Skip to content Skip to navigation

Aphra Behn

17th century English playwright and poet whose work includes female homoerotic themes and who may have had romantic or sexual relationships with women.

LHMP entry

When one of my summaries is basically a list of contents, either it means that the publication is really thin on relevant content, or it means that it’s so rich that you simply need to buy the book and put it in a cherished place on your shelf. This one is the latter. At least half the contents apply to women’s experiences (although it’s still true that the male-authored female-relevant content far outnumbers the female-authored male-relevant content) and the collection includes many of the oft-cited texts from the covered period. Far from all, but an excellent place to start.

Lanser opens her article with the bold hypothesis that “in or around 1650, female desire changed.” That there was a conceptual shift in gender relations reflected in literature, politics, religion, and individual behavior in which private intimate relationships between women became part of public life, and that this shift shaped women’s emergence as political subjects claiming equal rights.

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

In a future entry, I will be covering Traub's magnum opus ( The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England) where she traces changes in the rhetoric around relations between women during the 17th century. The present article is adapted from one chapter of that work that looks at concept of "Nature" and the theme of love between women as being an "impossibility".

In this chapter, Donoghue addresses the concept of “romantic friendship”, both as the term was use in the 18th century, and as applied by modern historians in situations when no irrefutable evidence of genital sexual activity is available. In both cases, the use of the term “friendship” tends to dismiss the strength of the bond (which frequently involved a lifelong partnership) and set up a false dichotomy between these relationships and more overtly sexual ones identified as “lesbian”.

The recent history of debate over the question of same-sex marriage has tended to take as a given that the concept did not exist in pre-modern times, but a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not entirely the case. This article begins with the usual review of the problems in identifying what would constitute historic evidence for female homoeroticism before the modern period, though Emma Donoghue's work is cited as establishing early uses of terms like "lesbian" and "sapphist", which are relatively unambiguous.

Subscribe to Aphra Behn
historical