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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 28d - Anne Damer

Saturday, November 24, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 81 (previously 28)d - Anne Damer - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/11/24 - listen here)

Usually when I choose a podcast topic based on a book I’m reading, it’s one of the non-fiction works intended for the blog. But this time I was inspired by reading Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask, a novelization of the life of late 18th century aristocrat and sculptor Anne Damer. Donoghue’s fiction is sometimes very close to a history text--hmm, I mean that in a more complimentary way than it may have sounded. In any event, women like Damer also feature heavily in Donoghue’s academic writings. She is one of the major research sources I used for this essay.

Anne Conway Damer illustrates two significant issues of the 18th and 19th centuries in western Europe: the difficulty of defining and identifying lesbian-like women, and the ways in which accusations of lesbianism were used to control and punish women whose lives challenged patriarchal structures and prerogatives.

Born Anne Conway in the mid-18th century to an aristocratic British family, her associates were titled peers, high-ranking military officers, members of parliament, philosophers, authors, and artists. In such company, and at such a time, politics shaped her social life. Her family and close friends were members of the Whig party, who favored constitutional monarchism, the supremacy of parliament, and embraced progressive causes such as abolition and religious tolerance, while also being closely tied to the power of the hereditary aristocracy. 18th century British politics were complicated. And politics could also be vicious, especially with regard to women with social power and prominence. Women such as Damer’s friend the Duchess of Devonshire were active in supporting favored political parties but were often repaid by having their personal scandals made public. Sexually tinged gossip and innuendo were a favorite tactic for undermining such women.

Following a typical life course for women of her class, at age 19 Anne married John Damer, the son of Lord Milton who, if things had gone very differently, might eventually have inherited the title of Earl of Dorchester from his father. The couple were set up with a fairly generous income from their families, which John Damer burned through at a furious rate. Several years after their marriage, Anne separated from him--in that era, divorce was rare, though available to the wealthy and well-connected, as it required a special bill in parliament. Two years later, heavily in debt and having been refused further financial help by his father, John Damer committed suicide in a rather scandalous fashion. Gossip later implied that Anne’s disinterest contributed to the act, although any rational assessment of their marriage would put all fault on his side.

Anne had an interest in sculpture--not just as an admirer, but as an artist--and began devoting herself to this artistic field, despite the physicality of the work being considered unfeminine. This was not, mind you, a profession by which she might support herself, but fortunately she had family money to rely on. She worked in a neo-Classical style, specializing in portrait busts in terra-cotta, bronze, and marble, and featuring people in her social circles, as well as creating architectural decorations including works for her beloved theaters. In addition to her aristocratic circle, Anne had a number of close friends in theatrical professions including actors Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren. We’ll come back to that friendship with Farren in a little bit.

It was during travels on the continent to study art, in the years immediately after being widowed, that rumors began to circulate that Anne Damer was a lover of women. The rumors were propagated by a number of satirical publications that mentioned her using pseudonyms in such ill-disguised form that there was no question who was intended. In addition to being referred to as “Sapphick”, she was called a “Tommy” in a very early example of this slang term being used for a lesbian. There was no solid evidence that she was sexually active with women, but even in the face of powerful friends taking publishers to task for printing the satires and verses, the rumors continued for two decades before gradually fading.

Whether there was any basis for sexual accusations, Damer’s life gives ample evidence that her strongest emotional ties were with women. Some of her rumored lovers were women with whom she had very close friendships that could reasonably be classified as romantic. But simply having intense emotional friendships with other women was not something that automatically brought accusations of lesbianism in the later 18th century. So what was different about Damer that attracted those accusations?

During the 18th century, there was a complex and unstable relationship between various types of homoerotic relations between women. Coming out of the libertine philosophy of the 17th century, one strain of thought held that all women were potentially bisexual and that while relations between women that included erotic behavior were as morally questionable as unsanctioned sexual relations between women and men, they were not necessarily qualitatively different. This attitude was a favorite of pornographers writing primarily for the male gaze. Sexual relations between women were titillating and scandalous, but not considered “deviant” unless same-sex desire was combined with masculine behavior or presentation. Hold on to that thought for a moment.

Another strain of thought came out of a culture of intensely sentimental female friendships, such as those that complicated the socio-politics of Queen Anne’s court and administration in the early 18th century, or that lay behind the rumors of Queen Marie Antoinette’s lesbianism. This movement featured effusive public and literary expressions of affection and devotion, using the language and symbolism of romance, but without a necessary implication of a sexual component. And yet such effusively public displays of affection could put a woman at risk of other suspicions if people were casting about for a reason to disapprove of her.

Somewhat separate from both of these themes was a tradition of sexual activity between women of the working classes that was considered to be a spontaneous byproduct of loose morals and excessive sexual desire. It wasn’t necessarily associated with romantic love or any particular preference for women as sexual partners. And an entirely different strain of thought came out of the pseudo-medical theory that sexual desire was determined in polar opposition to one’s underlying gender identity and that desire of an apparently-female person for women was actually evidence of that person having a masculine physiology. This theory was losing popularity by the 18th century and the medicalization of same-sex desire wouldn’t be revived until the end of the 19th century. In general, women of the upper classes tried to distance themselves from these images of purely erotic relationships between women, whether because they saw a genuine distinction of kind, or because of the potential impact to their reputations.

Yet another historical thread that existed independently of all these frameworks, but that might invoke them for explanatory purposes, was the tradition of passing women and “female husbands” who might have economic motivations, but did not exclude the possibility of same-sex erotics. So as you can see, the question of same-sex relations between women was quite complex in the later 18th century with issues of class and politics playing as much of a role as gender identity and erotic desire.

Among the upper classes, public accusations that close friendship had slid over into lesbianism generally were politically motivated (whatever the factual basis in any particular case), such as the attacks against Queen Marie Antoinette of France. One of these days, I need to do an episode about her. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that public rumors of lesbianism shifted significantly towards the bohemian set rather than the aristocracy. Anne Conway Damer overlapped both camps and may have fallen afoul of an intersection of the libertine reputation of the aristocracy with the loose morals of the artistic set.

One can understand, perhaps, why the question of “did she or didn’t she?” mattered to Damer’s contemporaries. It’s a bit more problematic for those of us studying history today to place such a heavy emphasis on the question of whether or not Damer engaged in activities that she--or we--would consider sexual with the women she was romantically attached to. It is a fact that very intense romantic friendships were acceptable and even praised during her lifetime, so long as they avoided the rumor of erotic activity. Damer failed to avoid those rumors, but it is unclear whether her denial of the label of “Sapphist” was due to an absence of an erotic component to her relationships, to a narrow definition of erotic activity, or simply due to self-preservation.

Part of the explanation for the accusations against Damer may lie in masculine jealousy over her successful career as a sculptor--a profession that lay outside the acceptable roles for women. As noted previously, women who trespassed on what was considered masculine territory were kept in line with the suggestion that there was perhaps something a bit too masculine for comfort in their personal lives as well. The turn of the 19th century marked a shift from “mannish” styles of dress being considered a symptom of an underlying masculine personality in a woman, to the deliberate use of male-coded garments as a statement of personal style, or as a social signal, by women with romantic interests in women. And here, too, Damer may have crossed the line in ways that attracted suspicion. A contemporary wrote: “The singularities of Mrs Damer are remarkable — She wears a Mans Hat, and Shoes, — and a Jacket also like a mans — thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick.”

Damer also seems to have attracted some ire for her close friendship with actress Elizabeth Farren, who was involved in an extended platonic courtship with the Earl of Derby, who had the unfortunate burden of a still-living wife. Under ordinary circumstances, one would have expected the actress to take up a comfortable position as Derby’s mistress. The rumor mill required some stronger explanation than personal morals for Farren’s apparent chastity. Romantic interference by Damer was suggested. The following epigram about Farren was written by a theatrical rival but seems more pointed at her friend:

“Her little stock of private fame
Will fall a wreck to public clamour,
If Farren herds with her whose name
Approaches very near to Damn her.”

Farren took the rumors seriously enough to drop the friendship in order to preserve her own reputation. Farren’s prudence and strategy eventually triumphed when Derby became free to marry and she became a countess.

One of the sources of rumor about Anne Damer’s sex life was the notorious gossip Hester Thrale-Piozzi who had something of a fixation about being able to identify both men and women with homosexual inclinations. Despite being close friends with a number of famous romantic female couples, Thrale wrote that, “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” She was among those who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, claiming that it was a byword in London to say that a woman with sapphic interests “visits Mrs. Damer.” In her private diaries, Thrale noted Damer down as “a lady much suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way.” (Note, however, that lesbian sex was not actually a criminal act in England, unlike sex between men.)

Later, Damer developed a devoted partnership with author Mary Berry which lasted until her death. She met Berry through a mutual friendship with Horace Walpole, a close family friend. (After Walpole’s death, Berry would become his literary executor and Damer inherited his property of Strawberry Hill.) The two women traveled together on the continent and were frequently together in England. An acquaintance commented somewhat snarkily, “The ecstasies on meeting, and tender leave on separating, between Mrs Damer and Miss Berry, is whimsical. On Miss Mary Berry going lately to Cheltenham, the servants described the separation between her and Mrs Damer as if it had been parting before death.”

References to Damer and to Strawberry Hill as a den of sapphic love are included in a long anonymous poem published in 1778 entitled “A Sapphick Epistle” which includes a litany of women accused of such interests, all written up in a mocking complaint so stuffed full of allusions and coded references as to be nearly indecipherable. To say nothing of being very bad verse. Ordinarily I enjoy including relevant bits of poetry in these podcasts, but this one just goes on and on with no real point to make and I’ll spare you.

We have a unique window on how Damer viewed the question of her relationships with women due to extensive portions of her correspondence and journals being preserved. In particular, we have significant exchanges with her later romantic friend Mary Berry that specifically addressed the sexual rumors regarding them and raised the question of whether they should change anything about their relationship to try to damp down the gossip. In the end, the answer they came to was “no” and the two continued to live as a couple, for all practical purposes, until Damer’s death, after which Berry referred to herself as being “widowed”.

Damer’s correspondence makes it clear that she considered the accusations of lesbianism to be false and baseless, but it is open to question whether this was a rhetorical position, a matter of self-deception, or simply a matter of definition where she did not categorize her relationships with women as falling within the scope of what she was being accused of. Emma Donoghue speculates that, given that the prevalent definitions of sex at the time required the participation of a man, it’s not impossible that Damer did have erotic interactions with women but did not consider her actions sexual.

In any event, she clearly enjoyed romantic relationships with women. What she didn’t enjoy as comfortably as many of her contemporaries was the ability to indulge in them free from public scorn and suspicion. The reasons for that difference are not entirely clear. Perhaps it was due to her clear disinterest in marriage after the tragic end to her first experience of that state. Perhaps it was her entrance into the field of sculpture which was considered an exclusively masculine preserve. Perhaps it was simply a convenient weapon for personal and political enmities. Time and again, through history, when women have reached out to embrace lives independent of men, the accusation of lesbianism has been used to push them back again. Not until that accusation loses its power will women be truly free.

Show Notes

A short biography of 18th century sculptor Anne Damer and her rumored lesbian relationships.

In this episode we talk about

  • The novel that inspired this episode: Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
  • An overview of Damer’s life and career
  • Her close friendships with actress Elizabeth Farren and writer Mary Berry
  • The complicated landscape of women’s same-sex relations in the 18th century
  • Why Damer may have been unusually vulnerable to accusations of lesbian relations

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Some specific sources that discuss Anne Damer’s sexuality:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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