Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0
Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.
Riffing off the title of Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Lanser turns the underlying question around. Rather than questioning what historic sources can tell us about human sexuality, she asks what the discourse about human sexuality can tell us about history. This book focuses on published discussions or treatments of “sapphic” themes in the 16-19th centuries. Rather than using them to try to identify or examine the lives of actual women, Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, movements, and so forth. In essence, to ask “do large-scale historical patterns have a ‘sexuality’ that is expressed concommittantly?”
Lanser’s thesis is that preoccupation with the potential for female homoeroticism and its expression defines and accompanies the rise of “modernity” defined as a break with the notion of static history and the reign of tradition, and an embracing of individual human experience as a worthy focus of interest. She explores the relationship between these two phenomena as a matter of “confluence” rather than “influence” and so setting aside arguments over the directionality of causation.
Inherent in this study is the presupposition that female homosexuality is not simply a differently-gendered reflection of male homosexuality, but that it has a unique meaning within and to the societies it is a part of, and that that meaning can be traced in the differential attention paid to sapphic motifs in different times and places. Lanser’s data is drawn primarily from contemporary published materials (as opposed, for example, to private diaries and letters) precisely because she is not examining the private experiences and desires of individuals but the larger social engagement with sapphic themes as abstractions.
This first chapter lays out the plan of her analysis, discusses the history of the study of sexuality in the modern era, defines the terms under which she will be working, and discusses the advantages and pitfalls of her particular methodological approach. The chapter concludes with a summary of what the further chapters will cover, proceeding chronologically and correlating different treatments of sapphic themes with their corresponding social and historical developments. Lanser specifically notes that she uses “sapphic” precisely because it has become relatively obsolete in current use and therefore is less likely to stir up confounding resonances in the reader.
The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”. This is a repeating theme: where classical writers often situated sapphic activity in a nebulous past, the 16-17th century writers repeatedly characterize it as “new” and “never seen before”. Lanser notes that the use of “tribade” in vernacular languages (as well as other vernacular terms for female homoeroticism) as arising in this era. [Since authors have made similar claims for the modern development of “lesbian” that turned out to be inaccurate, I’m a little dubious, especially about the word "tribade".]
Contrasting with this focus on a “new sin/crime”, there is also a strain of admiration for female same-sex desire as representing an epitome of equal and honorable love in an age when men, perhaps, are no longer worthy of women’s love, e.g., the 1573 poem “Elegy for a Lady enamoured of another Lady” (written by a man). Several authors wrote with varying degrees of admiration or titillation of the spread of love between women in the royal courts, covering behaviors that might range from isolated encounters to a permanent orientation. This is also the era of the cross-dressing (possibly transgender) Catalina de Erauso, and of decidedly queer cross-dressing motifs in theater such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Lyly’s Gallathea. Portrayals in drama of female-female relations were common in both Spain and England, often centering around a “manly woman” who pursues other women, or cross-dressing as a context of unexpected same-sex desire.
During this era it was also possible for intimate friendships between women to be publicly celebrated, as when the son of Mary Barber of Suffolk memorialized both his mother's marriage and her friendship with Ann Chitting by burying her between husband and “friend” with an inscription noting that the women would be united in heaven’s embrace as they had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights”. And the children of the poet Modesta Pozzo published her work that celebrated women’s intimate attachments and declared that women “are only ever really happy when we are alone with other women.”
A number of travelogues of this era locate sapphic activity as a foreign practice, with anecdotes about Turkish harems and Moroccan witches. There is also a rise of focus on the equation of female same-sex activity with anatomical hermaphrodism or at the very least enlarged clitorises. This plays out not only in medical literature, but in fictional motifs of women spontaneously acquiring penises in the context of same-sex sexual activity. This is also the period when we begin to find legal records of marriage between women (leaving aside the question of whether the marriages are new during this period or if only the legal concern with them is new). Revivals of classical literature bring renewed interest in Sappho.
While there is certainly evidence for female same-sex erotic activities before this period, what is new is an increased attention and anxiety around the topic, as contrasted with the way previous eras talked around the subject in a way that came close to erasing it. The repeated insistence that women “cannot live without men” and that intimate relationships between women are “impossibilities” only serve to highlight a dawning awareness that the opposite might be true. The insistence on some affections between women as being “chaste” and “innocent” raises the specter of others being not. And there is an increasing attention to sapphic behavior as a “habit” or pattern, sometimes verging on a permanent orientation, as opposed to being viewed as isolated actions.
It can easily be demonstrated that even when parallel phenomena occur in different locations, such as the rise of theatrical plots based on female cross-dressing in Spain and England, they do not have a directly causal relationship. Rather than this diffuse set of preoccupations being driven by a single underlying cause, they seem to arise independently as a symptom of common underlying anxieties about disruption of the traditional social hierarchies, with female same-sex relations symbolizing the most disruptive situation that could be imagined.
Four “explanatory” frameworks emerge from the discourse around sapphic activity, tracing it to anatomy, circumstance, inclination, and contagion. Anatomy: “she desires women because she’s really physiologically a man or at least has male-like attributes.” Circumstance: “she desires women because there aren’t any men available.” Both of these framings support the heteronormative status quo as the first resolves into “really” being an opposite-sex couple, the second because it is disrupted easily by making a man available. Inclination and contagion are less common around 1600 but become more so later, attributing desire between women to an innate preference or to the consequences of seduction (after which a preference for women is only natural, evidently). These models are much more disruptive to heteronormativity and consequently reflect different anxieties. “Contagion” in particular raises the possibility that any woman might abandon men and come to prefer women.
Part of Lanser’s thesis is that discourse about relations between women functioned as a limitation on new social ideals and models. At a time when ideals of marriage were shifting from a family-controlled business relationship to an affective bond between the spouses themselves, it was possible to imaging two women as partaking of a marriage-like affective bond. In this context, the repeated insistence that erotic relations between women are impossible or at least futile seems more desperate than rational. Thus, for example, when relations between women are portrayed, one may be framed as inherently “masculine” to restore the “natural” hierarchy. Lanser calls this approach the “metamorphic” strategy: set up the possibility of homoeroticism then reshape the players into a heterosexual couple (a magical sex change, a convenient twin brother, etc.).
In contrast is the “ethnographic” strategy which identifies sapphic activity as “other” but conveniently locates it in a foreign culture or region.
The greatest challenge to social order, combined with the logical extension of existing ideals is the “leveling” strategy for understanding same-sex relations. That is, an emphasis on the "same" aspect of "same-sex". A growing admiration for egalitarianism (within limits) and an idealization of equal companionship created a challenge to traditional notions of hierarchies of all types. Female couples simultaneously represented the ultimate in a partnership of equals and the nightmare specter of making men entirely irrelevant to their lives. Fictions of female relationships or even all-female societies become a trial ground for exploring (and perhaps safely undermining and dismissing) the more radical possibilities of leveling.
The chapter concludes with a consideration of the geographical distribution of sapphic preoccupation during this period. Examples are found in England, France, Spain, and to some extent from Italy, Portugal, and the Netherlands. (There is, of course, the problem of differential availability of and access to records.) It is absent, however, from the German states and Scandinavia. One possibility is that sapphic preoccupation was present in nations with women in positions of political power, either as rulers or regents. It also correlates with regions where women were active participants in print culture. The presence of powerful, publicly-articulate women could not be dismissed as an aberration or insignificant, but it could be undermined by associating women and their relationships with dangerous sapphic imagery. Interestingly, the preoccupation also correlates with colonial powers. Lanser speculates that speculations on sapphic consequences may sometimes stand in for reactions to encounters with “difference” in general.
This chapter tackles the question of how "sameness" in the context of same-sex relations reflected and represented concerns about social leveling. It begins by considering an example of the "metamorphic" framing: a 17th c. book of curiosities that included a chapter of 24 instances of persons changing sex. Though the book was reprinted regularly, the sex-change chapter was dropped, perhaps reflecting a shift from an earlier miracle-accepting age to one more concerned with rational explanations.
When the metamorphic resolution to the problem of woman+woman is set aside, the presence of female-female relations remains a problem, but only in the context of the imperative for heterosexual marriages. Here the sapphic motif--in common with other pop culture motifs--shifts not only to reflect preoccupations of society and the state but to be used in support of those structures.
Two metamorphic plays, Benserade's Iphis et Iante and Cubillo's Añasco el de Talavera show the shift from a "pure" metamorphic resolution to something less clear-cut, resulting in a more difficult problem. In this version of Iphis, the problem of her sex is not resolved until after a happy wedding night, and her secret is known and discussed by many characters before the wedding. This makes the crisis not one of "impossibility" but of needing to identify a problem in the first place. If Iphis and Iante have married in despite of warnings and threats and have achieved a happy union as women, the social conflicts that necessitate the divine sex change became messier. It is more obvious that the change serves social rules not "natural" ones.
In Cubillo's play a woman (though a "masculine" one) openly woos another woman, in competition with a male suitor. But the pursuing woman, after engaging in duels, riots, and various scenes of mistaken identity, neither gains a metamorphic victory nor is vanquished in favor of the male suitor. Instead she muddles the plot entirely by taking charge of everyone's fates and marrying her male rival while pairing the previous object of her affections with someone else entirely. With the "natural" sex-change solution out of the picture, chaos and confusion reign. In both plays, sapphic desire pulls a woman outside the patriarchal hierarchy with resulting disruptions to the power structure.
This same dilemma is described in a 1670 poem (by a male author) of two women in "a marriage of friendship between two beauties". The (female) speaker expresses jealousy of male rivals and laments that the their "too-great resemblance" prevents the success of their arrangement. It is a bar that is stated but not demonstrated. The leveling tendency—which in non-sapphic contexts is treated as an ideal—is rejected arbitrarily, seemingly for no other reason than rejection of the resolution it would allow. There is an almost begging tone in two similar poems of the mid 17th century addressing intimate female friends and urging them to accept the impossibility of their (clearly possible) love, in favor of the poet's desires.
Order is disrupted, women do not conform to their "proper place", and men seek some power to force them that will replace the old broken hierarchies. Women are not the only beings rejecting their "proper place". The displacement of female homoeroticism to foreign lands enlarges a tendency previously seen in blaming foreigners (especially Italians) for introducing sapphism by locating sapphic activity outside Europe, and especially in Islamic lands, with a particular focus on gender-segregated spaces and practices such as the harem.
While the supposed motivation of "circumstance" (i.e., lack of access to men) is offered as "cause", the threat of sapphic contagion, spreading a "new" vice to Europe (always new, however often it appears) mirrors political hostility to the impinging Ottoman Empire. Repeatedly, polemics note the "recent" introduction of sapphism in Europe in contrast to its long existing and "natural" location in the Ottoman lands. This conceptualization of sapphic activity as associated with certain (foreign) regions undermined the prior ability to resolve sapphic conjunctions either by metamorphosis or denial.
In 18th century England there is an increase in strongly partisan political writing (from various parties) making explicit connections between sapphic relations and politics. Some of this activity at specific times can be motivated by particular individuals, in particular suspicions regarding Queen Anne's intimate relations with her ladies in waiting. The specter of inappropriate leveling in these relationships was especially raised by lower-born favorites who were thought to gain inappropriate power from becoming the Queen's equal.
Both in support and criticism of egalitarian politics, intimate connections between women are used to represent the state. Specific women with political power were attacked with accusations of sapphic relations to smear or discredit them. But outside the more personal and vitriolic accusations, sapphic imagery was used more generally in political writings to represent positive alliances and loyalties and a positive mutuality and egalitarianism. (Examples: the play Agnes de Castro and Rowe's poem "Song" which includes one at the earliest uses of the phrase "the game of flats" to refer to sex between women.) These more positive allegories of governance, it must be noted, do not coincide with the period of Anne's reign.
In contrast, the tale "The Unaccountable Wife" imagines the disasters of lower class people getting above their place, depicting a gentlewoman who dotes on her female servant and beggars herself to elevate her friend. An obscure political poem "The Sappho-an" derides the explicitly lesbian goings-on of a collection of Classical allegorical figures, connected directly in the verse to various Jacobite supporters in the mid 18th century. Other writings support the perception that women supporting the Jacobite cause were considered inappropriately active in politics and power-seeking over men.
Though the connections are far from simple, the anonymous novel Mademoiselle de Richelieu also juxtaposes same-sex affections (in the protagonists) with a leveling political stance. Lanser speculates that sapphic relations were particularly attractive as a political metaphor because real women were still firmly bound up with heterosexual structures and therefore their relationships didn't pose an actual challenge to society.
Toward the end of the 17th century the sapphic preoccupation is continuing in England and France, emerging in the Netherlands and Germany, but falling off in Spain. Spain was becoming more repressive, especially toward women. This may underlie several shifts in public literary culture, including a decline of the novel.
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.
In this chapter she turns to the ways that women’s writing used the imagery of sapphic relations, particularly in support of their own political ends. Whatever these women’s personal desires, what was their motive for publicly representing intimate female friendships in their writing and for doing so in eroticized ways? These writings operate primarily in the “horizontal” or leveling mode where female friendships are held up as an epitome of relations between equals and as the model for non-kinship bonds. This movement was largely the provenance of gentlewomen and served in part to argue for women’s right to subjectivity (in the sense of being an independent agent acting in the world). But this elevation of female friendships, although eroticized, also served to protect women’s friendships from accusations of sexual transgression.
This elevation required as premise that women be elevated to a social status that was worthy of friendship, in contrast to earlier views that considered only men to have this potential (and considered male-female friendships as impossible due to the difference in worthiness). Conduct manuals of the 17th century instructed men and women on how to perform this worthiness, but in gendered and class-anchored ways that excluded women from the potential for true friendships. In contrast to this instructive literature, women’s writings of the era stake a clear claim to women’s ability to form intimate friendships as strong and worthy as those of men. But in contrast to men’s discourse about male friendships, there is a strain in women’s discourse that emphasizes the need to have the power to perform friendship--a power that at its heart required freedom from the demands of men on their lives. This requirement in turn could only be justified by the depth of the emotional bond. And the expression of this depth found its voice in eroticized language.
This deep eroticized bond of female friendship had been expressed in poetry in the 16th century, in language that contrasts their united hearts or spirits with the desired uniting of their bodies. With women’s increased access to publication in the 17th century, a larger volume of work on similar themes begins to circulate. (The text provides the names and references to a great many women poets in this section, which are too many to list here.) The greater part of this body of literature involves poems addressed from one woman to another, in what Lanser labels “sapphic apostrophe”. The genre contains a tension revolving around issues of jealousy, separation, and criticism of marriage as an institution.
Lanser suggests that while some individual participants in this genre may have been motivated by erotic desire for women, the rise of the phenomenon as a whole is difficult to explain as a purely personal expression. Criticism of the genre identifies the awkward balancing point between “laudable” and “blameable” behavior where intimate friendships are praiseworthy only up to the point when they interfere with marriage and the duties thereof. The extremes of modern critical interpretation pair an interpretation of the genre as always personally erotically motivated with an interpretation that it is never more than conventional art and flattery. Lanser suggests a middle ground: that whatever other purpose the poetry may have served on an individual basis, it represented a sort of collective public project in reframing women’s place in society. The body of work, taken as a whole, created a concept of female subjecthood that could stand up to and with the emerging male humanist on a near equal basis. The sapphic imagery enables this by creating a context for women to assert sovereignty over their persons and to envision a separation (whether spiritual or physical) from male domination.
This imperative to separation became embodied in literary visions such as Margaret Cavendish’s all-female Convent of Pleasure and a long succession of separatist eutopias following it such as Millenium Hall. [Although Lanser does not at this point make comparisons with modern political movements, I can’t help but find echoes of “political lesbian separatism”.]
The elevation of female friendship became part of establishment ideals by the later 18th century, but the literature of this phenomenon makes clear that it is a class-anchored phenomenon. Only well-born women are considered for entrance to these literary female utopias, however much their designers might sympathize with the plight of working class women. This is also the context in which eroticized female friendships fracture along class lines with upper class women’s bonds being treated as invariably chaste and non-sexual (even when eroticized in description) while lower class women’s erotic interactions were framed as transgressive. This, in turn, led to what Lanser calls a “compensatory conservatism” which muted the more vivid expressions of eroticism to align the rhetoric more with the image.
In company with this, as the 18th century progresses, the depictions of cross-gender relations become organized around the notion of complementary difference (in contrast with the more medieval notion of female incompleteness). That is, women are accepted to be equivalent to men but only so long as they remain different, avoiding challenging men in male spheres.
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. And viewing the development of the novel from the viewpoint of sapphic presence highlights how traditional versions of that development erase the significant contributions of works by and about women.
In this context Lanser notes the key themes of female intimacy, as with the common trope of the female confidant as narrator, the themes of women saving each other in gothic and Romantic plots, and the overt sapphic content of early examples and precursors of the genre such as La Celestina, Orlando Furioso, Rosalynde, and Ragionamenti.
The motif of a woman's sexual initiation by another woman is common in early erotic novels, such as L'academie des dames. (The discusstion mentions many more titles than I include here.) Moving into the 18th century, the sapphic dialogue (i.e., two women discussing sapphic activity or possibility) shifts to the sapphic anecdote (i.e., a third party describing sapphic activity), reducing its presence (or at least its centrality) in the erotic novel. At the same time, connections between women continue as a central theme in the domestic novel and in the use of an intimate female confidant as a narrative device.
The picaresque novel (literally, the story of a rogue) seems outwardly to be a male preserve, given its themes of mobility, class struggle, and social satire, but there are female-centered examples among the earliest in the genre, and female presence continues in works that emphasized gender by prefixing "female" to roles such as wanderer or traveler in the title. More than these, Lanser notes a sizable body of 17-18th century examples involving a transgressive, often morally ambiguous woman, moving through places and episodes, outwitting male characters and often deploying gender disguise. Another common theme is the coupling of female characters in partnerships of variable intimacy either as allies against men who have wronged them in specific, or in general rejection of men and heterosexual marriage.
The most explicitly sapphic novels include several styled as (auto)biographical such as The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, the story of Catherina Vizzani Romana, De Bredashe Heldinne, and Journey Through Every Stage of Life. A unifying feature at these stories is a tendency toward first person narration and a deep sympathy for the narrator. The protagonists in some of the most overtly sapphic novels, such as Mademoiselle de Richelieu and Catharine Vizzani, are acquitted of being driven by physiology, but then must be understood as being attracted to women by personal preference.
Unlike domestic novels where female intimacy co-exists with heterosexual marriage, the picaresque typically rejects it. [It occurs to me to wonder if someone has drawn up an annotated bibliography of novels in this general category. I suspect there is such a list in at least one of the book's I've covered already.] Lanser notes the common thread of the relationship between sexual liberty and economic means, whether it is wealth enabling the freedom of the characters or the need for mutual economic support that brings them together.
The plentiful sapphic picaresque fiction of the mid 18th century challenges the assumption that a shift to “domestic realism” was a natural evolution of the novel in that period. Lanser suggests that this shift was not at all natural, but was a way of countering and containing fictional women in the face of the mobility and freedom of the women in these books. More libertine subgroups of fiction were reducing sapphic encounters to passing anecdotes rather than a central theme. But as with Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and other similar but less famous works, sapphic themes follow women into domesticity even in the face of apparent heterosexual triumph.
Here we find a different version of the metamorphic plot: rather than the woman herself transforming to resolve the question of woman+woman, the story focuses on a female protagonist’s change of intimacy and allegiance from a female friend to a male partner. The sapphic character is introduced evidently solely for the purpose of being rejected--an intrusion that makes sense more in the context of the prior genre prevalence of sapphic success. The bold, independent, “mannish” woman is now framed as an object of scorn and ridicule from whose influence the heroine must be rescued and domesticated. Alternately, in novels like Clarissa and Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, the sapphic character is faded into a long-suffering but endlessly loyal friend to a heroine suffering from male oppression (but without a structural alternative to that oppression).
The figure of the confidant creates a context for expressions of intimacy between women in the disguise of discussing heterosexual relations. The female confidant--either as participant in the story, or as invisible recipient of the narrator’s story--becomes a hallmark of the domestic novel. It would be easy to view plots of this type as faded and attenuated versions of the sapphic novel, but the continuing presence of female intimacy as an essential plot element is worth noting in contrast to a hypothetical absence of relations between women. [Note: Consider in this context the ongoing discussion around the “Bechdel test” regarding the presence of women and their relationships in media. The erotic potential of women’s relationships might be challenged in these novels, but the central importance of women’s friendships and relationships was taken for granted.]
The rise of the “gothic” novel in the late 18th century continues the themes seen in Clarissa and Julie, but where the toxic heterosexual domesticity is presented as a situation in need of rescue rather than a default that must be endured (or perhaps outlasted). In a context where concerns about women’s rights and revolutionary sentiments are rising, the sapphic relationship often appears to stand in for these challenges to the existing social order. Women are allowed to rescue women, driven by the intensity of their emotional bond.
Taking a geographic view, around 1800, the sapphic presence in novels is more visible in Germany than in France and England, where it had flourished previously. Both the novel as a format, and attention to sapphic themes in particular, emerge in parallel in Germany in the late 18th century. The English novel is moving toward more conservative themes with a focus on “realism”. But while English novels continued to have a strong domestic presence, France sees increasing masculinization of the novel, especially first person narratives--a turn not conducive to presenting female confidants and intimacies. Sapphic themes are relatively absent in French novels ca. 1800, though a few sapphic plots slip through even in this masculinized context, as in Mademoiselle de Maupin and La fille aux yeux d’or.
The fate of sapphic themes in English novels in this period can be explored in Austen, where intimate female friendships are lightly satirized as overly sentimental and fraught with peril if made unworthily. Close friendships between sisters are valorized, while those between non-kin (as in Emma or Sense and Sensibility) are seen as unwise, unequal, and potentially treacherous.
In France in the later 18th century there arose the motif of secret societies of sapphists "more mysterious than the Freemasons" that existed to initiate women into lesbianism, to serve the pleasures of their members, and to achieve unsavory political ends. The existence of these formal organizations was purely fictitious. Their alleged membership typically included unpopular political and social figures. And their alleged purpose was ostensibly to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society, as an allegory for disrupting other social frameworks.
Hostility against fictitious sapphic organizations stood in for hostility toward both powerful women and toward the rising influence of clubs and secret societies of all types. Thus the sapphic society stood in for suspicion of the influence of elite secret groups. The coterie of women around Queen Marie Antoinette was a particular target of this motif, tying sapphic anxiety to concerns about class and about conspiracy versus collectivity. The furor over sapphic sects burned itself out via dystopic extremes by the end of the century, to be replaced by a focus on bourgeois domestic sexuality grounded in gender difference.
In contrast to themes of "newness," discourse around sapphic sects typically made recourse to classical models, though often emphasizing the blatant sexual practices as unprecedented. Although most extreme in France, the "sapphic sect" motif was also popular in English political discourse and satire. There, along with certain prominent social figures, the rumors often targeted actresses and intellectuals. The literature describing these fictitious sapphic sects sometimes served the additional purpose of pornography, envisioning brothels organized to serve the female members and lovingly describing the initiation of girls who served in them.
Lanser provides a background for the rise of social clubs of all types and the concomitant focus on similitude of interests in association as contrasted with associations based on class, family, and other static characteristics. Although sapphic satires often focused on groups of elite women, they also addressed the potential for "interest groups" of this type to bring together individuals of all classes and backgrounds as equals (a concern also aimed at the Freemasons) with their potential to disrupt stable hierarchies. This creates the interesting contradiction that sapphic sects were simultaneously coded as aristocratic and as inappropriately egalitarian.
The sentiment in post-revolutionary France against secret societies of all kinds helped paint feminist and separatist organizations in general as suspiciously sapphic. This, in turn, pushed upper class and intellectual feminists into an emphasis on anti-eroticism in relations between women, seen for example in the work of Wollstonecraft and the rise of the motif of "romantic friendship" among upper class women. The portrayal of sapphic eroticism is then shifted toward lower class women, framed as monstrous, and increasingly treated as criminal.
The increasing divide between the derided image of erotic sapphic relations and the praiseworthy image of female domesticity, epitomized by non-erotic woman+woman couples, is played out in attitudes toward certain couples. The “Ladies of Llangollen” (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were firmly established in the popular imagination as the model of non-sexual romantic friendship. This desexualization of female couples (at least, those belonging to the genteel classes and intellectual circles) enabled sapphic discourse to lay claim to the increasingly important field of domesticity, rather than being seen as antithetical to it.
Female couples could simultaneously support the values of “companionate domesticity” and of individualism, but as these sets of values began to diverge, it was hard to support both at the same time. Romanticism, in general, supported transgression to the extent that it privileged individualism over social conformity, chosen affinities over prescriptive ones. This would seem a natural context for chosen affinities between women to be celebrated. But they are celebrated in the isolated individual couple, not in the collective movement that had been discredited by the sapphic sects motif. By being isolated, these couples can be idolized safely as a dead end.
Lanser explores how these themes are set out in the novels Paul et Virginie (which concerns two women forming a family after being betrayed in various ways by heterosexual relations) and Het Land (similarly portraying two women forming an idyllic marriage-like bond, this time in rejection of heterosexual relations). The Ladies of Llangollen follow this same model, living together in rustic retreat as an inseparable couple, and other similarly idealized couples are noted. In true Romantic fashion, the Ladies were the subject of elegaic poems (by poets as noteworthy as Wordsworth) that focused, not so much on the joys of their life together, but on the projected image of their eventual shared grave. The sentimentalized image contrasts oddly with Wordsworth’s private account of meeting the Ladies in person, where he described them as “curious” and “odd”. All that is erased in the poem, which turns them into pure sentimental symbol.
The chapter concludes with a consideration of the poem “Rosalind and Helen”, celebrating a similarly idyllic female couple, but also with an examination of the concept of “irregularity” as appearing in the titles and structures of Romantic verses on female couples. This poem is viewed in contrast to Coleridge’s “Christabel” which begins with a clearly erotic encounter between two women (though one shrouded in vague language and metaphor). The negative reception to “Christabel” demonstrates the shift in public attitude toward depiction of the sapphic.
In the concluding chapter, Lanser summarizes the themes of the study. One unifying feature of the period under study is the description of woman+woman as “new” and “unprecedented”, indicating the inability of social frameworks to resolve sapphic challenges. Sapphic relations were not the only challenge to the inherent contradictions of the age, such as the principle of consensual government coexisting with colonial slavery. But the close connection between sapphic discourse and debates about individualism, women’s rights, and the challenge to tradition and orthodoxy show the ways in which sapphic imagery was used to reflect and represent the extremes of those movements, for good or ill. Sapphic discourse could be a safety valve, an ideal, or a weapon of silencing and suppression. With the disruptions of the 18th century settling into the more solidified class and gender-specific identities of the early 19th century, the use of public sapphic discourse as a tool for engaging with those disruptions diminishes.
Lanser re-emphasizes that her concern here is with the use of the idea of the sapphic in public discourse, not with the lives of actual women in romantic or erotic relationships. But the changes in public discourse affected what strategies were available for those women to deflect dangerous interest in their private lives.