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Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 14:00
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.A.4 Boston Marriage

If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career. Similarly to those earlier female partnerships, the phenomenon was associated with intellectual women who often were social reformers. [Though one wonders whether there’s some selection bias in which partnerships left clear records by which they could be identified.]

Faderman is now willing to grant the possibility that some of these relationships included sexual relations, though it’s more an absence of her previous negative assumptions. (“Whether these unions sometimes or often included sex we will never know.”) She gives no specific argument for this change in evaluation, any more than she gave clear arguments for why earlier partnerships were assumed to be sexless.

Literary examples of Boston marriages, such as Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885) might touch on the competition between a female partnership and the opportunity for marriage to a man, though the male lead in The Bostonians “wins” by brute force and the woman that he wrenches away from her “Boston marriage” is clearly depicted as falling into tragedy. Whatever James intended to portray with the novel, 20th century critics later interpreted the female couple as lesbians and “perverse” and the heterosexual resolution to be preferable, even if the female partner is miserable in it. Henry James may have been inspired in his depiction of the women by his sister Alice’s close relationship with Katherine Loring--though they were never able to achieve a separate household together, due to Loring’s family commitments.

A more prototypical Boston marriage was that between the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields which spanned the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. And here we can see the shift in attitudes towards such partnerships, for when Fields planned to publish a volume of Jewett’s letters after her death, she was urged to drastically edit the expressions of affection they contained, for fear of “all sorts of people reading them wrong.”

The last example in this chapter moves all the way into self-conscious denial. Author Willa Cather shared her life for forty years with Edith Lewis, but her fiction is devoid of loving supportive female friends, and the characters who are most thought to represent self-insertions of the author appear as men in her fiction. Cather was part of Jewett and Fields’s social circle but was born a quarter century later. Thus we see a chronology of the effects of this shift in attitude, though not yet the causes.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 08:00

In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other. She tries to lay claim to being Sara's friend--after all, she didn't throw her out on the street when she could have!--and attempts to slip back into the role of flattering wealth and power. But Sara is having none of it, and Carrisford has no reason to follow any lead but Sara's. (Though this is, perhaps, less believable in the real world, where adults often reflexively support each other against the testimony of children.) When Sara holds fast to her own truth, Miss Minchin tries to turn and bite, threatening Sara with the loss of access to her friends and telling Carrisford that his new ward is "neither truthful nor grateful." It's a last stab and falls short.

And now we see Miss Minchin's edifice of control tumble down. Just as she failed to maintain her chosen narrative against Sara, she now fails to maintain control over her household. Miss Amelia challenges her version of the truth and makes it clear that she won't subordinate her conscience to her sister's lead in the future. The pupils are in an uncomtrolled uproard, knowing only that something is up, until Sara resolves their confusion in the form of a letter to Ermengarde, explaining the whole matter. There is an intimation that Sara's sudden good fortune will rub off on Ermengarde, not only via access to Sara's fabulous new/restored life of privilege, but by conveying status as Sara's friend that will fortify Ermengarde in her relations with the other girls.

Now we get to the episode where the possible realities of the story seem utterly unfair to me. And where analysis by Moral Accounting indicates that the fact of being born into a life of hard labor and uncertainty is not treated as a "credit" (and therefore inherently worthy of being balanced by reward) in the same way that being born to a life of wealth and privilege is treated as a "debt" (and therefore a state that requires balance by going through trials.)

Becky realizes that Sara's escape and the restoration of her "princess" status means the loss of her own access to Sara's friendship and the pretend worlds that had made her own life worth enduring--as well as the loss of the magical transformed attic. For nobody would continue mysteriously providing food and heat and comfort for an ordinary scullery maid. And--to a certain extent--Becky's fears are correct. Recall that Becky was only given second-hand inclusion in The Magic, and only because Sara automatically included her in every part of the good fortune. If it had been left entirely to Mr. Carrisford, no doubt Becky would have been forgotten. But Sara didn't forget her. Sara sends Ram Dass across the attic roof one last time to give Becky reassurance. Becky is to come join her at Mr. Carrisford's her personal maid.

Somehow it seems a betrayal. Sara could have continued to see Becky as "just another little girl like me". They had shared all their sorrows and small comforts for two years. Sara had made sure that Becky was included in every piece of fortune she received, whether it was sharing Ermengarde's food hamper or enjoying the gifts of her mysterious benefactor. But now, when Sara has the wealth and power and freedom to do pretty much anything she wants, the most she can find to offer Becky is a slightly higher position in service? It wouldn't occur to Becky to question the arrangement. She always knew that their apparent equality was an illusion. Sara never stopped being "miss" to her. But it seems an unexpected failure of Sara's imagination not to suggest adopting Becky as a sister and an equal, now that she has the power to do so.

To be sure, it might not be the kindest thing to do in the long run. It's unlikely that Becky would ever be comfortable being elevated to such a status. When I brought up this issue at the begining of this series, some commenters pointed out that raising a working class girl up to the middle class would have been a much less possible thing than a middle class girl falling nito poverty. But I wish Sara had thought to try, because it makes me think less of her.

Next week I'll look at the somewhat different fate of Anne, and how she demonstrates the lasting effects of Sara's example. And I'll do some sort of sum-up of why I've done this series. It's been an interesting project.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 14:00

Magic in the world of Alpennia is elusive to the senses. Someone with the right talent may see the workings of the mysteries in visions--though no two will see exactly the same thing--or may hear it in "angel voices", like one young woman who appears in Mother of Souls, and many who have no other special sensitivity will experience the Great Mysteries as a shiver like the feel of someone walking over your grave. I not only have to convey how each character perceives is, but to convey how they understand what they're perceiving. Serafina struggles with that same thing, as she and Luzie work over their compositions: how do you describe the workings of magic to someone who can't see them, and do it well enough for that person to shape the mystical effects? Here's a little window on that struggle.

* * *

Chapter Fifteen - Serafina

Serafina leaned on the end of the fortepiano and watched Luzie’s hands move over the keyboard. She never tired of watching those hands, of imagining what other tunes they might play. No, that was too soon. Too soon. Issibet was on the sofa with her sewing, constantly in Serafina’s awareness. Even a touch that might once have seemed harmless now burnt like a coal. Guilt magnified everything.

Light filled the room in swirls and eddies. Serafina kept up a quick commentary on what she saw, using the code words they had slowly developed between them. When they spoke of music, they fell into Italian together, in a jumble of dialects that still failed to hold the words needed to describe what they were attempting. They fumbled and stretched to find a meeting point.

“The third time through is weaker,” she said. “It needs… It needs to start from a different place but move toward the same finish. Not like the call and response of a tutela mystery. More like a castellum where the echoes are the same but different each time, and build up layer on layer. Or like a painting.”

She thought of watching Olimpia at work: the sketches, the underlayers, the glazes, the highlights. Each utterly different and yet all shaping the figure on the canvas.

Luzie paused and then tried the strain again with the chords modulated to a wilder, more mournful sound.

“Yes,” Serafina said slowly. “That might work. Now again from the beginning.”

It was a slow, tedious process, this working out of Tanfrit’s aria. And it was only the first of the major songs they’d tackled. The mystic undertones could only be seen in the structure as a whole. With each revision they went back to the beginning—the beginning of that song, at least. Heaven knows how long it would take if they needed to play the entire sequence to see the success of each change!

Luzie was endlessly patient. She might not be able to see the details of the fluctus, but she knew music. Serafina marveled at how Luzie turned her frustrated, incoherent suggestions into exactly the right structure of sound that filled the house with power and made the hairs along her arms stand on end.

Mother of Souls
Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 07:42
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.A.3 New Women

I may need to get a new copy of this book. Extensive note-taking does horrible things to the spine. (Of the book, not me!)

The stirrings of a women’s rights movement was starting as early as the late 18th century, inspired in part by the ideals of the French Revolution, documented in books such as Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the mid 19th century, these ideas began to be put into practice with the opening of higher education to women (though sometimes it was necessary to create entire new institutions to do so, such as Mt. Holyoke College in America. By the late 19th century, one third of college students in the USA were women and most major European countries had at least some colleges that admitted women.

Some of the rise in feminism can be attributed directly to the gender-segregation of middle- and upper-class society which brought women together to discuss their concerns and grievances. But two other forces also drove it. One was the increasing industrialization of the economy, which affected women’s ability to support themselves as small private businesses were forced out of the market by large-scale industries that were highly sex-segregated in employment. Related to this was the focus among middle- and upper-class reformers on bettering the position of less fortunate women and creating wider opportunities for them. [I confess that the current critique of “white feminism” comes to mind as I read this--the image of relatively well-off white women swooping in to set up charities to better the lives of the virtuous impoverished.]

Organizations to promote women’s suffrage emerged in the USA, England, and France, although they had a long struggle to success. Demographics were a significant driver of feminism. Women significantly outnumbered men in both Europe and America either generally (in part due to wars) or locally (due to the differential migration of men to industrial centers and to colonial expansion movements. [OK, Faderman doesn’t say “colonial expansion”, that’s my phrasing.] This meant that many women who had been socialized to rely on marriage as a life path now found themselves needing to be self-supporting and yet cut off from both many of the traditional jobs for women (that had disappeared) and from the better-paying jobs created by the new economy.

Middle-class women began expanding their presence in intellectual and clerical work, such as teaching and office work, and found themselves agitating for equal pay in workplaces where they might earn one half to one tenth that of a man doing the same work. At the same time, we see the rise of what now are termed “pink collar” professions--jobs that were opened to women specifically because women had been socialized to accept limited working conditions for poor pay. At a more restricted level, women began demanding access to, and recognition at, professional careers such as medicine and academia.

When one surveys the women who did pursue advanced and professional studies, the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: a married woman would have less freedom to pursue such interests, as well as being subject to the time demands of motherhood. But also, women who had such ambitions may have recognized that marriage would be a distraction and roadblock. In contrast, many professional women did have close, supportive, long-term relationships with other women. Historical studies of the life-patterns of early feminists identify some clear prototypes: an only or oldest child whose father was supportive of her education and was the primary parental bond, and often a sense from the woman that she was serving as a substitute for the son her father would have preferred. This model for the “New Woman” matches fairly closely the stereotype later identified by psychoanalysts as a “cause” of lesbianism. Faderman speculates on cause and effect: was it that women who were attracted to other women responded more strongly to the opportunities of this sort of upbringing? Or did such an upbringing make the rejection of marriage and the expression of desire for women more attractive? Faderman notes, “Whether, as an independent, ambitious nineteenth-century woman, she began as a lesbian or as a feminist, it was very possible that she would end as both.”

This, then, suggests a context in which society turned from appreciation of close friendships between women to anxiety about them. And that anxiety was sometimes expressed as a perception that these close friendships were a new development, rather than a minor shift in a cultural practice that had existed for centuries.

Time period: 
Monday, October 17, 2016 - 09:00
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.A.2 Kindred Spirits

Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.

The sexes were considered almost as different species in terms of their natures, abilities, and even biology. In some American literature, the anxiety around sexual activity extended from a concern for its debilitating effects on women to considering it to be hazardous to the health of men as well. Women were expected to be so naive and ignorant about sexual matters that marital relations were expected to be a major trauma, and a woman who showed too much interest in sex, even within marriage, was morally suspect.

For middle and upper class women, the majority of their lives involved separation from men, both in the public and private sphere. Within this context, the only socially acceptable way to experience and express deep emotion was within relationships with other women. Faderman here presents excerpts from the correspondence of a number of women expressing passionate feelings for each other and focusing on descriptions of it as “pure” and “unprofaned”. [I’ve skipped citing specific publications and individuals for the most part, unless there is a more direct relevance to the themes of the Project.]

In America, one external event further strengthened the importance of women’s friendships in the later 19th century: the heavy mortality of men during the Civil War. The “surplus women” were encouraged to find solace in each other when marriage became less available as a life path. The rhetoric around female friendships in England was quite similar in the 19th century to what had been seen in the 18th, with men viewing it as harmless and unlikely to present a barrier to marriage.

Sometimes when there was a disparity of feeling between female friends we get glimpses of the depths of feeling involved. Writer and reformer Edith Simcox expressed her devotion to  George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in strong terms: “my Darling, lover-wise” speaking of kissing her over and over again murmuring “broken words of love”. But we hear of this, in part, due to Simcox’s frustration that Eliot returned only a more intellectual friendship. In many similar friendships, such as that between Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle (the wife of historian Thomas Carlyle), support from a close female friend was the only encouragement an intellectual woman might receive for her own work, as husbands rarely encouraged their wives to be their colleagues (or rivals).

As the end of the century approached, there was a growing frustration among intellectual women that marriage itself was a chain to be cast off in order to fulfil their potential. Examples of such independent women appear in novels such as Florence Converse’s Diana Victrix (1897), and as in that novel, these women typically achieved  success with the support of a female companion. Men, both in life and in fiction, are often at a loss when confronted with their apparent irrelevance. These are the “New Women” who will feature in the next chapter.

Novels, up through the end of the century, could still depict women in relatively sensual physical relationships, as in the description of two sisters kissing and embracing in bed together in Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market”. Only a few decades later, even much more subdued physical affection would attract censorship. In this context, Faderman discusses the beginnings of sexology in the late 19th century, contrasted with professional opinions even into the early 20th century that there could be no clear dividing line between friendship and love, but rather a continuum of emotional and intellectual passions. What was it, then, that tipped the balance and made intense female friendship suspect of being “deviant”?

Faderman concludes the chapter by examining the topic that first inspired this book: the drastic shift in attitudes that must have occurred between the period in the 1850s when Emily Dickinson could write letters to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert saying things like, “If you were here--and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” or “I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you--that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast” and the period in the 1920s when Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Sue Gilbert’s daughter, felt the need to excise those passages when editing the correspondence for publication, leaving only more subdued expressions of affection. Clearly something changed, but what?

Time period: 
Sunday, October 16, 2016 - 14:45

I chatted a bit about the history project in an interview with Elizabeth Andersen for her radio show The Tenth Voice which aired yesterday. We also talked about my books and writing. The Project has also been added to the set of Resources links under Writing Characters with Different Sexual Orientations. Writing the Other offers a wide variety of resources, including links, articles, videos, and classes.

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.A.1 The Asexual Woman

As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.

One feature of the trial arguments that Faderman touches on is how the possibility of sex between women was displaced onto “foreign” women. The student who made the accusation (Dame Gordon’s granddaughter) was the out-of-wedlock child of an Indian mother, and suggestions were made that she was able to fabricate such a charge because women in places like India were more sexual and lascivious and the child had learned about things like lesbianism there.

But the main feature was the argument that decent women would not have the sexual drive necessary for sexual activity to take place in the absence of a man. The judge opined that the crime of which Woods and Pirie were accused did not exist--was not possible. Paradoxically, the romantic devotion of the two women to each other was offered as part of the evidence for their good character and virtue.

Their reputations were also protected by the vehemence with which the legal establishment chose to disbelieve in the possibility of lesbian sex, arguing, “a woman being in bed with a woman cannot even give a probability to such an inference [of unnatural intentions]. It is the order of nature and of society in its present state. If a woman embraces a woman it infers nothing.” This was contrasted in the legal arguments with the acknowledgment that sex between men was not only possible but could reasonably be suspected if the men showed similar signs of affection.

This determined denial of possibilities is present in a French example, also of the early 19th century, where the writer Flora Tristan wrote to her friend Olympe that she wanted a woman to love her passionately. Olympe wrote Flora in turn that she made her “shiver with pleasure” and put her in ecstasy, and yet their writing appears to indicate that they did not consider these experiences to constitute sexual passion. Faderman concludes, “if a cosmopolitan Frenchwoman...could ignore her own sensations...we may be sure that the general public had no conception of the potentials of love between women.” [The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that it can be demonstrated to be false. One hesitates to keep returning endlessly to the example of Anne Lister, but she managed to find an entire diffuse community of women in rural Yorkshire who managed to have a “conception of the potentials of love between women.” Faderman is taking an official public myth and presenting it as a description of objective reality.]


At the end of this chapter, Faderman jumps to the very end of the 19th century and presents examples of a medicalized view of lesbian sex as “morbid” and due to mental perversion, as well as an example from a novel of two women in love falling asleep “in the silent ardor of deep blissful joy” in each other’s arms, after having rejected “the impure advances of sapphists.” These bookend examples are meant to show that the entire 19th century in England was one where “decent women” were functionally asexual, where they simply could not conceive of sexual activity being present in a loving relationship. [It might, perhaps, be a little more accurate to describe it that such women re-defined any erotic activities they enjoyed as not being sex, just as the judges in the Woods and Pirie case repeated the theory that sex cannot exist without a penis. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between women in Romantic Friendships not labeling experiences as being erotic and those women not experiencing erotic desire.]

Time period: 
Sunday, October 16, 2016 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to 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 will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items 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.

* * *

Given the original premise of this series of lesbian movie reviews (no death, no recanting, not just a coming-out story) I'm slowly working my way from the positive end of the scale toward the movies that hit fewer of the targets. (I'm jumping around a bit in the groupings, but still working generally in that direction.)

Today's offering falls under "No death, no recanting, but a fair amount of coming out." It's relatively short (40 minutes) and I doubt it ever played in anything but film festivals. I think I first spotted it on the VCR shelf at a long-closed women's bookstore. The costume drama aspect would have caught my eye even if the unusual name hadn't. I have a friend named Cynara, which is an incredibly unusual name. The only other pop culture reference I'm aware of for the name is in a work by Victorian poet Ernest Dowson, which has the refrain "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my own fashion." The same poem also gave Margaret Mitchell the phrase that became the title of Gone with the Wind. Dowson also seems to have coined the phrase "days of wine and roses" in a different poem. Since Dowson's Cynara was published around the era when this film is set, I suspect there may be a deliberate reference of some sort.

Cynara: Poetry in Motion (1996) The film is a period piece set in late 19th century England. It's artsy and atmospheric but a bit thin on plot (and occasionally, intelligibility). Sculpter Cynara meets Parisian expatriate (female) writer Byron (a name that suggests a certain beating the viewer over the head with symbolism, or at least lack of imagination) on the beach. Much misty sensuality ensues. I honestly confess I don't recall whether they're still together at the end. It was all very vague and dream-like. On-line reviews call it "Harlequin romance for lesbians" which suggests a happy-ever-after, but also suggests that my recollection of vague misty sensuality may be all there was. Certainly nobody dies. Not a traditional "coming out" story either. But it's very much in the realm of cotton candy rather than steak. It's a solid addition to my collection of lesbian costume drama and makes a nice balance in tone for many of the other works in that collection.

* * *

I've been tending to use the lesbian movie reviews to fill in when I don't have a current book, movie, or play to post. Just to give people a taste of what I'll eventually be covering, the items that I have already written up in some form (but haven't covered yet) are:

  • Fingersmith (2005, mini-series)
  • Bar Girls (1995)
  • Mädchen in Uniform (1931, b&w, German, subtitled)
  • Aimée & Jaguar (1998)
  • Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)
  • Portrait of a Marriage (1990, mini-series)

Movies on the list to include (i.e., I own them) but not yet written up include:

  • Antonia's Line
  • Bound
  • But I'm a Cheerleader
  • Daphne: The Secret Love Life of Daphne du Maurier
  • Entre Nous
  • Fire
  • Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (documentary)
  • French Twist
  • Go Fish
  • I Can't Think Straight
  • Lost and Delerious
  • Mädchen in Uniform (1958, color, German, subtitled)
  • Purple Sea
  • The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

It's something of an eclectic list, based on things that I either ran across by chance, or that hit my interests enough to track down. The latter are far more likely to be period pieces of some sort than contemporary stories. But if there's a title you think I should add, feel free to recommend it! Particularly if it fits some of the original criteria of "no death, no recanting, not focused on coming out."

Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 10:37
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).

I.B.5 Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Life

Given the sorts of comments I've been making on this book, it would be easy to think that I have an overall poor opinion of it. Not at all! A number of the sources I present as counter-evidence would not have been easily available to Faderman at the time she was writing. But I do think that her work is undermined by the relative modern focus of her expertise, and by her tendency to take certain things at face value that should have been questioned more deeply. When I've finished with the whole book, I'll summarize my critique a bit more clearly. In the mean time, I hope I've managed to distinguish the summary of Faderman's text from my own commentary.

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion. Yet some later historians, interpreting such material, have asserted that these expressions of love were coded messages to a male relative of the recipient, though if no such male relative existed, a “morbid” explanation might be identified. The notion that these intense emotions might have been considered normal and acceptable in their time has been difficult for 20th century researchers to accept. [Though Faderman herself seems to find it hard to accept that the acceptance of Romantic Friendship could have overlapped with the presence of sexual activity in some set of those friendships.] Historians who studied correspondence of this type in isolation, while focused on a particular individual, often failed to understand the larger cultural context for it, and looked for particular and individual motivations.

The core elements used to express Romantic Friendship included “vows to love eternally, and to live and die together; wishes to elope together to sweet retirement; constant reassurances of the crucial, even central role these women played in each other’s lives.” In some cases, these desires were achieved, as with the most famous Romantic Friends of the late 18th century in the British Isles. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were born into upper-class Irish families and were so devoted to each other that they eloped (disguised as men). It took a second elopement (after they were found and brought back home) before their families capitulated and left them alone. Their finances were dire, but they eventually secured pensions from the English Crown. The settled in Llangollen, Wales and became something of a pilgrimage site for the litterati, being visited by many notables of the day and inspiring a minor industry of poetry about them. Despite people using the language of marriage to refer to them (e.g., referring to one partner as “your better half”) their public image was of platonic, non-sexual partnership. Men praised them for their vituous purity; women envied their steadfast marriage resistance. Another factor in their acceptance by the public (in addition to their upper class origins) was their political and social conservatism.

It is worth noting that the belief in the “purity” of their love was not universal. The notorious (and homophobic, by modern standards) gossip Hester Thrale alternated between praising the “fair and noble recluses” and private diary entries (cited by Emma Donoghue) calling them "damned Sapphists." Faderman notes only Thrale’s general comments about “unspeakable sins” committed by some women with each other and considers those comments not to apply to the Ladies. Faderman doesn’t mention at all one of their visitors later in life: Anne Lister, who afterward wrote in her diary that she did not believe their relationship "purely platonic".  Both these items undermine Faderman’s thesis that “their generally rigid, inhibited, and conventional views regarding undress and evidence of sexuality suggest that it is unlikely that as eighteenth-century women, educated in the ideal of female passionlessness, they would have sought genital expression if it were not to fulfill a marital duty.”

As evidence of their innocence, Faderman cites their reaction to an insinuating newspaper article that told how Ponsonby “was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union [for Butler]” and describes Butler as “tall and masculine...with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats.”  They contacted a lawyer thinking to sue for libel but were persuaded that doing so would only make them more notorious. Here we can once again make comparison with Anne Lister (whose diaries were not available to Faderman) who also looked into suing a newspaper that published references to her gender non-conformity. In Lister’s case, we have clear and direct evidence that this impulse did not stem from a “clean conscience” when it came to lesbian sexual activity.

Another relationship that is well-documented by correspondence and includes all the trappings of an intense romantic relationship is that between the intellectuals Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. Though they never realized the goal of living together as Carter was tied to an invalid father and Talbot was an invalid herself, they deliberately chose not to marry men, despite opportunity.

Similarly Anna Seward declined many offers of marriage, ostensibly to care for her father, but researchers who attribute her life-long unmarried state to an early broken heart (on the basis of a few lines in much later correspondence) ignore the volumes of poetry and letters she wrote to Honora Sneyd, who had lived with the Sewards for fourteen years in her youth. Honora did marry--to Seward’s dismay and grief (and against her express desires)--and died before the two had any opportunity to share their lives, after which Seward mourned her extravagantly for the next thirty years until her own death.

Though these logistical separations and barriers often sparked expressions of anger and intense jealousy, Faderman returns again to her position that, “Anna seems so unguarded in her involvement with Honora, so entirely and guiltlessly public, it is difficult to believe that a woman reared in her conservative environment and continuing to be comfortable in it, would have been open about any nonmarital relationship that was sexual.”

[It has occurred to me, at this juncture, that one of Faderman’s blind spots is the assumption that the women involved in Romantic Friendships would automatically have equated sexual activity with women and the forbidden nonmarital sexual activity with men.  An alternate explanation, of course, would be that the women saw no correspondence between the two spheres of activity. That--like the complacent viewpoints of male writers such as Brantôme--they saw a qualitative difference between genital activity with women (=harmless) and genital activity with men (=sinful). Faderman also seems unable to imagine women being able to dissemble and self-censor in their writings in the midst of these extreme passions. Or that Romantic Friends might not have viewed the presence/absence of genital activity as being a meaningful distinction in defining and understanding their relationships.]

Mary Wollstonecraft was on the rebound from her first Romantic Friendship when she fell in love with Fanny Blood and, after some tribulations, moved in with Fanny’s family and began a campaign to achieve her dream of extracting Fanny and their living together elsewhere--a dream that foundered on Fanny’s passive lack of dedication to the relationship. Wollstonecraft had relationships with men as well, naming her first child in memory of Fanny. As with other prominent women of letters whose lives featured Romantic Friendships, later academics took pains to invent or emphasize romances with men.

Time period: 
Friday, October 14, 2016 - 13:00
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).

I.B.4 Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Literature

This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage). Financial privilege enabled them to share not one but two homes together and to establish the charity that inspired Millenium Hall. The protagonists of the novel--like the author and her companion--are intelligent, educated women who desire little more than to spend their lives together. A husband briefly causes an unhappy breech but he conveniently dies a short time later. The two, along with friends that include another romantic couple, set up an idyllic existence in the country and establish several charitable projects. The blissful same-sex relationships in the story are contrasted with the invariably unhappy heterosexual ones, though the characters are not portrayed as set against marriage, as such, and one of their charities is to provide dowries for poor women.

Not all such fictional friendships had happy endings, some being separated by marriage, some culminating in the ultimate act of love, a self-sacrificing death. Although a significant portion of this literature is by female authors, male authors wrote admiringly of female affection as well. Faderman speculates on why these all-consuming relationships between women were depicted positively even when clearly elevated above marriage. Perhaps, she suggests, the real-world inevitability of marriage eroded their subversive potential, and perhaps men had voyeuristic enjoyment in watching two women showing affection to each other, as some male writers suggest.

Somewhat in contradiction to the main thesis of the book, Faderman quotes from the Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry who, undoubtedly familiar with the lesbian accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette, traveled to America in the late 18th century and commented frankly on what he perceived to be the social independence of American women and their apparent lack of passion toward men, concluding that “they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Faderman immediately dismisses this possibility as “doubtful”.

But if language is an indication, literary women in America saw little difference between the love they felt for each other and what they were expected to feel for men. And among the expressions of admiration and affection there are regular indications that women considered their passionate friendships to be in direct competition with heterosexual marriage, such that they would swear never to marry for each other’s sake. The intellectual pleasures they describe are not infrequently enjoyed together in bed and accompanied by embraces and kisses. “But,” says Faderman, “since decent women of the eighteenth century could admit to no sexual desires and decent men would not attribute such desires to them, the sensual aspect of their relationship goes no further in fiction, as it probably would not in life.” [Presumably, by this definition, de St. Méry was not a “decent man”.]

This assumption of innocence that is extended to literary female friends is not always offered to close male friends in literature, where the specter of homosexuality is more likely to intrude. Charles Brockden Brown left a fragment of an unfinished novel touching the “depravity” of a male character due to the nature of his friendships with other men, while raising no such suspicions in his work Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1798) which concerned female friends, which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself to be reunited with her beloved friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for the friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. And that friend’s marriage is considered easier to dispense with, if necessary, than their need to remain together.

The indistinguishability of women’s passionate friendships and the passion expected in marriage is seen in Helen Williams’s Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) in which, in a sort of reverse Iphis and Ianthe, the female protagonist discovers that the person she has developed a deep and very physical affection for while students in a convent together is actually a boy disguised as a girl (and ignorant of his own gender). Up until the reveal, the nature and intensity of their love is considered not outside the bounds of what would be normal between girls, and after his gender is revealed, their love is described as being the same as before...except now they can get married.

When men wrote of women having sexual relationships with each other (as in the memoirs of Casanova), the focus tended to be purely on genital activity and their bond is treated as ephemeral and eagerly abandoned for a man. When women wrote of women’s passionate friendships, they encompassed autonomy, economic independence, and a compete intimacy of the mind. But in summarizing this, Faderman overlooks the physical aspects of those relationships, erasing them from the equation, as if a relationship between women could either be genital or emotional, but not both.

Time period: 
Friday, October 14, 2016 - 07:00

I think I mentioned previously that, having bought the Comixology app for my iPad to read a particular title, I went hunting around in their catalog to find other things of interest. Since they have a GLBTQ category in the catalog, I figured that was a good place to start. Mostly filled with very pretty boys kissing each other, as might be expected. But one title caught my eye for featuring a female POV character, a historic setting, and the promise of exciting adventure.

A young woman in late 18th century Spain, on the eve of her debut into society, receives a mysterious message and gift from her missing father: an astrolabe. As a child, her father had trained her with games of puzzle-solving and mysteries, so she takes the gift as a signal and sets off on her own to answer it and reunite with her father. Along the way, she finds herself in company with a brother and sister (or so they present themselves), and is flustered and intrigued by the sister's habit of wearing male clothes and wielding a deadly sword. There's a very Dumas-like feel to the story and setting, but with female characters far more centered than he ever did.

Windrose is a fun little adventure story with mostly excellent art. The first volume (which is what is currently available and appears to collect the first 6 issues) is only the very beginning of the story. It's not so much that there's a cliffhanger as that we're only beginning to climb the cliffs in the first place. It's promising enough that I'll be continuing to follow the series, but I'm also reminded of why I generally don't follow graphic stories much. And this isn't in any way a fault of the particular title, but rather of the format. There's just a very low story-to-page content, and while the art is enjoyable, I tend to read for story rather than art. So here are my likes/dislikes about this specific work.

I liked:

  • The attention to historic detail in the art. It isn't necessarily completely historically accurate (especially in the clothing) but this is a fantasy version of history so I'm generous on that point. And it has a solid look-and-feel. The characters are well-differentiated and realistic within a manga-style presentation.
  • The plot moves quickly but sets up a lot of structure for a complex story.
  • The female characters are complex and engaging.

I disliked:

  • I'm pretty sure this is a standard artistic convention of the genre, but the faces of background characters and characters in intense emotion are often shown in distorted charicature (often with emoji-like simplicity). I found it jarring and distracting, especially when it was done to one of the viewpoint characters.
  • At the current point in the story, I'm feeling a little queer-baited. We have a cross-dressing female character and some slight hints of "same-sex attraction from gender confusion," but I'd be more excited about investing in this title long-term if I'd been given in-story evidence that I'm going to get more than that. 

If plucky 18th century girls hanging out with sword-swinging cross-dressing girls is your thing (and it very much is mine) I suspect that Windrose will be very much up your alley.


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