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).
II.B.3 Lesbian Exoticism
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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.