emotional /romantic bonds between women
Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.
Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.
The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise.
Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).
Newton addresses the question, “Does the protagonist of Radclyffe Hall’s <i>The Well of Loneliness</i> represent an isolated literary invention or does she reflect an actual social category of the time?” The character of Stephen Gordon is, in some ways, the prototypical “mannish lesbian”: dressing in masculine styled clothing, rejecting female-coded behaviors and preferences. One might, in the current day and age--though not necessarily when Newton wrote this article--be more inclined to interpret Stephen Gordon as a trans man than as a lesbian.
Prolific 18th century writer Eliza Haywood was known for treating themes of love and passion in her fiction and plays. Although her public life included several long-term relationships with men and at least one “unfortunate” marriage, this article examines the treatment of passions between women in six of her texts. Ingrassia notes that views of female relationships in her work have tended to overlook the same-sex aspects, despite the narratives regularly offering alternatives to the standard “marriage plot”.
The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.
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".
The revival of interest in, and knowledge of, the works and life of Sappho as part of the general revival of classical culture in the Renaissance created a major context for discussing female homoeroticism, although the myth of Sappho’s abandonment of women for a fatal desire for Phaon was also popular.