Today's blog continues my mini-series on female friendship with an article that challenges the image of "Romantic Friendship" as a reflection of, rather than a prescription for, women's relations with each other in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I'm entering my fourth week of working from home under Social Distancing. We've entered the phase where it feels like just a few days and forever. I hope you're all doing well, both physically and emotionally. Build and maintain those friendships that sustain you. Our ancestors knew just how vital they are.
Moore, Lisa. 1992. "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 499-520.
I love reading different takes on the meanings and forms of "female friendship" in the 18th and 19th centuries because this tension and dynamic underlies the relationships and social forms of my Alpennia series. In understanding the lives of specific women in the past, we must look beyond simplistic myths and prototypes and allow for complex interactions between multiple layers of meaning and practice.
It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.
To illustrate this, she looks at three very different documents/texts from early 19th century England that invoke the romantic friendship ideal while clearly expressing anxiety about emotional bonds between women that fell outside this “innocent” idea. Rather than supporting the idea that people believed that “women don’t do that sort of thing,” she argues that people were quite aware that women did do “that sort of thing” and were working frantically to try to suppress this awareness/knowledge.
By analyzing this tension between “romantic friendship” and female homosexual relations, Moore suggests that this conflict played a key role in the development of “modern” understandings of sexuality, and played a role in managing ideas about gender, bodies, the family, and colonial dynamics as well.
This tension underlies two historic processes: the development of the genre of “domestic fiction” in the 18th century, and the shift from an 18th century “idea of the self as social and socially obligated” to a more Romantic individualism. These can be seen in a shift from novels about marginal and morally suspect figures (e.g., Moll Flanders) to stories focused on women at the center of an idealized middle-class domesticity. This, she says, becomes “the story the bourgeoisie told about itself” and the underpinning of the myth of middle-class virtue and respectability.
Within this context, romantic friendship becomes an ambiguous concept that expresses social anxieties whilel trying to contain them. The official approval given to romantic friendships (as emphasized, for example, in Faderman’s work) becomes more tenuous in texts that police the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable friendships between women. In addition to Faderman, Moore notes Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (to be covered here when posted) as uncritically accepting that romantic friendships were “socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage.”
Moore feels that both these authors glossed over the anxieties and prohibitions surrounding women’s friendships that put a different light on the question of acceptance. Faderman, she asserts, sees a parallel between romantic friendships and the lesbian-feminism of her own era that focuses more on gender-solidarity than on sexual desire. Smith-Rosenberg similarly asserts that the emotional segregation of the sexes in 19th century America resulted in “a generic and unselfconscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks” that recapitulated the mother-daughter bond. Smith-Rosenberg’s model sees romantic friendships as inherently non-sexual (due to their familial model) and based on cultural patterns rather than individual psychology.
To counter this, Moore analyzes discourse around romantic friendship in the novel Belinda, in the diaries of Anne Lister, and in the court records for Woods and Pirie v. Dame Cumming Gordon.
Although Belinda gives a nod to the conventional “marriage plot” of its era, the dynamics focus mainly around the title character’s friendships with women, providing a moral lesson about suitable and unsuitable friendships. Lady Delacour begins the novel involved in a romantic friendship with the cross-dressing and “mannish acting” Harriot Freke, who is supplanted by Belinda, a more suitable friend for Delacour. Freke is regularly depicted as wearing men’s clothing, either for a masquerade or as personal habit, and behaving in stereotypically masculine fashion. She also takes on the role of rake in her interactions with women, with pretended abductions and bluster. Freke is also presented as a feminist, arguing for the equality of men and women (which is ridiculed in the book) along with other Jacobin social ideals such as revolution, opposition to slavery, and sexual freedom. Freke’s agressive courtship of Belinda is contrasted with the more traditional and conservative courtship of her male suitor, but also with the “ladylike attentions” of Delacour’s friendship with Belinda.
Freke not only poses a hazard to Belinda’s heterosexual prospects, but is shown to have drawn Delacour into the dangerous and scandalous prospect of a duel with another woman over a dispute in a political campaign.
[Note: Clearly Belinda needs to be re-written with Freke as the heroine, because the more I read about her, the more I like her!]
The interpersonal conflicts between the women in the novel depend entirely on anxieties about “improper” female friendships, symbolizing them with a cross-dressing women with clearly homoerotic interests. Rather than female friendships being universally assumed to be platonic and praiseworthy, there is a clear delineation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.
Dangerous female friendships are--ironically enough--associated in Belinda with the reading of novels by women. Novel reading gives young women “dangerous ideas” about their aspirations and appropriate behavior. This theme is also raised in the diaries of Anne Lister, who herself shares many attributes with Belinda’s Hariot Freke: mannish dress and habits, and erotic interest in women. For Lister, novels roused a longing for romantic fulfilment, “more romance than can let me bear the stimulus, the fearful rousing, of novel reading.” Lister compared her own life and experiences with the protagonists of romance novels and was led into dissatisfaction and longing.
But while Lister was ambivalent about reading (female-authored) novels, she found support for her romantic and sexual inclinations more in (male-authored) works of nonfiction. It is in medical and philosophical works that she finds a basis for accepting and embracing her own homoerotic inclinations.
[Note: I supposed it needn’t be said that Lister’s employment of the forms of female romantic friendship while unambiguously engaging in same sex erotic relationships contradicts the image of romantic friendship as “acceptably” non-sexual.]
The Pirie and Woods legal case (involving two school teachers accused of a sexual relationship by a pupil and the ensuing suit for libel) lays out in detail the reasoning of the 19th century English establishment with regard to the concept of sexual relations between women. It was never disputed that Pirie and Woods engaged in physical affection, shared a bed, and had something resembling a life partnership. The argument was whether this was simply evidence of “warm and interesting mutual regard, which springs from the finest and purest feelings of the human heart, and can only exist in pure and virtuous breasts” (per their lawyer’s arguments) or whether it was evidence of “indecent and criminal practices”.
In the statements of the judges when they were found innocent, one deciding factor was the need to maintain a public understanding of “the purity of female manners...remaining, as they have hitherto been, free from suspicion.” It was considered vital, in addition, to keep the content and nature of the court case from general knowledge in order to preserve that illusion.
One advantage they had in this was that the student who made the original accusation was not a “pure and innocent bourgeois white lady” but a bi-racial (Anglo-Indian) girl born out of wedlock. This enabled the entire legal apparatus to conclude that the accusing student might well be able to imagine (or even be familiar with) sex between women, without actually witnessing such an act between the two teachers.
Using these three texts as examples, Moore builds a case that “platonic romantic friendship”--rather than being either an apt description of women’s same-sex emotional relationships, or even an unquestioned fiction--was deployed as a shield against the specter of female homosexuality. In order to maintain and protect the illusion of white middle-class heterosexual domestic purity, the ideal of romantic friendship was defined in opposition to “dangerous female friendships” or racialized models of sexually deviant women. And yet, in order to stigmatize and negate those alternative homosexual possibilities, they had to be recognized and described, thus creating an awareness of the very phenomenon society was trying to erase. Moore concludes with a reminder that female homosexuality has a historic dynamic that is entirely distinct from that of male homosexuality (and from “women” as a general concept) and that it must be studied in its own right.