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Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 09:00

There's a special Halloween episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast live at the Lesbian Talk Show: a discussion of Christina Rossetti's poem "The Goblin Market" in the context of 19th century literature with themes of lesbian-tinged decadent sensuality and predatory supernatural creatures. The podcast concludes with a reading of the entire poem. I think I'm finally starting to feel ok about listening to the sound of my own recorded voice! One of the things I'd like to do with the podcast is include more readings from some of the texts discussed in the LHMP. So let me know if this is a sort of thing you'd like more of.

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.5 Internalization and Rebellion

Women who loved women in the early to mid-20th century no longer lacked public models for their relationships--the problem was that all the public models they now had were toxic. With the voices of authority insisting that they were deviant, the women who dared to be “lesbian in public” tended to be those who had little to lose, or whose living relied on notoriety: bohemians, courtesans, and the like. And it is these individuals that Faderman considers in the current chapter.

Even those women authors who were known publicly to some degree as lesbian or bisexual often employed the same tropes of aesthetic decadence as male writers. Nathalie Barney, Renée Vivien, Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Nin fall in this category, writing of intense, desperate, doomed passions. More rarely, writers such as Colette evoke an older romantic sensibility: “What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.” But her work also employed imagery of a sexual underworld.

The biographies of women like Vita Sackville-West show how the pressure to enter into heterosexual marriages combined with the lack of strongly positive models for relationships between women often led to confusion and self-hatred when the inherent contradictions couldn’t be resolved.

Supportive social circles were most possible within the dense population of urban centers such as New York and London, and the literature produced for internal consumption within these circles, such as Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, reflects a less tragic and more realistic view of lesbian communities. Natalie Barney’s salons in Paris were an open gathering place for a large circle of lesbians, including prominent writers and artists, to the point where the men who attended the salons made snide digs about it in their own writing. And--perhaps fulfilling the fears of contemporary men--her love for women was inextricably linked with her feminism and her support for the careers of women writers.

The lives of less prominent lesbians of this era are harder to trace unless they left some autobiographical record, though Faderman presents a number of speculations on what they must have thought and felt about their desires.

Time period: 
Friday, October 28, 2016 - 12:00

Bella Distributing is holding a "Scary Good Paperback Sales" lasting through this whole weekend. Check it out for some stupendous deals on lesbian genre fiction--including Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage! If you've been waiting for a great deal to get caught up with the series in paperback in time for the release of Mother of Souls, it won't get any better than this. (If you want a chance to get caught up in e-book...well, you never know.)

And now, on to the movie review.

* * *

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

I'm going to confess that I've been putting off watching Imagine Me and You (2005) for quite some time because I was afraid of getting punched in the face. Somehow the "meet-cute" premise of a bride falling for the (female) florist at her wedding, combined with the cover image of two m/f couples with the women surreptitiously holding hands behind the men's backs, didn't feel very promising for a f/f happy ending. I expected a lot of angst, a traumatic coming out, and probably the women being tragically separated due to one or the other sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of the other. And despite several people assuring me (in a non-spoilery way) that it wasn't like that, I think there was a gap of a couple years between when I bought this DVD and when I finally watched it.

It wasn't like that.

There was a certain amount of angst--but only as much as one would expect when a newlywed discovers that, although she married her best friend, she hadn't married the love of her life. There was a fair amount of comedic confusion around coming out, but not in the "I'm revealing a secret" sense but more in the "um...why have you assumed I'm heterosexual?" sense. The second man in the cover poster--the groom's best man--starts out as a lecherous sexist boor, but is only moderately annoyingly persistant once he's been clued in to the sexual preference of the woman he's been set up with. Because, you see, the bride's initial reflex to feeling an instand emotional connection with the florist is to invite her over for dinner and then try to set her up with her husband's best friend.

What makes the biggest difference between my expectations (fears) and the movie is that it's set in the 21st century, when sexual preference is considered by the characters of no more moment (and equivalent comedic potential) to being vegetarian or some such. So the angst is all about respecting commitments versus following your heart and admitting to someone you care deeply about that you've made a dreadful mistake. And, in the way of the best romantic comedies, in the end, following your heart leads to a happy ending for everyone.

Evaluation: No one dies. No one recants. Everyone ends up happy (though some teeter on the edge of happy and bewilderment). The bride goes through coming out, but it's not the major focus and isn't traumatic. Once she realizes the nature of her feelings for the florist, the question is how to balance the imperative of True Love with having just made vows to someone else. And her friends and family don't react with shock and horror, only confusion concern.

So if you, too, have worried about whether this movie will punch you in the face, I'll echo what I was told and didn't entirely believe: It doesn't.

Friday, October 28, 2016 - 07:28
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.4 Fiction as a Weapon

The 20th century saw the rise of new genres of fiction that demonized lesbian relationships and inextricably linked them to social structures that had historically nourished women’s friendships, such as single-sex schools. Curiously, it has been revealed in retrospect that many lesbian novels of the 20th century were written by women who were, themselves, lesbian.

The “vampiric” lesbian became established as a trope, joining with the predatory schoolmistress motif in Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1915). Although Faderman identifies the central character as a “vampire” it isn’t clear to me from the discussion that this is meant in the sense of literally drinking blook, rather than simply causing a physical decline in her “victim”. Faderman explains “it is not the victim’s blood that the villain lives on but her youth and energy” although in another novel mentioned in this category (White Ladies by Francis Brett Young, 1935) the word vampire is used by a character for describing this psychic effect.

In addition to the lesbian schoolmistress, scholarly and academic women come in for identification as predatory lesbians. Depictions of close, emotional, dependent friendships between women are given a sinister sexual spin in works such as Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) [Sayers also invokes the “lesbian academic” trope in Gaudy Night but there it is challenged and countered by the character Harriet Vane], G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends 1931), of Edouard Bourdet’s play La Prisonnière (1926). These stories typically involve an older, dominant, often ugly lesbian who seduces a younger, pretty, “normal” woman who may or may not be “rescued” by a male character by the end of the story.

Some anti-lesbian literature of this era purports to present “true case history” type stories, such as D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1922) in which the male protagonist considers the breaking up of a female couple to be something of a masculine biological imperative, likened to hunting down prey, with marriage to the more feminine of the two little more than an excuse. Perhaps more pointedly, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women (1928) satirizes and ficionalizes a real-life circle of upper-class lesbians living on the island of Capri, whose models included Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Romaine Brooks and, others.

The “mannish lesbian” became a stock figure of genre novels by popular authors such as Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. And with the rise of the paperback novel, the “lesbian pulp” genre emerged, no longer veiling their characters’ sexuality with allusions, and following a contractually-required plot formula that punished lesbianism with tragedy, loneliness, or death. But out of the pulps, eventually a different type of lesbian literature emerged.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 21:10
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.3 Keeping Women Down

The rest of these entries are going to get shorter and more condensed as we work though the 20th century.

This chapter details a variety of English and American cultural responses to feminism and to women’s greater independent present in the public sphere in the early parts of the 20th century. Women had entered traditionally masculine professions during the upheavals of World War I and suffrage movements in both England and America pushed for political equality.

Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and/or feminist women as agressive, ugly man-haters who are destined to be lonely old maids. Only abandoning their ideals for a traditional role of wife and mother can redeem them. The strongest tool was to depict independent/feminist women as “mannish” and on the road to lesbianism.

The 20th century saw several cycles of increased freedom--often associated with the economic and demographic disruptions of war--followed by social attempts to retrun women to traditional roles by stigmatizing the most assertive movements as unwomanly and deviant. In the 1970s, this tactic intersected with the “Gay Liberation” movement which undermined some of its success.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 06:53

The Lesbian Talk Show, which hosts my Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast episodes, is doing a holiday special series currently, with special episodes of regular shows and additional episodes that mix and match the regular contributors. I was matched up with Suzie Carr who does a regular postive-thinking series called "Curves Welcome" and we brainstormed the intersection of our two topics and came up with "The Masks We Wear", discussing both phyiscal and psychological masks and costumes and how we use them to interact with others and negotiate our identities in the contemporary world and in history.

You can listen to the show directly online, or even better, you can subscribe to The Lesbian Talk Show through iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher. (And if you like the show, we'd love it if you give it a rating to help others find it.)

* * *

I apologize for not posting my wrap-up of A Little Princess yesterday. It's being a demanding week--I have an intense investigation at work that is eating up my lunch hours, and the final proofs of Mother of Souls came in for review and took priority over other things in my non-work hours. You'll have to wait until next Wednesday to find out how the story ends!

Countdown to Mother of Souls release day: 17 days!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.2 The Spread of Medical “Knowledge”

By the 1920s, Freud was the primary source of attitudes in America towards same-sex love. Where Kraft-Ebing had considered sexual orientation to be inborn, Freud blamed childhood trauma and considered homosexuality to be “curable”. Both lumped men’s and women’s experiences together without considering the differences in social context.

Broad surveys showed that romantic and sexual relationships between women were statistically “normal” and not correlated with pathology, but the medical approach now considered all such relationships unhealthy. Freudian language and concepts became part of everyday conversation.

There were stirrings of homosexual activism in Europe, mostly by men, who latched onto the idea that their desires were “inborn” but rejected the idea that those desires were a “defect”. Some popular fiction took up the themes of “no-fault homosexuality”, sometimes urging pity for homosexuals, sometimes rejecting any sort of negative framing. Those medical theories that attributed homosexuality to “nature” rather than “nurture” provided ammunition for those who agitated for acceptance. This position countered the charges that homosexuality constituted immorality.

Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) fell in the “pity and acceptance” category. Its themes of “congenital inversion” and the framing of a same-sex couple as composed of a lesbian and a “normal” partner aligned in some ways with a transgender framing. [This echoes, in some ways, earlier medieval theories that one could determine true gender based on the object of desire. I.e., that anyone who desired a woman was inherently masculine.] There is a long discussion of the themes and implications in Hall’s novel. The Well of Loneliness, despite its publication difficulties, became a significant influence on lesbian self-perception, given the scarcity of other models written by lesbians. (As opposed to the “decadent” male-authored novels.)

There was a strong contrast between the “official” psychological framing of same-sex love and the broad-based case studies of women in such relationships when the selection of examples was not driven by medical or emotional problems. In the 1920s and 1930s, some studies found that 50% of all women had experienced intense emotional feelings for other women, and half of those had recognized those feelings as sexual. Surveys of lesbians that were not biased by physical or psychological problems found them on average to be more educated and better employed than heterosexual women.

The 1920s and later decades brought a general increase in sexual freedom (outside marriage). Self-reporting by lesbians concerning their relationships show a wide range of degrees of sexual interest, although the popular view assumed that sexual activity was the primary defining factor in their relationships. Jumping ahead to a 1978 survey, it found that women in lesbian relationships valued romance, affection, hugging, and kissing, and didn’t consider “sex acts” as the focal point of their relationship. [One wonders, given this description, what would distinguish these relationships from Romantic Friendship in terms of desires and behaviors.]

Time period: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 12:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.1 The Last Breath of Innocence

As this book moves into the 20th century, I’m largely omitting tags for specific individuals and publications, as this is outside the scope of my core project.

In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. Periodicals for women’s and children’s literature were still depicting Romantic Friendship positively. Likely there were several reasons for the delayed shift in attitudes in in the US. In Europe, images of lesbian “vice” (or “vice” in general) were closely tied up in Catholic ideas of sin and Catholic-based reactionary sensationalism. [But see also English literature of the 17-18th centuries which portrayed lesbianism through an anti-Catholic lens.] The geographic distance of America from the (German) centers of sexology probably slowed diffusion of those ideas. And American ideals of individualism may have contributed to less hostility to women’s social freedoms.

In spite of this, there are scattered examples in late 19th century America of generally anti-sex writing, including cautions against situations that might lead to masturbation or sexual activity between girls. But as a more general social reaction, suspicion of close romantic friendships between women didn’t come to prominence until the wake of World War I, accompanied by much greater female autonomy and the influence of Freud both on psychiatric thought and on popular culture.

The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in published works. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and assuming the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian. A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the New Women were engaging in new opportunities while still holding on to old attitudes toward Romantic Friendship. Stories about college romances between women are common, and the gender-segregation of colleges encouraged these friendships to have the trappings of courtship and dating, via activities such as all-women dances. The expectation is that the women engaged in these “crushes” will move on to heterosexual marriage after graduation.

The unselfconscious publication of stories involving women in passionate friendships may have been enabled, Faderman suggests, by the relative “unsophistication” of American readers. (I.e., presumably this means they weren’t reading decadent French novels.) Many specific examples of such stories are given. [I wonder if anyone has ever considered collecting an anthology of the genre.]

Stories of passionate friendships between adult women often portrayed one or both as artists or in professions that “explained” their single state. These positive portrayals were written by both female and male authors.

By the 1920s, this unselfconsciousness disappears. Positive treatments as in the works of Gertrude Stein are now veiled in stylized poetic language and allusions. Alternately, the women’s friendship may be displaced elsewhere in time and space, as in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s play “The Lamp and the Bell” (1921). [This is an interesting parallel to the continuing theme over the centuries that lesbianism existed in a different place and time than the writer’s. Only now it is the “innocent” version of the relationship that is displaced.] There is something of a generational divide, with women raised in an earlier age still writing positively of Romantic Friendships.

The younger generation cannot ignore the potential implications. Vera Britain, writing in 1940, acknowledges the suspicions of sexual impropriety cast on the Romantic Friendship of her characters and tries to deflect suspicion with the argument of “it’s just preparation for being a good wife and mother.” This conflict of models can also be seen in debates of the possible sexual content of the friendship between Eleanor Rooseveldt and Lorena Hickok. Hickok had a history of (presumably sexual) relationships with women, but some have argued that the strongly passionate correspondence between them belongs to the earlier tradition of platonic Romantic Friendship and nothing more. [I always have a hard time around discussions of this sort because I keep thinking, why should it matter? Why would one particular set of expressions of desire turn a “beautiful friendship” into something to be ashamed of? But then, I’m a product of my own age.]

The attitude of sexologists of the 20th century was that the sex drive was the most important and central determiner of human behavior in both men and women, and this understanding was then projected retroactively to all of history. This made it difficult for women to experience love for other women without feeling the weight of social disapproval, although anecdotes can be found into the 1970s of girls experiencing same-sex love and affection “innocently” until encountering sex ed literature that assured them they were depraved and sick.

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 07:00

The events and concerns in Daughter of Mystery were very parochial. We heard about secondary and tertiary effects of the French Wars (i.e., Napoleon) but ordinary people's everyday lives didn't concern themselves much with international affairs. When I brought in the character of Kreiser, the Austrian agent, in The Mystic Marriage, I started digging a lot deeper into what was going on elsewhere in Europe. What was his political context? Who might he be working for or against? I was already laying the seeds for the mystical peril that forms one of the major plot strands in Mother of Souls and I needed to know who was doing what, and when and where and why. Barbara likes to think of herself as fairly politically savvy for internal Alpennian affairs, but once she started playing games of intrigue with Kreiser, she needed to scramble to keep up.

Judging by feedback, readers aren't quite sure what to make of Kreiser. Is he a villain? Antuniet certainly thinks so. Is he simply an entertaining antagonist? Barbara treats him as such. And Serafina's interactions with him will be more complex. What's his angle? Why is he spending so much time hanging around in Rotenek? And when he taunts Barbara into intellectual skirmishes with him, is it purely for amusement or is there something he hopes she can provide to further his aims? If the reader isn't entirely certain at this point, that's pretty much what I intend.

During the summer of 1824, when Barbara is making the usual circuit and survey of her properties, she has an appointment to meet up with Kreiser in Saveze, as he returns over the border from Switzerland. They fence with each other, trying to determine how much trust to offer in pursuing a mutual goal. Or are they both pursuing the same goal at all?

* * *

Chapter 16 - Barbara

“It had been suggested back at the Congress of Verona,” Kreiser continued, ignoring her stumble, “that a larger, more balanced force should intervene in Spain. Moving across the mountains here and then by ship. But…”

“But they couldn’t get through,” Barbara finished for him. “They would have been stopped before the pass. But wasn’t the mystery already in place by then?”

Kreiser waved aside the objection. “By the time anyone gets to talking, the moves and counter-moves have already been made. Someone wanted to prevent that army from traveling to Spain. And even leaving behind artillery,” he continued, “by the time they could march through under those conditions, the battle would have been decided. The debates were a meaningless show. The army never moved and France had a free hand in Spanish affairs.”

“So you think it’s France?”

Kreiser’s sidelong glance was both amused and suspicious. “Do you?” He leaned back in his chair and seemed to be enjoying himself greatly. “If it were only that simple! I suspect everyone. There were some who signed to the accords who were quite happy to have had the matter taken out of their hands. Within my own government there are forces who have moved in the past to pre-empt the ministers’ decisions. And there are companies of thaumaturgists on every side. Not all have the power to work something of this sort, but the ones who do are rarely those who boast that they could.”

For a brief moment, all masks seemed to drop away and Kreiser looked more tired than Barbara had ever seen before.

“There’s a good reason why my activities in Alpennia have not fallen under the most official channels,” he said. “And why my public mission has been cloaked in playing at marital intrigues.”

If it were a ploy for sympathy, it fell short. Kreiser’s “playing” had left bodies in its wake the year before, and it was only good fortune that none of them had been people she cared for. But she could believe it had been nothing more than misdirection, for it had come to nothing in the end.

Barbara was no longer certain how much of Kreiser’s tale was belated honesty and how much was still part of that game. If he could pretend to bluntness, so could she. “Why Alpennia? Why me? Why haven’t you brought this directly to Princess Anna’s ministers or to your own ambassador? Why quiz me like a catechism rather than stating what you need outright?”

Kreiser exhaled, halfway between a sigh and a grunt. “Alpennia is at the heart of it, I’m certain. Not in the way my superiors think, but they wouldn’t take my word for that, and—” He leaned forward in a move that might still be playacting. “—I don’t trust them any more than I trust you or the Russians or the French, though perhaps more than I trust the English. I have been tasked with determining whether we’re dealing with external enemies or with hidden forces within the Empire itself. If this is the work of foreign thaumaturgists, I am to cripple them as best I can. And that is where I hope to have your support.” His gesture took in the entirety of Alpennia. “No one in Vienna has the power to work at this distance, and we don’t have anyone with the right talent in place in Paris. The Russians don’t do this type of work. The English won’t even admit to having thaumaturgists. The last thing I want is to get tangled up with the disaster that is Rome. You have the mystical traditions and people with the skills to help carry it off, as well as the will to do so. I can’t be seen to be working directly with your government, but no one will notice my dealings with you.”

Yes, Barbara thought. She had played at cat-and-mouse with him over most of his false distractions. No one would find anything suspicious in their continued entanglements.

“And if it turns out to be agents within Austria itself?” she asked.

Kreiser’s face settled into grimmer lines. “Then it’s possible I will be a dead man as soon as I make my report.”

Mother of Souls
Monday, October 24, 2016 - 07:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.4 Lesbian Evil

Ordinarily, my Project will skim over content from the 20th century. I'm going to continue covering the entirety of this book because the through-line of the argument is important. But the 20th century material will include fewer tags and more high-level summaries of the content.

The theme of evil predatory lesbians was taken up by others from the French aesthetic writers, but stripped of any hint of sympathy. In these works, the lesbian aspect may be concealed in vague ambiguity while still retaining sexual overtones. Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” (published unfinished in 1816) was declared obscene for these overtones, but although modern readers tend to  see clear lesbian themes, some contemporary reviewers assumed that the antagonist was meant to be a man in disguise, and thus that the obscene content was the seduction of Christabel’s father by the antagonist, rather than the seduction of Christabel herself. [The ambiguity allows for this and speaks to one of Faderman's themes: that there are shifts over time in what sorts of sexual possibilities can be imagined, given the same external evidence.]

Most “evil lesbian” works appeared later in the 19th century and were clearly influenced by the aesthetic writers. Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) is given as a typical example. The point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, A young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. The narrator resolves this problem by killing his wife’s female lover, but the wife dies of a brain fever cause by excessive sexual activity.

Faderman notes that “in France, innocence regarding love between women was virtually at an end by this time” though such “innocence” persisted in England and the America for a while yet. [The cyclic nature of “innocence” regarding the possibility of sexual relations between women is not noticed. French texts of the 16-17th century were quite aware of those possibilities.] Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, while writers in America contemporary to him were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal. This attitude persisted among some American writers as late as the 1920s.

Belot’s novel provides archetypes of the decadent “lesbian love-nest”, with its black and crimson decor, draperies that shut out the light, and bookshelves stocked with well-known lesbian-themed novels. Although Belot claimed his writing to have a moral purpose--to bring this danger out into the open and to attack the very concept of Romantic Friendship--it’s clear that his work was driven by fascination and hatred and the desire for sensationalism. Belot’s protagonist describes lesbianism as a “new vice” [a claim made repeatedly over the centuries, though Faderman seems unaware of this cyclicity] that must be countered by “a man strong enough or with enough authority” to rescue the innocent partner from the lesbian’s clutches.

The term “vice” was generally popular in sensational literature of all types in this era in France, but the specific association of lesbians with vice and evil appears regularly in French literature for the next several decades. It is speculated that one motivation for the focus on lesbianism was the falling French birthrate and anxiety about the French population being overwhelmed by foreigners.

Another regular theme in French literature of the 1880s and 1890s that uses lesbian motifs is the association of lesbians with prostitution. Faderman suggests that this might be grounded in the exposure of the (male) writers to real-life lesbian relations primarily in the context of the demi-monde, where prostitutes turned to other women as an escape from the brutality of their professional interactions with men. This demi-monde shows up in novels such as Zola’s Nana (1880). Yet another trope popular at this time is the idea of organized “cults” of lesbians, such as are seen in Guy de Maupassant’s “Paul’s Mistress” (1881), but where the practices of these supposed cults are clearly drawn from male-authored lesbian literature itself. [Compare also the accusations of organized cults of lesbians in late 18th century France, such as the Anandrine Sect.] One feature of these literary lesbians is that only the “active” partner is considered a true lesbian--and is portrayed as masculine in nature and physically ugly--but they are mysteriously attractive to “normal” women. The title character of “Paul’s Mistress” commits suicide when his lover deserts him for one of these groups of lesbians, and as he is drowning his last vision is of his mistress in the arms of a woman “as though she had found a refuge in a closer and more certain affection, more familiar and more confiding.” This description is quite similar to those found in positive portrayals of Romantic Friends but here the context turns it sinister.

If the violence, jealousies, and disfunctionality of lesbian relationships in such literature was, indeed, drawn from observations of the demi-monde, then the same conclusions about evil and vice could also be made about the heterosexual relations in that part of society, but there was no similar movement among sensational authors to treat those as universal, just as there was little recognition among psychiatrists that the disfunctions they saw among their lesbian patients were found equally among heterosexual patients.

The middle and upper-class lesbians of late 19th century France such as Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas lived lives that had no resemblance at all to the lesbians in sensational literature, but their type of lives weren’t reflected in the fiction of the time.

Accusations of lesbianism became a weapon for misogynists who saw any personal rejection by a woman as evidence for that woman’s sexual proclivities. August Strindberg’s A Madman’s Manifesto (1887) was basically a screed against his first wife’s feminist tendencies and desire to continue her professional activity, couched in over-the-top accusations of sexual activity with a wide variety of women in all manner of circumstances--activity that Strindberg claimed to have personally witnessed by spying on his wife over several years. Although his wife acknowledged having close passionate friendships with women, she didn’t consider them problematic and described them using the traditional language of Romantic Friendship.

The motif of the evil lesbian appears outside France in examples like Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire story “Carmilla” (1872), which uses a subtle parody of romantic friendship themes, interspersed with the tropes of French sensational novels. Some modern critics question whether LeFanu understood that his story was referencing lesbianism in particular (though from a modern viewpoint the equation appears obvious). Another non-French writer who inserted sinister themes into a story of passionate friendship is George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin (1886). The monstrosity of the lesbian character is symbolized by physical deformity, as well as being expressed in general antipathy toward men and love for women. Her orientation is explained as being congenital, caused by her mother’s hatred for sexual activity with her father. In contrast to positive or neutral depictions of passionate friendship, her beloved is shown as being uncomfortable with her expressions of love, and this anxiety is depicted as normal and expected. The protagonist eventually accepts being rebuffed and goes into a convent. The sentiments she expresses would have been unremarkable and framed positively in other works of the same era that still took a positive approach toward women’s friendships.

In America, anxiety about love between women starts appearing occasionally in the 1890s at a time when translations of the French decadent writers begin appearing. Doctors begin repeating second and third-hand accounts of lesbian orgies, whose details are modeled after the decadent writers. The sensationalized murder in 1892 of Freda Ward by her female lover “to make it sure that no one else could get her” was treated as proof that the sexologists were right about the inherent pathology of lesbianism. In 1893 an American doctor could write about how “morbid sexual love” between women started among schoolgirls. But it took a while for these ideas to dominate the discourse. In real life, 19th century America had a tradition of being accepting of cross-dressing and passing women, even when overtly connected with feminist sentiments. But in the 1890s Romantic Friendships began to be framed in fiction as morbid, connecting lesbianism with murder and portraying lesbian villains as assertive, feminist, intellectual and sophisticated. Yet at the same time, novels such as Diana Victrix (1897) could still present female romantic partnerships in a neutral or positive light.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016 - 16:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.3 Lesbian Exoticism

This chapter would seem to undermine one of Faderman’s key themes: that people (especially, but not solely) women were completely in ignorance of the possibility of women engaging in sex together (however narrowly she is defining “sex”) until the writings of the sexologists educated them on those possibilities. Only then did women who had been convinced by their upbringings that they didn’t feel sexual desire suddenly begin engaging in genital sexual activity.

Havelock Ellis, in his “Sexual Inversion in Women” noted a catalog of examples of lesbianism in life and literature (making little distinction between the two categories), drawn primarily from France. These included Diderot’s The Nun (1796), Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), Zola’s Nana (1880), Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) and other works by a variety of 19th century authors. These sensational and decadent stories--written entirely by men--become incorporated into his understanding of sexuality between women.

The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France. The trope of a transvestite lesbian, it is suggested, became popular due to notable real life individuals such as George Sand, in the 1830s. There were rumors about the nature of Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), perhaps inspired by the depiction of desire between women in her novel Lélia.

But apart from individual inspirations, French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities). An entire genre of “decadent” literature emerged, often featuring sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian characters, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). This literature eschewed the egalitarian, devoted love of Romantic Friends and focused specifically on the sexual, and often on violent power differentials and seductions.

In discussing the themes of these works, Faderman notes 18th century literary depictions of sex between women, as in L’Espion Anglois (1777). [A number of other 18th century works could have been included. But I repeat my point that the existence of these works undermine the position that the idea of lesbian sex was entirely inconceivable until the late 19th century.]

Baudelaire’s 1857 collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal was originally titled Les Lesbiennes giving an explicit name to the nature of the “shocking” themes he used to gain notoriety. This literary movement, Faderman notes, was in direct reaction to the stuffy puritanism of the “Victorian” middle-class (in both England and France). And though they came later to the movement, English writers took it up, such as Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon (1877). The title character of that work might be a prototype for the sexologists’ “congenital invert”: her father wanted a boy and gave her a boy’s education and training but, having fallen in love with a woman, she descends into alcohol and opium addiction and dies.

Pierre Loüys’s Songs of Bilitis (1894), though overtly inspired by the love poetry of Sappho, follows the decadent movement in focusing specifically in sexual activity, describing Sappho in “mannish” terms.

The narrow focus on sexual encounters and tragic fates seems to be entirely a creation of male writers. When we have glimpses into the attitudes and lives of women who provide evidence of including physical eroticism in the romantic relationships--such as the poet-actress Adah Isaacs Menken, a friend of George Sand--there is an equal emphasis on tender devotion along with the erotics.

Faderman concludes the chapter by projecting her conclusions onto the women engaged in Romantic Friendship, claiming, “Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin...had they read the works of the nineteenth-century aesthete-decadents which purported to describe love between women, ...would have thought those females as strange and terrifying as they were to their creators and heterosexual readers, since the characters of those poems and novels had absolutely nothing to do with their lives and loves.” Once again, my issue is not with whether this position is historically true for these specific women, but the confidence with which Faderman states it with no evidence presented other than her own opinion. It would be one thing if specific women who embraced Romantic Friendship wrote about their reactions to decadent lesbian themes in literature, but that isn’t what’s being said here. And “had they read” moves the goalposts from the position that these women couldn’t even conceive of sexual activity between women because they hadn’t ever been exposed to the concept.

Note: samples of many of the authors mentioned here can be found in Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism.

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