Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.
Part 5: 18th Century (second quarter)
During the past week, fannish discussions of the treatment of lesbian (or lesbian-coded) characters in popular media were once again stirred up when the sci-fi show The 100 killed off a lesbian character promptly (extremely promptly) after she and her romantic partner have sex. Every time this topic comes up, there's a backlash of, "but it's a violent show; people die; why should lesbian characters get special protection?" This is only one of the many reasons why it's important to study the long history of how lesbian-coded characters have been treated in Western literature.
This week's selections from Castle's anthology (a collection that is actively looking for positive portrayals) show an unfortunately typical range of that treatment. Lesbians are purely sexual creatures who exist for the titillation of the reader. Or lesbians are grotesque figures in direct proportion to the presence and expression of sexual desire in their lives. Or lesbians are actually men. (This last is a vast oversimplification of the ways in which the competing frames of the lesbian and the trans man have been pitted against each other historically, but that's a topic that deserves a much longer discussion.)
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There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations). With the rise of the novel as a literary form, we begin seeing how lesbian themes are used in that sphere, often setting up conflicts between the portrayal of romantic friendships between women and the emerging stereotype of the predatory agressive lesbian.
Anonymous “The Female Cabin Boy” (ca. 1730) -- Text of a broadside ballad involving a cross-dressed woman who, it is implied, had sexual relations with both the ship’s captain and his wife.
John Addison (N.D.) translation of Sappho fragment 31 “Happy as a God is He” and 130 “Dire Love, Sweet-Bitter Bird of Prey!” (1735) -- Translations of poems with clearly homoerotic content.
Anonymous from The Sappho-An. An Heroic Poem of Three Cantos, in the Ovidian Style, Describing the Pleasures with the FAIR SEX Enjoy with Each Other (ca.1735) -- A somewhat satirical poem attributing to Sappho the origin of lesbianism in general and certain sexual practices in specific.
Samuel Richardson from Pamela (1740-41) and from Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54) -- Excerpts from two early novels that depict the tension between valorizing romantic friendship between women and condemning any hint of sexual desire between them.
Henry Fielding The Female Husband (1746) -- A fictionalized biography of an individual assigned female at birth who lived as a man and married a woman.
John Cleland from Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) (1748-49) -- Excerpts depicting the protagonist’s sexual initiation by another woman in preparation for a career as a prostitute.
Anonymous “The Game of Flatts” from Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) -- A polemic against lesbianism, largely in the form of an Orientalist fantasy of an encounter in a Turkish bath.
Denis Diderot from The Indiscreet Jewels (1748), from The Nun (1760) -- Two rather voyeuristic excerpts from novels, involving lesbian activity.