The Convent of Pleasure (Margaret Cavendish)
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.
The article takes a critical look at the concept of “chastity” as an attribute of the mythical goddess Diana, especially as interpreted in early modern literature and art, and at the depiction of Diana as the focus and leader of a community of women who reject romantic and erotic interactions with men, but engage in those interactions with each other.
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.
This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.
Lanser emphasizes again that this study is not looking for historical lesbians--particularly given that the majority of the texts she examines are by men--but for ways the image of the lesbian is used public discourse.
“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.
There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.