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LHMP #132 A One-Stop-Shop for Lesbian History in Britain

Monday, August 29, 2016 - 08:00

When I first started working seriously on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I was delighted at how the number of relevant publications and the scope of the material kept expanding with every book or article I read. But lately I've been noticing how often I'm covering publications that largely cover themes and motifs that I've already dealt with. Sometimes they have an interesting new take on the material, but sometimes it's simply repackaged from a slightly different angle. This isn't a problem, as such. But it means that I'm sometimes tempted to summarize the work simply with a list of the topics. And in a case like the present book, the scope is so broad and the coverage so glancing that I've foregone providing a complete topical index. That doesn't mean it isn't a valuable book--far from it--especially as an entry point to the topic. But broad general works of this type can miss some of the nuances that the more in-depth articles explore.

On another topic, this seems a good time to repeat that the first monthly episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has gone live. The series is going to give me a chance to talk about some of my favorite historic people and stories in a more informal context, and the include greater amounts of some of the historic texts. The episodes are scheduled to post on the last Saturday of each month.

Full citation: 

Jennings, Rebecca. 2007. A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500. Greenwood World Publishing, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-84645-007-5

This may be the first time I find myself at a loss for summarizing a book because it’s too jam-packed with relevant information. Jennings has set out to discuss pretty much every scrap of historic data addressing lesbians and lesbian-like relationships in Great Britain during the defined time period of 1500 to the present. Reading through it, I haven’t spotted any material that hasn’t been mentioned in other publications already covered by the project. But conversely, the concentration of this material in a single volume (complete with footnotes and extensive bibliography) makes the book an incredibly useful one-stop-shop of information.

The book does have the flaw of focusing solely on Great Britain and rarely touching on how the situation there differed from elsewhere in Europe. And I’ve spotted a few typical errors in sweeping statements, such as the claim that the word “lesbian” was not used in the sense of “a woman who desires women sexually” until the mid 20th century. But these are the sorts of flaws that are to be expected in a work with such scope.

The book is organized thematically in a manner that also reflects trends over time. Chapter 1 covers evidence for sexual desire between women in the 16 -18th centuries. Chapter 2 looks at the phenomenon of cross-dressing, “passing women”, and “female husbands”--topics that were most characteristic of the 17-18th centuries. Chapter 3 covers the theme of romantic friendship as understood in the 18-19th centuries. Chapter 4 looks at the rise of the “new woman” in the later 19th century, and the ways in which women’s demands for independence and equality conflicted with feminine archetypes of the Victorian era. Chapter 5 examines the emergence of “sexology” as a psychological study, and its effects on the understanding of same-sex desire. And chapters 6-10 cover 20th century topics outside the scope of the current Project.

I can strongly recommend this volume for anyone interested specifically of the history of lesbianism in Great Britain.

Due to the nature of the contents, I won’t be providing keyword links, as the lists would be unmanageably long.