Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 6 - Regulating the “Real” in Fictional Terms: The (Auto)biography of the Tribade in Erotic and Documentary Texts
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Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”
Madame de Murat’s upper class status caused problems in the collection of evidence, particularly given that so many of the alleged crimes occurred in the privacy of her own home. There are details of domestic disputes, jealousy, and violence driven by underlying romantic or sexual relationships. Many of the potential witnesses seemed disinclined to get involved, one noting that it was “not compatible with his dignity” to testify.
The police records don’t label Madame de Murat’s activities as lesbian in as many words, but they give a very different picture of women’s erotic relationships that is found in libertine literature. These records don’t show the tolerant amusement reflected by the libertines, but rather distaste and horror. Madame de Murat is viewed as a bully, liable to punish her accusers.
She is eventually imprisoned, but the police feared her continued correspondence with family and friends and her ability to continue to exert power in the external world.
Compare her to fictional portrayals, such as Miss Hobart in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont who is easily defeated and humiliated by male rivals. In the conventions of satiric literature f/f desire is no serious threat to men. But in the early 18th century we see an increase in male anxiety about the lesbian or tribade as a genuine challenge to male prerogatives.
Miss Hobart represents the overlap and transition from the image of lesbian-as-hermaphrodite to the lesbian-as-tribade, driven by personal desire not by anatomical abnormality. Madame de Murat represented the reality of how many saw female same-sex possibilities. [Note: Female homosexuality was illegal in France, but not in England at that time, so the circumstances must be kept in mind.]
Comparing the fictional and real narratives of female same-sex activity can remove the illusion of the insignificance of female homoerotic relations claimed by the libertines. This is important as these have sometimes been accepted as factual by later scholars.
In this chapter Wahl looks at several libertine or pornographic texts from the late 17th and 18th centuries to compare their depictions of female homosexuality to the satires by male authors on actual women such as Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting and Marie Antoinette, as well as texts written by women themselves of their own experiences.
The first text to be examined is the Satyra Sotadicaand the Academie des Damesboth of which represent themselves as a dialogue between women engaging in a sexual education that involves increasingly exaggerated and unusual sexual behaviors. Wahl goes on at great length to dissect the dialogs and discuss the behaviors they depict.
Next she looks at two texts by Cleland: his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure(Fanny Hill) and his translation and revision of the memoirs of Catherine Vizzani. These texts either conflate the lesbian and the prostitute as a single archetype, or in the case of Catherine, depict the lesbian as an entirely separate type of being.
The use of a female narrator was another technique in depicting the activities of supposed tribades, often given either a an allegorical name such as The Confessions of Mademoiselle Sapphoor borrowing the name of a woman reputed for such scandals, as with the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt.
These narratives created the illusion of reality by reference to specific actual persons and events. They depict a sexual awakening of one woman by another, though they are vague about the details of the relationship. The protagonists life is eventually resolved away from the same-sex relationship, one way or another.
In conclusion, Wahl suggests that the wide-spread awareness of female same-sex possibilities constrained the ability of women to depict and enact idealized forms of female intimacy. This awareness served to widen the conceptual gap between the popular image of the lesbian and the experiences of “respectable” women even when those experiences included same-sex intimacy.
[Note: I thought that Wahl indicated this chapter was also going to cover texts such as Charlotte Charke’s fictionalized autobiography and the like, but the book ends without touching on that genre.]