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LHMP #237 Meem 1997 Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness


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Meem, Deborah T. 1997. “Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.537-560

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Meem looks at the development of a public understanding of lesbian identity in 19th century English society through the life, journalism work, and novels of Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton was a contradictory figure, described by one historian as “a radical conservative, a militantly feminine antifeminist, a skeptical idealist, and a believing atheist.” Her journalism was shot through with misogyny and a belief that women should stick to the domestic sphere, while claiming economic and social independence in her own life. In her fiction, she depicted complex and sympathetic emancipated women who can easily be interpreted as proto-lesbian figures, even if she didn't give them happy endings. Also noteworthy is that when Linton wrote a fictionalized autobiography, she used a male persona to represent herself.

While showing a familiarity with the rising self-conscious lesbian presence in England in the later 19th century and giving strong evidence for homoerotic desires herself, Linton publicly condemned feminists and “mannish women”. And three key novels from her body of work show shifts in her attitude toward her proto-lesbian characters in parallel with the increasing public awareness of lesbian possibilities. In significant ways, Linton embodies a counter to the position long popular in academic circles that there was a rapid and drastic shift only at the end of the 19th century between rigidly prescriptive gender roles that relegated men and women to “separate spheres” in which women might safely enjoy non-sexual “romantic friendships”, and the appearance of the image of the “mannish lesbian” and her association with women’s emancipation. The association of both feminism and women’s same-sex desires with masculinity had two faces: for some, masculinity was a symbol of empowerment, while for others it represented the breakdown of society and a threat to traditionally female spheres of social power.

As a journalist, Linton was solidly reactionary and became the anonymous spokesperson for the anti-feminist movement in the 1860s with the publication of “The Girl of the Period”, an attack on young women whom she saw as rejecting Victorian domestic ideals. The misogyny running through Linton’s work is not simply an interpretation of modern readers. Linton is quoted from correspondence as saying, “I hate women as a race...I think we are demons. Individually we are all right, but as a race we are monkeyish, cruel, irresponsible, superficial.” For the use of the term “monkeyish”, keep in mind that this was the era when Darwin’s theories were gaining visibility. Another dog-whistle term that crops up in her writing is “hybrid”, as in a characterization of feminists as, “the women’s-rights woman, with her hybrid costume and her hard face.” The word “hybrid” not only invoked a horror of the blurring of gender boundaries, presaging the use of “third sex”, but probably had racist overtones as well. Linton used Darwinian imagery often in her writings and in the 1890s hopped on the social Darwinism bandwagon, suggesting that differentiation of the sexes was a mark of evolved civilization, and thus that attempts to erode gender difference would contribute to society’s downfall.

Linton was also a novelist, and Meem traces shifts in her attitudes and possibly her self-image via three key works focusing on homoerotically-tinged relationships between women. Sowing the Wind (1867) is a sensational story in which the naive young wife Isola struggles with her wealthy and possessive husband’s descent into poverty, perversion, and insanity. The revealing character is Isola’s cousin Jane: a journalist [note: can we say “self-insert”? I knew we could], unmarried, plain, who uses masculine signifiers such as wanting to be called “Jack” and socializing primarily with men while wanting to be treated as a “chum”. But despite Linton’s journalistic scorn for similar figures in real life, Jane is in many ways the strongest and most positive character in the novel. She is unfailingly loyal and supportive of the protagonist and encourages Isola to follow high moral principles rather than focusing on personal survival. Jane is not an overtly lesbian character, but exhibits features that later would become part of the “mannish lesbian” archetype.

The second novel in this series is The Rebel of the Family (1880) appears at a time when the myth of the “sexless woman” that had been promoted heavily in the earlier part of the century was fading in the face of recognition not only that women had erotic desires but that they could feel such desires for each other. The literary motif of decadent lesbian sexuality was appearing from authors such as Diderot, Gautier, de Balzac, and LeFanu. Linton had left England for Italy in 1876 to escape what Meem calls an “ill-advised relationship with a woman” who appears as a character in Linton’s fictional autobiography. She traveled to Italy in company with another female friend, and while in Rome they socialized with well-known lesbians Harriet Hosmer, Matilda Hays, and Adelaide Sartoris. [Note: for the social context of the first two, see the LHMP podcast on Charlotte Cushman and her circle.]

In The Rebel of the Family, the protagonist looks to be a continuation of the “mannish” Jane from the earlier novel, now named Perdita Winstanley. Again, she is single, unconventional, not traditionally attractive, and is male-identified in behavior and ambitions. But now Perdita, rather than maintaining these traits across the novel, is depicted as a rebellious “New Woman” tamed by love and returned to domesticity. The position of feminist icon is again taken up by a supporting character, Bell Blount: the president of a women’s rights organization, “handsome but bold and confident-looking,” dressed flamboyantly and vulgarly. Bell woos Perdita to the feminist cause with an overt undertone of sexual seduction. When exposed to Bell’s persuasions, Perdita feels “as if about to be initiated into those hidden mysteries where the springs of human history are to be found” and is simultaneously attracted and repelled when Bell embraces and kisses her “with strange warmth.” Perdita is susceptible, due to feeling unloved and out of place at home, and is attracted by the image of Bell’s world where women work out in the world and come home to female companionship. Bell has a female partner who is introduced as her “good little wife” and who treats Perdita as a romantic rival.

The plot involves the battle between Bell’s attractions of a purposeful life and freedom from the constraints of traditional femininity, and the more conventional path offered by the hyper-masculine Leslie Crawford. In contrast to the supportive but non-erotic friendship that Jane offers Isola in Sowing the Wind, Bell’s overtures are unmistakably sexual and she moves in a world of “mannish” feminists who are unambiguously coded as lesbian. Perdita flees back to conventionality, not only because she learns to embrace “the loving woman’s instinctive glory in acknowledging her own comparative inferiority” but because Bell reveals herself as hypocritical and controlling. Her feminism is intended to support only those like herself and “does not include democratic equality or communistic mishmash in any form.” This hypocrisy is braided together in Linton’s mind with her lesbianism and feminism, rather than being coincidental traits.

The third novel further explores the rising image of the “New Woman” who was viewed as antithetical to the British social structure in her desire for independence and equality. In The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure (1895) we find a mirror-character to Bell Blount from the earlier work in the protagonist Phoebe Barrington. Here it is not so much a physical resemblance as situational aspects of their characters: both are separated from their husbands and active in the women’s rights movement, both are “handsome but vulgar”, and both inhabit a world of women’s clubs that engage in smoking, drinking, speechifying, and flirtation. Unlike Bell, Phoebe doesn’t have a wife waiting at home, but surrounds herself with a variety of lesbian archetypes. Phoebe’s female friends encourage her to become a feminist orator, much to her estranged husband’s shame. This husband becomes Linton’s voice in the work, expressing a horror for “manly woman and effeminate men” (explicitly using the term “third sex”). The book’s crux comes when Phoebe’s husband seduces her back to domesticity.

Taken as a whole, Linton’s fictional output trace the development of the 19th century British awareness of lesbianism from a vague, unnamed (but strongly sympathetic) image of strength and independence, to the “invert” of the sexologists, for whom a woman’s erotic desire for women could only be visualized as an essential masculinity and sexual aggressiveness. But in depicting this shift, Linton struggles against the realities of her own life and expresses what can only be viewed as a self-hatred for her own feminist and homoerotic impulses.

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