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Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland)

18th century English novel in which one woman sexually initiates another to prepare her for work as a (heterosexual) prostitute.

LHMP entry

The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.

Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there).

The book opens with an examination of  female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman).

There is less segregation of content by the gender of the author in this group. Men continue to translate or emulate the poetry of Sappho, often downplaying but never entirely erasing the homoeroticism. There’s also an example of satirizing a historic individual with crude stereotypes of the predatory “butch” lesbian. While the women continue to write poems of romantic friendship, we also have a social satire envisioning an all-female society, complete with romantic and sexual relationships between women.

The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.

Lanser examines the conjunction of the novel as a genre with "modernity" as defined in this work and considers its relationship to sapphic themes, despite the superficially overwhelming heteronormativity of the genre. One hallmark of the novel is the way in which it explores the contradictory imperatives of self-determination and socialization. The focus of the novel on the formation of couples and the subjective nature of desire opens the conversation--as previously seen with political and social conversations--to the inclusion or exclusion of sapphic subjects under that rubric.

Here Donoghue considers the literature that addresses sexual activity between women. In contrast to some claims, there are a number of home-grown English texts in this period that address non-penetrative sexual activities between women, and during the 18th century there seems to have been a regular dialog between French and English writing in this vein, with works in one language rapidly appearing in translation in the other.

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