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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 30d - The New Atalantis - Secret Lesbian Clubs in 17th c Literature

Saturday, January 26, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 90 (previously 30d) - The New Atalantis - Secret Lesbian Clubs in 17th c Literature - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/01/26 - listen here)

Delarivier Manley was an English writer, working around 1700, who wrote in a number of genres, but whose most famous work was the political satire, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes, from the new Atlantis, an island in the Mediterranean, known more briefly as The New Atalantis. If you listened to the podcast on Queen Anne, I talked about how Manley was one of a number of satirists hired (or at least instigated) by Tory politicians to poke fun at their opponents. The New Atalantis only makes sense as a political satire if you can trace the connections between its salacious anecdotes and the real people meant to be understood as its targets. Overwhelmingly, the content involves sexual shenanigans, unhappy political marriages, unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, and the narrators of the framing story--Astrea and the personifications of Virtue and Intelligence--tut-tutting to each other about how awful and nasty people have become, compared to some hypothetical ideal time and place which, of course, never existed.

The interest in this podcast is a handful of anecdotes involving a group of women referred to as The New Cabal who form something of a secret society of women whose romantic--and by strong implication, sexual--interests are for each other. Given how heterosexual relationships are portrayed in the work, one has a great deal of sympathy for them. But one isn’t meant, necessarily, to sympathize. The New Cabal is depicted as being just as self-centered, jealous, and venial as the rest of society, with an extra dollop of the assumption that same-sex relationships must always be somehow lacking and transient in comparison to the attractions of heterosexual ones.

But to be fair, the relationships among The New Cabal are neither more nor less satirized than every other relationship discussed in the work. Anxieties about female power within Queen Anne’s court and government--and quite likely, knowledge of actual same-sex relations among those women--may have provoked this part of Manley’s work, but there’s little sense that the idea of same-sex relationships is being singled out for special disapproval and vitriol. Not any more than the idea of adultery, or the idea of loveless marriages, or the idea of sexual predation on the less powerful.

Many of Manley’s fictionalized characters, both in The New Atalantis and in a later work Memoirs of Europe, can be clearly identified with specific historic individuals. And the real-life counterparts of some of the women who are depicted in the novel as having same-sex relationships are known to have had similar relationships in real life. In the transcript of this show on the website, I’ve included a list of some of those correspondences. So we aren’t necessarily dealing with a case where accusations of same-sex relations are being used to tarnish reputations, any more than the accusations of loveless marriages were. They were both things that people did.

With that understanding, we can read Manley’s anecdotes about The New Cabal as depicting possible social dynamics among homoerotically-inclined women of the court. The text may not reflect the details of such women’s lives, but they reflect how such lives were imagined in their own day.

The Framing Story

The primary narrator of the framing story is a minor divinity of the classical pantheon named Astrea, the goddess of innocence, and purity. Having taken a fancy to visiting the great courts of Europe, she overshoots her trajectory and comes instead to Atalantis. There she encounters the dejected figure of her mother, Virtue. Together they have a mutual “kids these days--what is the world coming to?” moment, then go on a tour to review in detail what they consider the sad failings of society. They are joined by a character representing Intelligence who is similarly dispirited by kids these days. The text is presented as a series of conversational monologues between these characters, occasionally including responses from other characters they encounter. Because the text is often complex and full of allusions, I’ve inserted my own explanations and commentary, which I will distinguish by tone of voice.

Our scene opens as the trio watches some vehicles pass by. The open enjoyment of the passengers makes them speculate on how these people--of all they have met--seem to have escaped the sorrows and vices of the age. But as they discuss the travelers further, their joyful astonishment starts shading over into sarcasm and innuendo.


ASTREA: Does your Ladyship's Intelligence extend to the Knowledge of those Ladies (we know them to be such by their Voices) who fill those three Coaches, which run along the Gravel-Road on the Right Hand of us? They laugh loud and incessantly. ‘Tis certain they have neither the Spleen nor Vapours, or for the present seem to have forgot those Distempers. Can any Persons be more at their Ease? Sure these seem to unknow that there is a certain Portion of Misery and Disappointments allotted to all Men, which one time or other will assuredly overtake them. The very Consideration of which, is sufficient, in, my Opinion, to put a damp upon the Serenest, much more a tumultuous Joy.

INTELLIGENCE: That would be afflicting themselves unprofitably. Nothing ought to hinder Mankind from enjoying the Present, nor no Reflection of the Future carry away his Relish of the Instant, provided it be innocently employed. To one of right Understanding, it will certainly happen thus; provided he be free from bodily Pain, which, notwithstanding the vain celebrated apathy of the Stoics, none was ever found to be insensible of; and whoever has pretended to the contrary, must be as ridiculous as affected.

But to satisfy your Excellency, these Ladies are of the new Cabal; a Sect (however, innocent in itself) that does not fail from meeting its Share of Censure from the World. Alas, what can they do?' How unfortunate are Women! If they seek their Diversion out of themselves, and include the other Sex, they must be criminal. If in themselves (as those of the new Cabal), still they are criminal? Though Censurers must carry their Imaginations a much greater Length than I am able to do mine, to explain this Hypothesis with Success. They pretend to find the Vices of old Rome revived in the Atalantic, and quote you certain detestable Authors, who (to amuse Posterity) have introduced lasting Monuments of Vice, which could only subsist in Imagination; and can in reality have no other Foundation, than what are to be found in the Dreams of Poets, and the Ill-nature of those Censurers, who will have no Diversions innocent, but what themselves advance!

[HRJ: Here, our narrators allude to the writings of classical authors such as Lucian and Martial about sex between women. By pretending to consider such activities to be impossible outside of the prurient imagination, Manley is able to invoke the specter of same-sex acts while maintaining the fiction that the New Cabal are all just good friends.]

Oh how laudable, how extraordinary, how wonderful is the uncommon Happiness of the Cabal! They have wisely excluded that rapacious Sex who, making a Prey of the Honour of Ladies, find their greatest Satisfaction (some few excepted) in boasting of their good Fortune. The very Chocolate-Houses being Witnesses of their Self-love, where promiscuously, among the known and unknown, they expose the Letters of the Fair, explain the Mysterious, and refine upon the happy Part; in their Redundancy of Vanity, consulting nothing but what may feed that insatiable Hydra!

[HRJ: Within this rather tangled prose is the suggestion that the society of men inevitably results in becoming the subject of gossip where men socialize, in this case at cafes specializing in serving chocolate, a fashionable new drink that rivaled coffee and tea for popularity. But women’s company, they assert, cannot possibly carry any hint of shame or guilt!]

The Cabal run no such Dangers, they all have Happiness in themselves! Two beautiful Ladies joined in an Excess of Amity (no Word is tender enough to express their new Delight) innocently embrace! For how can they be guilty? They Vow eternal Tenderness, they exclude the Men, and condition that they will always do so. What Irregularity can there be in this? Tis true, some Things may be strained a little too far, and that causes Reflections to be cast upon the rest.

[HRJ: And now we’re offered an anecdote meant to give the lie to the former claims of innocence. The ladies of the New Cabal were not able to live entirely separate from men. A lady named Armida had the misfortune to have her male lover and her female partner visit at the same time.]

One of the Fair could not defend herself from receiving an importunate Visit from a Person of the troublesome Sex. The Lady who was her Favourite, came unexpectedly at the same time upon another. Armida heard her Chair set down in the Hall, and presently knew her Voice, enquiring with Precipitation, who was above, having observed a common Coach at the Gate, without a Livery. The Lover became surprized to the last Degree, to see Armida’s surprize; she trembled, she turn'd pale, she conjured him to pass into her Closet, and consent to be concealed 'till the Lady was gone! His Curiosity made him as obliging as she could desire.

He was no sooner withdrawn, but his fair Rival entered the Chamber enraged, her Voice shrill, her Tongue inquisitive and menacing, the Extremes of Jealousy in her Eyes and Air. “Where is this Inconstant where is this ungrateful Girl—? What happy Wretch is it upon whom you bestow my Rights! To whom do you deliver the Possession of my Kisses and Embraces? Upon whom bestow that Heart so invaluable, and for which I have paid the Equivalent! Come let us see this Monster to whom my Happiness is sacrificed. Are you not sufficiently warned by the Ruin of so many? Are you also eager to be exposed, to be undone, to be Food for Vanity, to fill the detestable Creatures with vain Glory! What Recompense--Ah, what Satisfaction!--can there be in any Heart of theirs, more than in mine? — Have they more Tenderness--more Endearment? —Their Truth cannot come in comparison; besides, they find their Account in Treachery and Boasting, their Pride is gratified; whilst our Interest is in mutual Secrecy, in mutual Justice, and in mutual Constancy.”

[HRJ: Such an excess of jealousy, of course, creates its own suspicions. The narrators scramble to provide an apparent defense, deliberately undermining it by offering a parallel to one of the homoerotic relationships of Socrates.]

Such Excursions as these, have given Occasion to the Enemies of the Cabal to refine, as much as they please, upon the Mysteries of it; there are some who will not allow of Innocence in any Intimacies. Detestable Censurers, who, after the Manner of the Athenians will not believe so great a Man as Socrates (him, whom the Oracle delivered to be the wisest of all Men) could see every Hour the Beauty of an Alcibiades, without taxing his Sensibility. How did they recriminate for his Affection, for his Cares, his Tenderness to the lovely Youth? How have they delivered him down to Posterity as blamable for a too guilty Passion for his beautiful Pupil? Since then it is not in the Fate of even so wise a Man, to avoid the Censure of the Busy and the Bold, Care ought to be taken by others (less fortified against Occasions of Detraction, in declining such unaccountable Intimacies) to prevent the ill-natured World's refining upon their mysterious Innocence.

[HRJ: Having thus set the stage for how we are meant to understand the internal relationships of the Cabal, we’re offered a glimpse of how they spend their time together.]

The Persons who passed us in those three Coaches, were returning from one of their private--I was going to say silent--Meetings, but far be it from me to detract from any of the Attributes of the Sex. The Lady L-- and her Daughters make four of the Cabal. They have taken a little Lodging about twelve Furlongs from Angela, in a Place obscure and pleasant, with a Magazine of good Wine and necessary Conveniences, Chambers of Repose, a tolerable Garden, and the Country in Prospect.

They wear away the indulgent happy Hours according to their own Taste. Their Coaches and People (of whom they always take as few with them as possible) are left to wait at the convenient Distance of a Field in length, an easy Walk to their Bower of Bliss. The Day and Hour of their Rendezvous is appointed before-hand. They meet, they caress, they swear inviolable Secrecy and Amity.

The Glass corroborates their Endearments. They momently exclude the Men, fortify themselves in the Precepts of Virtue and Chastity against all their detestable undermining Arts, arraign without Pity or Compassion those who have been so unfortunate as to fall into their Snare [and] Propagate their Principles of exposing them without Mercy.

[HRJ: And now the members of the Cabal are presented might almost say “biphobic” but keep in mind that this is within a context where heterosexual attraction is assumed to be an imperative. And where women did not always have the social and economic power to refuse marriage. So if marriage is inescapable, a women-only society must protect itself with rules.]

[They] give Rules to such of the Cabal who are not married, how to behave themselves to such whom they think fit they should marry; no such weighty Affair being to be accomplished without the mutual Consent of the Society. At the same time, lamenting the Custom of the World, that has made it convenient (nay, almost indispensable) for all Ladies once to marry. To those that have Husbands, they have other Instructions, in which this is sure to be one: to reserve their Heart, their tender Amity for their Fair Friend, an article in this well-bred, wilfully undistinguishing age which the husband seems to be rarely solicitous of.

[HRJ: In this passage one is reminded of 17th century poet Katherine Phillips’ lament that for women, marriage represents the death of friendship. Within 17th century English society, the women with the most power to control their own lives were widows. In the following passage, the references to “nature” invoke the idea that heterosexuality is natural while any other type of desire is against nature.]

Those who are, in their Opinion, so happy as to be released from the imposing matrimonial Fetters, are thought the Ornament of the Cabal, and by all most happy. They claim an Ascendant, a Right of Governing, of Admitting or Excluding, in both of which they are extremely nice, with particular Regard to the Constitution of the Novice. They strictly examine her Genius: whether it have fitted her for the Mysteries of the Cabal, or if she may be rendered insensible on the side of Nature--Nature, who has the Trick of making them dote on the opposite improving Sex. For if her Foible be found directed to what Nature inspires, she is unanimously excluded, and particular Injunctions bestowed upon all the Members of this distinguishing Society from admitting her to their Bosom, or initiating her into the Mysteries of their Endearments.

[HRJ: That is, if a potential candidate for the Cabal seems positively inclined toward men, she is to be refused admittance. Having sex with men might be necessary, but actually loving them was right out. This wasn’t merely a philosophical requirement--any crack in the armor against male society could prove dangerous to all, as we shall see in the next passage.]

Secrecy also is a material Article. This they inviolably promise; nor is it the least part of the Instruction given to a new Bride, lest she let her Husband into a Mystery (however innocent) that may expose and ridicule the Community, as it happened in the Case of the beautiful Virgin Euphelia.

No sooner did she appear as an Attendant on the Queen, but the Eyes of all the Circle were directed to her. The Men adored. The Ladies would have discovered something to destroy that Adoration, if it had been possible, except the Marchioness de Lerma, who, Bold and Masculine, loudly taxed these invidious Spectators of ill Nature and Malice. She took the fair Maid into especial Consideration, sheltered her under her distinguishing Protections and, in short, introduced her into the Cabal of which, they say, the Marchioness was one of the first Founders in Atalantis, having something so robust in her Air and Mien, that the other Sex would have certainly claimed her for one of theirs, if she had not thought fit to declare herself by her Habit (alone) to be of the other, insomuch, that I have often heard it lamented by the Curious, who have taxed themselves of Negligence, and were intimate with her Lord, when living, that they did not desire him to explain upon that Query.

[HRJ: This description of the Marchioness requires a bit of unpacking. Historic attitudes regularly shifted regarding whether women’s same-sex desire required a butch-femme dynamic. The prevailing attitude in the 17th century leaned more toward the attitude that what women loved in other women was their shared femininity. But this is one of the references in The New Atalantis that suggests the alternate view: that it was an inherent masculinity that caused a woman to desire women. The description here of the Marchioness de Lerma suggests that she was so masculine in her affect that if not for the fact that she wore women’s clothing, one might have thought her to be a man. Or perhaps to be something indeterminate between male and female, as the image of the hermaphrodite was still invoked in the context of same-sex desire. The curious, it is suggested here, should have questioned her late husband about any anatomical abnormalities that might have explained the Marchioness’s behavior. But returning to our anecdote, the Marchioness’s love for Euphelia foundered on the offer of a desirable marriage, the price of which was that Euphelia explain just why the Marchioness was so dead-set against the match.]

Euphelia flourished under the Shine of so great a Favourite; the Marquis de los Minos fell in Love with her. There was nothing to obstruct his Happiness but the Marchioness de Lerma's Jealousy. Enraged to lose her beautiful Pupil, she traversed her Advancement all that lay in her Power. But the Honour of such a Marriage being conspicuous on the young Virgin's side, she was forced to give up the Secrets of the Cabal, and sacrifice the Marchioness's Honour, to preserve the Opinion of her own.

Some few such Discoveries, have happened to cast a Taint upon the Innocence of the Cabal. How malicious is the World! Who would not avoid Censure if it were possible?

[HRJ: There is the interesting suggestion here that “innocence” was entirely a matter of keeping one’s indiscretions secret, and had nothing to do with not committing them in the first place. We have another suggestion of a butch-femme dynamic in the following passage. Although, interestingly, both members of the romantic couple are said to cross-dress in order to go pick up women together. The word “habit” here simply means “clothing” as in the phrase “riding habit”, rather than referring to a personal custom. The pseudonym Ianthe is, of course, a reference to Ovid’s cross-gender character. We start to hear the snarky edge in the protestations of how these amorous adventures could not possibly be considered actual fornication.]

We must do Justice to the Endeavours of the witty Marchioness of Sandomire, when she used to mask her Diversions in the Habit of the other Sex, and with her Female Favourite, Ianthe, wander through the Gallant Quarter of Atalantis in search of Adventures. But what Adventures? Good Heaven! None that could in reality wound her Chastity! Her Virtue, sacred to her Lord, and the Marriage Bed, was preserved Inviolable!

For what could reflect back upon it with any Prejudice, in the little Liberties she took with her own Sex? Whom she used to cajole, with the affected seeming Gallantry of the other; engage and carry them to the public Gardens, and Houses of Entertainment, with Music and all Diversions? These Creatures of Hire, failed not to find their Account, in obliging the Marchioness's and Ianthe's peculiar Taste, by all the Liberties that belong to Women of their loose Character and Indigence.

Though I should look upon it as an Excess of Mortification, were I the Marchioness, to see the Corruption of the Sex, and to what extremes Vice may, Step by Step, lead those who were born, and probably educated in the Road of Innocence. It may be surely counted an inhumane Curiosity, and show a Height of Courage, more blamable than otherwise, not to be dejected at the Brutality, the Degeneracy of those of our own Species.

[HRJ: Evidently one member of the Cabal had special license to remain bisexual. She is considered so beautiful and charming that she cannot be expected to confine her affections and favors to only one sex. This lady and her musical female companion are among those who can be connected with specific historical persons known to have enjoyed a romance.]

The Vice Roy of Peru's Lady has a more extensive Taste, her Circle admitting the Eminent of both Sexes. None can doubt of her Condescension to the Men, and because she will leave nothing undiscovered or unattempted in the Map of Tenderness, she has encouraged the warbling Lindamira (low as is her Rank) to explain to her the Terra Incognita of the Cabal.

Not one of them but think themselves honoured by a Person of her Distinction and agreeable Merit. To complete their Happiness they seem to wish (but I doubt it is in vain) that it were possible to exclude the other Sex, and engross her wholly to their own. But alas! what Hopes? Her Heart, her Eyes, her Air, call for other Approbations, the Admiration of the Men!

In her alone that diffusive Vanity is pardonable, is taking. She undoubtedly knows herself born to a greater Capacity of giving Happiness, than ought to fall to the Share of one Mortal; and therefore in her just and equal Distribution of Beauty, she seems to leave none of her numerous Favourites solid Reason of Complaint, that they are not, in their turn, considered as they deserve.

[HRJ: There follows an anecdote that I will skim over with a summary that explains why this lady abandoned men to join the Cabal.]

One of the Ladies of the Cabal, that was in the Coach, is a Writer. The Chevalier Pierro, without having much Wit of his own, married her for hers. ... Though, with the Addition even of Gratitude, Zara could not find her Happiness in him... He soon grew weary of Zara's Affair, not finding it possible to come up to the Height of her Lovesick romantic Expectations. She, who had all the Muses in her Head, wanted to be caressed in a Poetical manner; her Lover, by her good-will, should not be less than Apollo in his Attributes of Flame and Fancy. Thus would she have been adored, but that was not to be expected from the Marquis, whose Heart was engaged. Nor could any but a Poet answer the Extravagancies of a Poetess's Expectations. ...

Thus disencouraged by the Men, she fell into the Taste of the Cabal. Daphne was her Favourite. Daphne, who when she first set out to travel the Road of Gallantry, had all the reason in the World to expect a lucky journey; for her first Guide, (if you will believe her self) was no less a Person than Count Fortunatus...

[HRJ: And we now get a long tedious summary of how Daphne was done wrong by Count Fortunatus, who blackmailed her into sleeping with him because she needed a favor for a relative. Having been discarded by him...]

... Then it was that she wrote for the Stage, sometimes with ill Fortune, sometimes with indifferent, and but once with Success...

I could enumerate, were it not too tedious, many of Daphne's Adventures; by which she was become the Diversion of as many of the Town as found her to their Taste, and would purchase: Yet she still assumed an Air of Virtue pretended, and was ever eloquent (according to her stiff manner) upon the Foible of others. She also fitted her self with an excellent Mask called Religion; having as often changed, and as often professed her self a Votary to that Shrine, where was to be found the most apparent Interest, or which of the Priests had the best Art of persuading. One of Ceres at length fell to her Share! young, scarce initiated in her Mysteries, and not at all in the Profits. But a Husband was Daphne's Business; the only means to prevent her from falling, (when her Youth and Charms were upon the Wing) into extreme Contempt.

[HRJ: And now we discuss inconvenient husbands. Zara the poet’s husband is conveniently set off to war. Daphne the playwright’s, alas, takes her away from her friends and she finds religion and respectability.]

Zara, who had introduced her to the Cabal, but with infinite Anxiety suffered, that any Lover should dare to engage where she had fixed her heart: But because narrow Circumstances do not always suffer People to do what they would, Daphne was still forced to have Lovers; though, if you'll believe her Professions to her fair Friend, they had no part in her Inclination. In short, they seemed to live for each other. Zara, whose Poetical Genius did not much lead her to better the Economy of her Family, soon found the Inconveniencies of it. The poor Chevalier, her Husband, stemmed the Tide as long as it was possible; at length obliged, by his indifferent Circumstances, to put himself into the Army and Campaigns abroad, he left his Lady at full Liberty to pursue, with an uninterrupted Goust, her Taste of Amity and the Cabal.

But Daphne's Marriage crossed her Delights: How does she exclaim against that Breach of Friendship in the Fair? how regret the Authority of a Husband, who has boldly dared to carry his Wife into the Country, where she now sets up for Regularity, and intends to be an Ornament to that Religion, which she had once before abandoned, and newly again professed? She will write no more for the Stage; 'tis profane, indiscreet, unpardonable: Controversy engrosses all her Hours; the Muses must now give place...

[HRJ: In this next section, although Manley is presumably poking fun at these women’s relationships, the actual details seem innocuous--or even praiseworthy. Lovers should lavish each other with gifts, share all things in common, and support each other.]

There are others of the Cabal that lavish vast Sums upon their Inamoretta's, with the Empresment, Diligence and Warmth of a beginning Lover. I could name a Widow or two, who have almost undone themselves by their Profuseness: So sacred and invincible is their Principle of Amity, that Misfortunes cannot shake. In this little Commonwealth is no Property; whatever a Lady possesses, is, sans Ceremonie, at the Service, and for the Use of her fair Friend, without the vain nice Scruple of being obliged. Tis her Right; the other disputes it not; no, not so much as in Thought; they have no reserve; mutual Love bestows all Things in common; 'twould be against the Dignity of the Passion, and unworthy [of] such exalted abstracted Notions as theirs. How far laudable your Divinities will conclude of these tender Amities (with all possible Submission) I refer to your better Judgments, and undisputed Prerogative of setting the Stamp of Approbation, or Dislike, upon all Things.

[HRJ: Keep in mind that this is a conversation among goddesses, hence the speaker addressing the others. All the preceding has been Lady Intelligence explaining the Cabal to Astrea and Virtue. Now Astrea comments, pretending to an ignorance of the exact nature of the “mysteries of the Cabal” that Intelligence has been referring to. If it is platonic friendship, then surely it’s praiseworthy. But if their relationships interfere with heterosexual marriage, then that goes too far.]

ASTREA: It is something so new and uncommon, so laudable and blameable, that we don't know how to determine; especially wanting Light even to guess at what you call the Mysteries of the Cabal.

If only tender Friendship, inviolable and sincere, be the regard, what can be more meritorious, or a truer Emblem of their Happiness above? Tis by Imitation, the nearest Approach they can make, a Feint, a distant Landshape of immortal Joys. But if they carry it a length beyond what Nature designed, and fortify themselves by these new-formed Amities against the Hymeneal Union, or give their Husband but a second Place in their Affection and Cares, 'tis wrong and to be blamed.

Thus far to the Merit of the Thing itself. But when we look with true regard to the World, if it permit a Shadow of Suspicion, a bare Imagination that the Mysteries they pretend have any Thing in them contrary to Kind, and that strict Modesty and Virtue do not adorn and support their Conversation, 'tis to be avoided and condemned, lest they give Occasion for obscene Laughter, new invented Satire, fanciful Jealousies, and impure Distrusts, in that nice unforgiving Sex: who arbitrarily thus decide, that Woman was only created (with all her Beauty, Softness, Passions, and complete Tenderness) to adorn the Husband's Reign, perfect his Happiness, and propagate the Kind.

[HRJ: The text then moves on to other topics that are less interesting to us. We come back to the matter of the Cabal much later in the text. Here our friend who goes by the pseudonym Ianthe becomes the topic again. You may remember that Ianthe and her special friend, the Marchioness of Sandomire, went about in male clothing, picking up women. And Lady Intelligence ponders the attractions of cross-dressing.]

INTELLIGENCE: She that was in the Coach with her, is one of the Widows of the New Cabal. What an Irregularity of Taste is theirs! They do not in reality love Men, but dote on the Representation of Men in Women. Hence it is that those Ladies are so fond of the Dress en cavaliere, though it is extremely against my liking, I would have the Sex distinguished as well by their Garb as by their Manner. That bewitching Modesty, which is so becoming to the opening Veil, is against kind, in the confirmed, bold, and agreeable Air of the Hat, Feather, and Peruke. If in this Man's Dress you pretend to retain the Shame-facedness of the other Sex, you lose the native Charm that recommends it. If you dismiss Modesty you dismiss the highest Beauty of the Female Sex: For without regard to that much-in-fashion Virtue Assurance, next to real innate Modesty in Ladies (which indeed never fails of giving the Appearance) I think the outward Blush, and seeming Habitude of it, one of the greatest Ornaments they can wear.

[HRJ: Ianthe evidently was not only fond of adopting masculine dress herself, but found it charming on other women. She falls for an actress who performs in breeches parts and pays her court. But the actress, though flattered, evidently didn’t like her in quite that way.]

But to return to my Widow of the Cabal, She fell in Love with one of the Comedians, when she was acting the Part of a young Lover and a Libertine. The Widow sent for the Girl, and made her very considerable Presents, ordered her Picture in that Dress to be taken at length, by one of the best Hands, and carried her to remain with her, during the Season, at her Villa.

The Comedian was dazzled at those Endearments and Advances from a Lady of Fortune, and did not know how to behave her self in a Manner regular enough, (for her Conversation had been pretty much at large); however she added her whole Endeavours, and by that means became tolerably uneasy to her self, as not being a Person abundantly used to Decorum and Constraint.

The Widow redoubled her Kindness and Caresses, assured her of her Tenderness and Amity; she even proceeded to gentle Squeezes and Embraces. Nothing could be more innocently endearing than her Transports!

The Comedian was at a loss not only to know how to merit so many Favours, but of the meaning of them: She was also weary of the Solitude and Splendour of the Widow's Family, and wanted to return to the amorous Hurry and Theatrical Littleness she had been used to, and therefore received those Honours with no New-Cabal Air. But as if rather disgusted at such amiable Proofs of Amity, told the Lady she did not like those Hugs and Indearments from her own Sex, they seemed unnatural. Did they come from a Man, she should be able to guess at his Design, but here she was at a loss.

The Widow found her Companion not of a Taste virtuous enough for the Mysteries of their Union: her Mind ran all upon what she had been too much used to: the other Sex. The Comedian had been vitiated by Amour! by abominable Intrigues with the filthy odious Men! and was not therefore worthy the Honour of being admitted into their Community.

She withdrew those Airs of Fondness from a tasteless undeserving Wretch, assumed more Coldness in her Behaviour to her whilst in the Country, and at her coming back, by little and little dropped her very Acquaintance. When she was returned to her House in Town, to show the Lurkings of her Malice, or gather her Detestation to Vice, though but in Effigy, she caused the Comedian's Picture to be let down, and with her own Hand cut out the Face; so stamped upon and abused, she sent it back to her whom it represented, at the same time causing her to be told, she had by her loose Libertine Life, made it a Scandal to her House to have such a Picture seen in it.

The poor Comedian fell a crying, and said, she might have let her alone, she did not, for her part, seek nor covet the Acquaintance; she was no worse now than when 'twas first drawn; neither could her life be a Secret to the virtuous Widow; she should have objected it to her then, before she gave her the trouble of sitting, and not to affront her Picture so: But she guessed the Reason of it, and would leave her Ladyship to be punished by the Reflection.

[HRJ: A sad episode on which to conclude our visits with the ladies of the New Cabal! But when we strip away the snark and sarcasm, the pointed political satire, and the unavoidable misogyny, even from a female author, it’s a remarkable picture of how a 17th century writer imagined the lives of women who loved women. As Catherine Craft-Fairchild notes in an article covered in the blog recently, there is no single, identifiable stereotype of lesbians in the 18th century. And we see that variety among the members of The New Cabal. Some women form long-term couples, others play the field. Some enjoy playing with masculine performance, others enjoy traditional femininity. Some aspire to chaste friendship, others seek out sexual relationships. Some are able to opt out of heterosexual marriage either by luck or widowhood, others accommodate their same-sex desires within an unavoidable marriage, others enjoy the love of both women and men. Within this they hold to ideals of mutual support and community. If they also felt the need to protect their relationships with a veil of secrecy, that isn’t so very different from what many modern lesbians have experienced in living memory. These women’s lives were not closely similar to ours. They had entirely different sets of assumptions, challenges, strategies, strengths, and vulnerabilities. But they were there, even hidden under the flimsy pseudonyms that didn’t protect Manley from charges of libel. And we can be grateful to her, even given her satirical purpose, for giving us a glimpse of their lives.]

Show Notes

Readings from an early 18th century satirical roman à clef that depicts a secret society of sapphist at the court of Queen Anne of England.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The context and purpose of Delarivier Manley’s work
  • An annotated reading of selections discussing f/f relationships
  • The full text of The New Atalantis can be found at Google Books

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

A Key to the Characters

  • Lady L-- (the one with the four daughters) is Margaret Sutton, Lady Lexington (nee Hungerford), mother of Eleanora-Margaret and Bridget. (Her husband was Robert Sutton, 2nd Baron Lexington)
  • Euphelia is identified as Mrs. Proud, one of Queen Anne’s attendants.
  • The Marchioness de Lerma is Anne Charlotte, Lady Frescheville (nee Vic), second wife (Wikipedia says third) of John, Baron Frescheville, and lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne from 1686. Lady Frescheville was the subject of an argument between Sarah Churchill and the queen in 1705.
  • The Marchioness de Sandomire is probably identified with Anne, Lady Popham (nee Montagu), or possibly with Lady Sandwich, wife of Edward Montagu third Earl of Sandwich.
  • Ianthe is identified as Anne Gerard, Countess Macclesfield. She apparently has the distinction of being the first woman divorced by Act of Parliament (by her husband Charles Gerard, Earl Macclesfield) without the prior action of an ecclesiastical court.
  • The Viceroy of Peru’s lady is identified as Lucy Wharton, who appears elsewhere in the work as a different character, the Marchioness du Coeur. She was the second wife of Thomas, first Marquess of Wharton.
  • The singer Lindamira is opera singer Katherine Tofts. Per Donoghue 1996, Wharton and Tofts were lovers in real life.
  • Zara, the witty writer, is identified as Catherine Colyear, Countess Portmore who was created Baroness of Darlington by King James II, whose mistress she was for a time.
  • Daphne was identified by some as a “Mrs. Griffith” but the story given for her fits better for Catherine Cockburn (nee Trotter) whose 1695 play Agnes de Castro was based on a novella by Aphra Behn of the same title. Per Donoghue 1996, Colyear and Cockburn were a romantic/sexual couple in real life.
  • The widow who falls in love with the cross-dressing comedian is identified as Susan Howard, Lady Effingham (wife of Francis Howard, 5th Baron Effingham).
  • The comedian is the actress and singer Letitia Cross.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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