Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. 2010. Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4 [see individual papers below, all contents are covered]
The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.
Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.
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 poet Katherine Philips wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women in the mid 17th century and argued for the primacy of female friendship over the bonds of marriage. She established a Society of Friendship to promote social, political, and artistic bonds between women, using the pastoral imagery and language popular at the time. Philips was not, of course, able to avoid the demands of convention entirely and was married at 16 to a much older man. Her poetry operated within the theme of "amor impossibilis" in the tradition of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, but focused, not on the alleged impossibility of her love, but on the pain of the barriers to achieving it. Unlike her contemporaries such as Cavendish, she represents these ideas and responses in a relatively personal form, rather than through allegory.
Traub explores the meaning of Philips' assertions of her love for women as being "innocent" in the context of classical and neo-classical traditions of Platonic love. The focus by many critics on the question of whether Philips' relationships could or should be viewed as erotic is considered somewhat beside the point. Also contrasted are Philips' familial relationships, primarily with Parliamentarian connections, and her social relationships, primarily on the Royalist side. This has led some to seek political symbolism in her poems addressed to these (royalist) women. Traub seems to argue for viewing Philips' claim of "innocence" as contrasting with the "rough rude world" of heterosexual marriage and represents not an echo of the older view of the "impossible" insignificance of female friendships, but a harbinger of a new, more significant (and thus more transgressive) attachment. This new understanding would later be framed as an illicit and stigmatized desire. The next generation of poets, following on her heels, dismissed Ovid's gender-changing resolution of his tale as unnecessary, arguing, in essence, that Iphis and Ianthe can and should love as women and not be shoehorned into a heterosexist framework.
As the 18th century evolved, the literature of the relationship between friendship and marriage, in arguing for the virtues of "companionate marriage", ironically introduces the idea of marriage resistance (at least among those upper class women who could afford it) in favor of a "separatist singleness" that implicitly allowed for the privileging of female friendships. Anxieties around the female friendships of Queen Anne and their political implications get transformed into male hostility toward the female-centered social ties that appear to exclude them from power. This hostility then settles on the erotic potential of those female relationships to vilify the entire range of ties between women. An assortment of polemics against women's same-sex affections in the first half of the 18th century is offered in support of this shift.
A near contemporary to Philips, Aphra Behn, was far less ambiguous in treating eroticism between women while also working with in the neo-classical tradition, Behn's writing touches on the whole gamut of possible gender interactions, though with different approaches. In combining the motif of female friendship with the undeniably sexual motif of the hermaphrodite, she presages the increasing sexualization of erotic friendship to come. This transition included a move away from a medical/physiological view of sexual desire between women (i.e., that such women are--or at least the active partner is--physically masculine in some way, and therefore set apart from women in general) in favor of a purely behavioral model. But this model understood that same-sex erotic possibilities existed between all women. This, in combination with the increasing focus on an ideal of femininity and female sexuality focused around chaste heterosexual marriage, led to a shift from same-sex relations being viewed as impossible and therefore innocent to being possible but unnatural and anti-social.
O' Driscoll looks at changes in attitudes toward female sexuality and same-sex desire through the lens of the dildo in popular culture. She contrasts the later 17th century with its expectation of active female desire (see, e.g., the diagnosis of "green sickness" in girls caused by unfulfilled sexual arousal) accompanied by the portrayal of the dildo as a tool used by women of all types/orientations for fulfillment, with the situation of the mid 18th century when the idealized woman was sexually passive and the dildo had become associated specifically with transgressive illicit sexual activity between women.
O'Driscoll connects this shift with an increasing anxiety around "masculine women" (cross-dressers and passing women) but asserts that cross-gender behavior was not, with rare exceptions, popularly associated with same-sex erotic activity, just as earlier references to dildos had no specific association with same sex activity.
This shift occurs suddenly in the mid 18th century and we begin seeing the motif of the "dangerous and unnatural" masculine-appearing, woman who seduces and satisfies her female lover with the aid of a dildo. Fielding's "The Female Husband" and Bianchi's" Catherine Vizzani" are prominent examples. (See here for the Vizzani case.) After a passing mid-century fashion for these criminalized stories, the "female husband" in popular culture fades to a more pragmatic and less sexual role, for example, providing economic support.
Robinson uses the pornographic L'Academie des dames to explore the portrayal of sex between women and of non-procreative sex in general in the later 17th century. The work is structured as a dialogue between two women: the older, experienced Tullie and her younger cousin Octavie who moves from fiancée to wife in the course at the book. It is a French adaptation of Chorier's Latin Satyra Sotadica which was published two decades earlier. The book begins with Tullie providing sexual advice and coaching to the inexperienced Octavie and moves on to discussions between them of their experiences with the increasingly "kinky" sex they experience with their husbands and others. The text balances a libertine rejection of social norms with just enough portrayal of shock or disgust on the part of the women to give the reader a frisson of transgression.
Yet even within this tolerance and embracing of purely recreational sex, there are distinctions in how heterosexual and homosexual encounters are treated. In particular, although male-male sex is discussed and hinted at, it is never portrayed directly, despite ample opportunity. Sex between women, on the other hand, is plentiful and foregrounded (naturally enough, given that the main conversations are between women). It is introduced as a way to initiate the younger woman into sexual pleasure to prepare her for marriage (a common framing in lesbian-themed pornography of the times) but continues even as Octavie enters into heterosexual adventures. The women's activities are clearly framed as being irrelevant to their marriages. Lesbian activity is presented as not constituting adultery and furthermore as not deriving from any specific orientation or preference, but being available to (and typically desired by) all women.
Robinson's conclusion is that, by universalizing sex between women, the author erases the idea of lesbians as a distinct sexual group or orientation. Even aside from the opinions voiced by the protagonists, the story avoids depicting a woman who is solely or predominantly attracted to women as an acceptable option. He examines three figures who test this theory.
An anecdote is presented of two unmarried women engaging in a loving and sexual relationship who are surprised in the act by the brother of one of them who has been lusting after the other woman. He uses his knowledge of their activities to blackmail his target into agreeing to sex, and his sister into abetting the arrangement. Although the relationship between the women could be interpreted as an exclusive lesbian one, they are played for laughs and punished with heterosexual disruption of their relationship. The women in the framing story (Tullie and Octavie) view this as an appropriate outcome. A similarly “moral” story is offered of an aggressive, masculine-acting woman whose desire for another woman is turned into a joke. The third instance is similarly dismissive.
Another telling feature is the general absence of any sort of appropriation of masculinity in the portrayal of sex between the main female characters. In this text, sex between women is generally presented as non-penetrative and when penetration is hinted at, it is the only context in which an act between women is characterized as adultery. Robinson notes a contrast between the more satire-oriented original source text (Satyra Sotadica), which makes greater allowance for women with an active preference for sex with women and for the use of dildos, and the more pornography-oriented L'Academie, which appears to have been edited in ways specifically calculated to avoid anxiety in the (presumably hetero-male) readership.
Robinson concludes by noting the fairly subtle differences between his reading of the text as homophobic and the interpretation of other scholars that it is queer-positive, particularly in offering homosexual-oriented readers (both male and female) opportunities for identification.
Beynon studies fictional (and biographic) narratives of "accounts" as a window on the gendering of economic competence in the 18th century. This specific article concerns two relationships between women that are framed or viewed in terms of their economic logicalness and success: Barker's embedded story "The Unaccountable Wife" in A Patch-Work screen for The Ladies, and Defoe's Roxana. The former is an odd tale of a married couple and their female servant who is, apparently, also the mistress of the husband. The wife forms an infatuation for the servant (who may or may not return the affection) and turns the social order upside down by allowing the serving woman a life of ease while she does the menial labor of the home. The two women eventually move out together, descending into poverty while the wife continues to try to provide a life of ease for the serving woman. It is never entirely clear whether the wife's actions are considered "unaccountable" due to the social class inversion, or because she has transferred the affection and support "owed" to her husband to a woman instead. (It's possible that both are conflated in a general "world turned upside down" theme.)
Roxana similarly blurs gender and class roles. The title character, abandoned by her husband, regains her financial equilibrium by setting up as a successful courtesan with the help of her devoted and cherished maidservant. Unlike "The Unaccountable Wife", Roxana is economically competent and turns her situation to profit rather than penury. The maid, Amy, is faithful beyond expectations due to the affection she feels for her mistress, even when the latter can no longer offer her any monetary compensation (and, indeed, must rely on her for support). The language of business and love are intertwined in their relationship, sometimes uncomfortably.
The devotion the two have for each other is expressed, somewhat oddly, via having sex with the same man and bonding over "being whores together". (Amy is, in fact, very reluctant to participate in this and is coerced only due to her devotion to Roxana.) Although Defoe alludes to an eventual downfall for the women, this fate seems--if you will--unaccountable in the face at their demonstrated success, competence, and steadfast attachment as presented in the story. But to me, despite the clear emotional and economic bonds between the women, it seems an odd interpretation to consider it a "lesbian" story.
This article examines two texts in the "reformed coquette" genre to look at changes in views of women's romantic agency and how romantic relationships between women were both presumed by, and a challenge to, the notion of marriage as based on mutual affection.
The figure of the coquette--a woman who accepts all suitors but gives preference to none--poses the basic question "why should a woman marry at all?" In the novels The Reform'd Coquet and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless the protagonists pose this question directly. If a woman has no specific and particular attraction to one man, what would it benefit her to limit either the attentions she receives or those she bestows? Although female friendships are not explicitly framed as directly identical to male suitors, in both texts a very particular romantic (or at least emotional) friendship with a woman creates a situation of sexual vulnerability from which the protagonist must be rescued by the man who thereby earns her specific devotion. This framing both acknowledges that women fall within the free and open scope of a coquette's affections and identifies them as a special hazard to her virtue, even if indirectly.
In The Reform'd Coquet this conjunction is made more pointed because the woman whose affections put the protagonist in peril turns out to be a man in disguise--the man who directly poses that peril. The coquette sees nothing peculiar or unusual in the eroticized attention she receives from this character, believing him to be a woman. Others--particularly her long-suffering mentor and would-be suitor--are inherently suspicious due to the intensity of that affection. But this suspicion takes the form, not of seeing it as homoerotic, but of concluding that the person displaying the affection must therefore be a man. (As turns out to be the case.) Thus the possibility of women's homoerotic relationships is actually negated, both in the suitor's belief and in reality, remaining an accepted possibility only in the coquette's original reaction that accepted the "woman's" affections as unremarkable (but also as non-erotic). The motif is played for amusement and moralizing (although not, interestingly enough, by portraying the cross-dressing man as in any way ridiculous) and seems to frame women's affections as threatening only because they encourage a woman to let her guard down.
In Miss Betsy Thoughtless, the peril brought on by female bonds comes not from an erotic relationship with the woman, but from prioritizing that friendship over male cautions against it. Betsy's steadfast dismissal of the male warnings is punished by the friend turning out to be a prostitute whose company damages Betsy's reputation (leading her into further ruin).
In the end, the overt answer the stories give to the original question is that a woman marries because she has, finally, formed a particular attraction, to a specific man. But the subtext is that marriage is necessary to gain a dedicated protector against all other men. The homo-social or homo-erotic bonds that precipitate this conclusion are framed as representing heedless and willful female sexuality that precipitates the peril, but at least in The Reform'd Coquet this female peril is blended with the figure of a direct romantic rival, even though heteronormativity is maintained by means of the disguise motif.
The 18th century saw a polarization in attitudes, both in popular culture and in real life, between the "safe" de-sexualized romantic friendship (associated with educated and upper class women) and the "dangerous" sexual, gender-transgressing lesbian (associated with lower-class or socially marginalized women). Gonda looks at two women who--although their lives and careers show striking parallels--could be considered prototypes of these poles.
Sarah Scott was a "respectable" middle-class woman who left a brief unhappy marriage under uncertain circumstances, became the devoted and inseparable companion of Lady Barbara Montagu and, with her, devoted herself to charitable concerns benefiting women, and to writing novels involving women living female-centered lives. These works included the feminist utopia Millenium Hall and an adventurous novel A Journey Through Every Stage of Life, involving two female friends making their lives together by dint of one cross-dressing and passing as a man. Their adventures eventually end when Leonora gives up her male disguise for love of a man.
In contrast, actress Charlotte Charke lived a gender-bending life of her own and, if anything, toned down her exploits when writing her memoirs. She, too, had an early unhappy marriage from which she extricated herself by means of a female support network. She had a long-term and devoted relationship with another woman and sometimes referred to themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Charke was a successful actress, famous for playing "breeches parts" as well as male roles and regularly cross-dressed off the stage as well.
Scott, both in her life and fiction, seems to just barely veer off from open same-sex desire, while Clark openly alludes to it, but maintains the slimmest edge of plausible deniability through the means of play-acting and coded reference.
Like Gonda’s article on Scott and Charke, Donoghue’s examination of the Anne Damer points out the artificially polarized popular view of affection between women, where very intense romantic friendships were acceptable and even praised so long as they avoided even the rumor of erotic activity. Damer failed to avoid those rumors, but it is unclear whether her refutation of the label of “Sapphist” lay in truth or definition.
Anne was born into the upper levels of society and for all her life continued to move in elevated circles, both of society and politics. A marriage of convenience (they separated after five years) to the rich but dissolute John Damer ended with enormous debts and his suicide, leaving her dependent on family for support. As a girl, Anne had taken up sculpture and she returned to this as a vocation (though not, evidently, as paying work).
Only a couple years after being widowed, while she was traveling on the continent studying art, rumors began to circulate that Anne Damer was a lover of women--rumors propagated by a number of satirical publications that mentioned her name in such ill-disguised form that there was no question who was intended. In addition to being referred to as “Sapphick”, she was called a “Tommy” in a very early example of this slang term for a lesbian. Despite the lack of any solid evidence of sexual activity with women, and in the face of powerful friends taking publishers to task for printing the satires and rumors, these rumors continued for two decades before gradually fading.
Whether there was any basis for the sexual accusations, Damer’s life gives ample evidence that her strongest emotional ties were with women. Some of her rumored lovers were clearly women with whom she had very close--even possibly romantic--friendships. This alone hardly explains the “random shafts of malice,” as female romantic friendships were typically considered harmless and even praiseworthy at the time. Donoghue speculates that part of the explanation may lie in masculine jealousy over her successful career as a sculptor--a profession that lay outside the acceptable roles for women. She also seems to have attracted some ire for her close friendship with Elizabeth Farren, an actress involved in an extended platonic courtship with a nobleman who had the unfortunate burden of a still-living wife. The rumor mill connected Damer and Farren romantically as an explanation for Farren’s apparent chastity to the point where Farren felt compelled to drop the acquaintance.
We have a unique window on how Damer viewed the whole controversy due to extensive portions of her correspondence and journals being preserved. In particular, significant exchanges with her romantic friend Mary Berry specifically addressed the sexual rumors regarding them and whether they should change anything in their relationship to try to damp down the gossip. Their answer in the end was “no” and the two lived, for all practical purposes, as a couple until Damer’s death, after which Berry referred to herself as being “widowed”.
Damer’s correspondence makes it clear that she considered the accusations against her to be false and baseless, but it is open to question whether this was a rhetorical position, a matter of self-deception, or simply a matter of definition where she did not categorize her relationships with women as falling within the scope of what she was being accused of. Donoghue speculates that, given the prevalent definitions of “sex”, it’s not impossible that Damer did have erotic interactions with women but did not consider her actions "sexual". In any event, Damer’s life is a fascinating study of the conflicts and contradictions between the various popular views of women’s emotional and sexual ties, as well as a testament to how an individual woman could outlast even the most pointed of gossip to achieve something that could reasonably be considered a “happily ever after” ending.
Haggerty examines several examples of female villains in gothic romances to develop what strikes me as a rather weak theory of homoerotic attraction as subtext in the stories. Identifying a number of stories in which the heroine is persecuted and abused by a female villain (rather than the default male villain), he finds that they “suggest that the relations between women can be played out as potentially erotic, just as sado-masochistic relations between men and women are.”
While the analysis is detailed and interesting, it is unclear to what extent he posits that readers of the time would have seen these fictional interactions as erotic or whether this is being offered as a modern interpretation. The examples of female-female persecution that he offers up always involve a man at the center -- the evil prioress punishing a nun for wanting to run away with a lover, the smothering mother who persecutes the fiancee who isn’t good enough for her son -- and provide no overt evidence for desire directed by the villain toward her victim. In the absence of even a trace of evidence for the “evil lesbian” trope, it’s hard to see how this thesis fits into the theme of the collection (much less my project).
The journals and correspondence of Anne Lister have proven an absolute treasure for the internal life of an early 19th century upper-class woman whose erotic life was unapologetically oriented towards women. [Note: I’ll be covering the published editions of Lister’s journals in a future entry.] But, as Colclough notes, the extensive scope of the material means that research publications using it are necessarily filtered and skewed toward the particular interests of the writer. And because of the unique nature of the material, those interests have most often focused on Lister as evidence for a pre-20th century concept of “lesbian identity”.
While not denying this necessary filtering, Colclough tries to sample across the grain of this focus on identity by looking at the themes of books and reading in Lister’s writings. The article is very rich in detail and analysis which cannot be adequately summed up here. In brief, he shows not only the central place that reading and “making extracts” from books had in Lister’s life, but how she used gifts of books, quotations from them, and discussions of them as ways of communicating her interests to other women and to sound them out on their potential reception. These “communications” not only included material directly referencing classical views on lesbianism, but also some of the more erotically daring works of her own time, such as the words of Byron or Thomas Moore. More subtly, she discussed philosophical works on the subject of women’s friendship as a way to introduce her own interest in long-term romantic relationships. There is also some evidence that Lister considered a deep interest in reading and literary analysis to be essential in a potential life-partner, and that at least one otherwise promising woman failed this test.
Lanser opens with a letter from the intellectual Elizabeth Montagu in 1750 deploring the plan of two female friends to live together as it will "hurt us all" if women "make such a parade of their affection" leading to suspicion regarding all female friendships. Lanser argues that Montagu's objection is unlikely to be to romantic friendships as such. The sister to whom the letter was addressed would later pen Millenium Hall, a celebration of separatist female friendship. Nor, she argues, is Montagu's characterization of gossip about the two friends as "a lie" likely due to ignorance of the possibilities for women together. She details how the social and political circles these women moved in were well aware of popular and politically-motivated representations of women's erotic relationships. Rather, Lanser suggests that the concern was with management (or mis-management) of their public image. This concern operated in a context where female friendships could be said to define the image of gentility and where superficially transgressive personal lives were balanced by political conservatism.
These relationships, often among women with intellectual interests (Montagu was considered queen of the "Bluestocking circle"), required negotiation around issues of kinship (often sharing the stage with heterosexual marriage), the nature of the relationship, the economic means to maintain it, and the public performance of their relationship and its reception. Couples such as Sarah Scott and Barbara Montagu, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, and Anne Lister and her several partners negotiated this public performance in different ways, inspired by, and taking cover in, the ideals of their respective eras. In some cases, the logistics that kept women physically separate allowed them to frame their otherwise questionable passions as a sort of martyred virtue: praiseworthy because (and to the extent that) they must be denied or deferred. Thus they could express intense desires to share a life together, safe knowing the reality was unlikely.
This was the case for two romantic friends in the immediate circle of Elizabeth Montagu (the woman who "deplored the hazard to us all" of female partners living together). Catherine Talbot wrote to her passionate friend Elizabeth Carter (to whom Montagu had her own long-standing attachment) about the "thwarting, awkward circumstances that forbid all possibility of spending our lives together." The three women often wrote to each other about fantasies of each other's presence, and imagined visitations in romantic circumstances or surroundings which, by displacing fulfillment into a fantasy world, gave it safe license.
Butler and Ponsonby cloaked their otherwise flagrant marriage-like arrangement in the garb of class privilege, and set themselves up as a shrine for intellectual and upper class devotees of romantic friendship. Strict political and class conservatism may have helped them to ovoid accusations (if not suspicions) of "lower class" erotic interest as a basis for their relationship. Despite significant personal shortcomings, the Ladies of Llangollen (as they were known) became an icon of female romantic friendship. Interestingly, Anne Lister visited them and wrote that the visit left her with "a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy". Lister's life had many parallels with the Ladies, though their written records and the public performance of their desires stand in stark contrast. Like them, she was rather a snob and politically conservative, but her more transgressive gender presentation (and her greater visibility due to the less stable nature of her personal relationships) led to regular challenges to her assumption of social immunity.