradshaw was mentioned as running an “elegant” house (of prostitution) in Bow Street and she gets two additional mentions in the index. Frances née Herbert ca. 1760 was keeping ‘a very reputable brothel in Play-house Passage in Bow Street’, financed by a wealthy man she had been mistress of. But a Lord of the Admiralty named Thomas Bradshaw fell for her sufficiently to think about marrying her. It isn’t clear from the text that he actually did so, though she began using his surname from a few years before his death. But this mini-bio provides no repetition of the suggestion that her house’s clientele included female customers.

This leaves us with the only other named reference being “Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street”. The index entry for “Courage, Mrs.” adds the information “a house for lesbians” with one other citation besides the one we’ve already seen. This is also in Chapter7 (The Places of Resort) in the context of the courtesan/opera singer Caterina Ruini Galli who, having worked her way through several wealthy lovers who found they couldn’t support her extravagance, “the last heard of her was that she was gracing Mrs Courage’s well-known place of assignation in Suffolk Street off the Haymarket.” But there’s no mention here of f/f relations.

So what we have from Burford’s book are a couple of specific claims: that Countess Caroline Harrington had a sexual relationship with the courtesan-actress Elizabeth Ashe, and that at least two named houses of prostitution (Frances Bradshaw’s and Mother Courage’s) catered to lesbians. We have some quotations from primary sources about these women, but none of the quotes are specific about f/f relations. While I wouldn’t necessarily put “lesbian bordellos into the category of “extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof”, It would be nice to see something in the way of references to sources.

So rather than this being a little throw-away book summary to give me a breather this week, it’s turning into a deeper dive that will take a bit more time and research. Why do I care? Well, it’s a matter of Charlemagne’s cheese. See this article for what I mean by that. If you don’t know how you know something, you don’t actually know it. And if we don’t know how we “know” that there were lesbian bordellos in 18th century London, we don’t actually know that there were any. (Mind you, I do have at least one other contemporary claim on the topic, but we’ll get to that.) So I’ll link back here when I’ve gotten that deep dive into a bit more order. And chances are, this will turn into a podcast essay eventually.

Added 2020/10/06 - I've done some poking at possible sources for some of this information. If I find additional material of interet, I'll add more links.

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Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 20:00

I confess it, I got a bit grumpy about this book long before I finished blogging it. And I don't think that was just because it felt like a bait-and-switch. I wanted to learn more about the social institution of women's companionate relations in general: how it played out in various situations, what the social and economic dynamics were, how it was instantiated at different class levels. I got a little of that, but a lot more of overly intricate micro-biographies of a fairly narrow slice of literary women, most of whom were connected to each other in some way. (It did leave me wanting to look up more about the Duchess of Portland, who figures tangentially in many of the biographies.) But as a historical study, it was simply not very well written. Identities were presented in a confusing way (in part because of the multiplcation of common names that weren't clearly distinguished). The details of people's movements and interactions were catalogued without being related to any central thesis. And in the end, the central thesis that did emerge was entirely different from the stated topic.

But it's done now. For next week's entry (i.e., tomorrow's) I think I'm going to insert a rather short item that came up in the footnotes so I can take a breather before I plunge into another entire book.

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Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 13 – Reformers: Sarah Scott and Barbara Montagu

This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.

Sarah Robinson Scott did not have an auspicious beginning in life. Although close to her sister Elizabeth through all their childhood, once Elizabeth married--and in particular after Sarah suffered from smallpox at age 20--there was a break between them. And though it might have been natural for Sarah to live with her sister later, instead she lived a precarious existence as guest of a sequence of relatives and family friends. Sarah satirized her sister somewhat in her Description of Millenium Hall as a beautiful, charming, witty woman whose primary weakness was vanity.

Sarah’s mother had been the property-owner of the marriage, and after the mother’s death when the property went to Sarah’s oldest brother, their father moved into meagre lodgings in London with his mistress/housekeeper, making his house doubly an unsuitable place for Sarah.

Eventually, Sarah migrated to Bath, where she met Barbara Montagu, who quickly became a fast friend. she also met her future husband there, though the marriage turned out to be unsatisfactory for significant, but never explained, reasons. Her Family interfered to separate the couple and ensure some minimal income for Sarah independently. After that, Sarah spent the majority of her life in Bath and its environs, almost continually in the company of Barbara Montagu.

The two don’t seem to have had a romantic friendship type of relationship, but definitely a domestic partnership and a close friendship. Barbara Montagu was from an aristocratic family but never married due to frail health. She had a barely sufficient income for independence in an inexpensive place such as Bath. When combined with Sarah’s various incomes, they were able to manage frugally.

The two were part of a larger circle of independent and forward-thinking women in Bath, and the discussions of that circle regarding women’s place in the world and how best to implement charitable principles provided the background and much of the development for Scott’s Description of Millenium Hall.

That was not Scott’s first published work. She wrote at least one novel earlier that also explored issues of women’s place in society. Millenium Hall was an ambitious thought experiment in what women could do if they pooled the resources to form, not merely an independent economic community for themselves, but an institution that could benefit their community through charitable and Christian principles.

The book was an unexpected success, which helped Scott financially, though it was often the case that Scott’s income was turned to charitable expenses. She had many projects, such as maintaining a school for poor girls in the village outside Bath where she and Montagu had a second home. The girls would be taught sewing, and the clothing they made distributed as charity to other poor people.

Millenium Hall fell short of truly Utopian ideals in not directly challenging patriarchal structures or the basis of class differences. It was very much an example of women of comfortable, if not extravagant, means pooling their resources to do good in the community for those less fortunate than themselves.

The Bath circle made an abortive attempt to implement an actual community along the lines of Millenium Hall, but it fell apart rather quickly due to conflicts over philosophy and authority.

As example of a form of companionship, this chapter does not focus a great deal on Scott and Montagu’s partnership, except in that Montagu was able to provide some financial stability for Scott during hard times, and Scott in turn, provided the companionship Montagu needed to live independently. But more than the two of them, the entire Bath circle was an example of women’s connections providing both the moral and intellectual support needed to challenge women’s disadvantages in the world.


In summarizing and presenting her conclusions, Rizzo emphasizes the range of women’s interactions with the world on a scale from tyranny to altruism, much more than the theme of women’s companionship relations that is ostensibly the topic of the book. She discusses how the women writers she covers approach the problem of women’s sexuality given the impossibility at that era for a woman to openly claim her sexuality and remain virtuous. Rizzo discusses a sliding scale of altruism from what she calls “immature altruism” where women simply refrain from becoming tyrants to “mature altruism” in which they rejected being either victims or victimizers, and did good for others without themselves being exploited.

This shift in focus from the social institution of companionship to the evaluation of social behavior with regard to altruism, combined with the book’s tendency toward anecdotal biography, has made it a less coherent book then it initially appeared to be. The biographies provide some interesting models for women’s lives, but I don’t feel that I have a clear picture of the nature of 18th century companionship from this work.

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