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