Some article I read -- I no longer remember which one, but it isn't important -- tried to claim that pre-20th century female couples inevitably involved an age difference and therefore followed the classical model of an older mentor and a younger "beloved". It seems to me that this is a case of finding what you're looking for, because even when a couple are very close in age--for example, fellow students at a boarding school--it may happen that one is seen as the older, more experienced figure and the other as the follower. Further, when certain behaviors are coded as "motherly" then acts of caretaking can appear to code as an age-differentiated relationship regardless of actual years.
Female couples have looked to a wide range of types of relationships as models for how they viewed or talked about their bond. To some extent this is inevitable if society has not offered you a neutral "default" understanding of the dynamics of a same-sex couple. I get a bit uneasy when an author points to an age-differentiated female couple and starts talking about "mother-daughter" dynamics because it invokes some pernicious stereotypes about homosexuality that aren't raised in the context of even greater age gaps in m/f relationships.
And yet, the language of mothers and daughters was a thing that some female couples used. Perhaps in some cases it was a way of creating an acceptable context for their feelings. But using the language and symbols of the mother-daughter bond (or of a sister bond) is a very different thing than actual incestuous relationships, and I feel this isn't always emphasized when the topic is raised.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love
In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]
It was common for women with homoerotic desires to have at least one crush on an older woman in their past. And couples that began with a noticeable age difference might grow into a more equal partnership as the younger member gained maturity. [Note: And let us not forget that m/f marriages in this era often involved a significant age difference. The middle-aged man who married a young woman inevitably carried a paternalistic air.]
Chapter 5 looks at three women who played a “daughter” role in their relationship, whether looking to a mentor in adoration, or playing the part of wild and rebellious teenager. But this chapter also looks at actual mother-daughter relations, and the challenges of creating independent identities.
In this chapter, the partners long to merge. While the similar relationships in Chapter 6 deal with the down side of merging (loss of identity) or the after-effects of an absence of mothering earlier in life.
One common trait the “daughters” in these examples have is rejecting conventional feminine norms, though not all in the same way.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
The examples in this chapter are all of a single, younger woman in a relationship with an older married woman where the latter is framed as a mother figure in contrast to the “child”, looking for an unconditionally wise and understanding partner.
Because the marriage prevented the formation of an independent f/f couple, the relationship was often expressed by attempts to claim a right to the beloved’s attention and love. But these attempts could be negative: fights, jealousy, flirtations with a third party, or illness. The unattainability of the mother figure only stimulated the intensity of the passion. But that doesn’t mean the resulting relationships were unhealthy or a passing phase. Inevitably, to be successful, these relationships needed t evolve and accommodate the participants.
Gerldine Jewsbury suffered an absence of mother figures in her youth and seemed destined for a spinster life, keeping house for various male relatives. In search of something more, she came into contact with Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle and found a place for herself within the fractures in their marriage.
Although there doesn’t seem to have been an erotic component to their relationship, Jane served as surrogate mother and practical mentor for the enthusiastic Geraldine, and in turn received the admiration and love not present in her marriage, while being able to use that marriage to set clear boundaries with Geraldine. Jane played the rationalist while Geraldine used the language of romantic friendship, with all its enthusiasms, and wrote novels that bordered on the scandalous. But as Jane found her aspirations eclipsed by her husband’s fame, she became more dependent on Geraldine’s support and understanding, and the power dynamics in their relationship shifted.
Novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) attracted admiration from both men and women, and managed the passion of her “spiritual daughters” by preaching selfless duty. Edith Simcox, one of those admirers, was a social activist and journalist. She left a diary full of her passionate, unrequited feelings for Eliot, and her attraction to women in general. Eliot was not technically married, as her male lover was married to someone else, but the relationship functioned similarly for the purpose of setting boundaries for Eliot’s admirers. Eliot was not comfortable being cast into the role of mother figure, but did not offer equal friendship as an alternative.
Composer Ethel Smyth chose a mannish presentation and had a series of crushes on older upper-class women – as detailed in her 9-volume memoirs. She presents her attraction to women as an “emotional experiment” and left open the possibility of attraction to men. There is a recurring theme of relationships with surrogate mother figures – a context in which she could explore her erotic and emotional needs. Her first love, for the wife of her composition teacher, was reciprocated and set a pattern for the future. They role-played that Lisl was Ethel’s “real mother”, or that they were famous operatic couples. But Ethel flirted outside the relationship regularly, and after seven years of Ethel living in the composer’s household, she moved on to begin her professional career. She also moved on to fall in love with other women, including a complex triangle with Lisl’s sister Julia and Julia’s husband, Harry Brewster, which resulted in a breach with Lisl.
By framing her love for women in mother-daughter symbolism, Ethel was able to distinguish it from adultery, and somewhat more awkwardly, from however f/f love might be understood. Ethel’s relationship with her actual mother was somewhat strained and unsupportive.
Ethel next fixed her interest on Mary Benson (see previous chapter) who provided the type of accepting, nurturing love she wanted, but was unhappy at sharing Benson with too many other followers.
Ethel’s identity was tied up in music and composition – the thing that she felt distinguished her from “ordinary women” – and what she needed most in a relationship was someone who would admire and support that ambition. When she encountered Harry Brewster again, who could provide that support, she entered into an extended friendship with him, though she rejected his romantic advances until after Julia’s death. She declined to marry him and continued having sexual relationship with women as well.
Her next and very long-term relationship was with Lady Mary Ponsonby, who was more tolerant of Ethel’s flirtations than previous women had been.
The chapter then turns to a psychoanalysis of the motivations underlying (some) “mother-daughter” romantic friendships, including the tangled relations around Mary Benson’s actual daughters when both mother and daughter were involved with (or attracted to) the same woman, in one case, Ethel Smyth.