Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
The word “intimacy” is chosen for the focus of this book deliberately for its ambiguity of meaning. It reflects both openness within relationships and privacy protecting those relationships. “Intimacy” can both indicate close friendship and be a euphemism for sex. Wahl looks at the late 17th through 18th centuries in England and France to untangle the meanings of “female intimacy”, originally intrigued by the correspondence between Denis Diderot (author of La Religieuse) and Sophie Volland, whose “intimacy” with other women provoked jealousy in Diderot and veiled hints of sexual impropriety. Diderot never directly accused Volland of having sex with women, but spoke of her “liking pretty women” and of her friend’s “voluptuous and loving” actions.
At a time when men thought women incapable of “true friendship”, how were relations between women viewed? What motivations and purpose were they thought to have? While using the language of love, were they in fact homoerotic?
Wahl is not looking for “lesbian” representation as such, but looking more broadly for dynamics that are inclusive of homosexuality. She follows Foucault, while recognizing his deficiencies with regard to women’s erasure. In the review of theory, Laqueur’s one-sex to two-sex theory is noted.
The creation, in the 18th century, of the middle class “domestic woman” relates to the rise of bourgeois power. But this focus marginalizes anything outside the middle class heterosexual norm. This era saw a conflict between philosophies that viewed women and men as essentially similar, or as fundamentally different. But the focus on differences between the sexes can erase equally important differences among women.
Wahl discusses the meaning of lesbian (in)visibility (cf. Terry Castle) and takes as a starting position that lesbian sex has existed across time, culture, and class, but that specific practices are shaped by culture and era. She rejects a sharp distinction between “sexual behavior” and “erotic but non-sexual behavior”, which is often used in order to narrow and contain the scope of what may be called “lesbian” (critiquing Faderman on this point). The distinction between “romantic friendship” and “lesbian” is treated as artificial and meaningless.
Wahl avoids speaking in terms of “identity” or “choice” in sexuality but argues for a fluid, variable and contradictory model of sexual experience. In this era, we see the image--both for men and women--of a person who enjoys relationships with both sexes simultaneously with no conflict, who sees them as complementary and distinct experiences.
The author notes that transgressive categories like “hermaphrodite” and cross-dressing/gender-disguise figures can identify points of cultureal anxiety, but chooses to focus on Traub’s “fem-fem” dynamic in this book. Wahl treats marriage, not as identical to heterosexuality and inherently excluding homoerotic bonds, but as alignedwith heterosexuality and with reproductive sexuality. Female intimacy can act within or across heterosexual institutions independently of them.
The book will use two reference models as a lens: “sexualized” and “idealized”. These are used to examine not only women’s lives but societies fantasies about their lives.
17-18th century ideas about female intimacy are shaped by a contest between the one-sex and two-sex models. Are women “lesser men” or are they something entirely separate from men? There is a parallel contrast between viewing fem-fem love as a “harmless life stage” that all women might experience, to seeing women’s same-sex desire as a force equal to or stronger than male-female desire.
The “idealized” model of female intimacy is linked to the rising image of domesticity, companionate marriage, and a focus on woman as mother rather than as wife. Women’s friendship shifted to filling a place formerly held by family networks. Even the “companionate marriage” ideal--which in theory held that a husband and wife should be equal (or at least complementary) companions in marriage--strengthened female friendships, as it tended to result in women being companions to their husbands without women receiving the same companionate support in return. Instead, women turned to each other for companionship and support. They worked to create ideal models of friendship and rejected the misogynistic position of the male tradition of platonic friendship which held that women were incapable of “true friendship”. As these efforts adopted the language of courtly love, they produced homoerotic overtones that some historians reject (as mere convention) and others seize upon (as reflecting genuine emotions). Poet Katherine Philips serves as a lens for this .
The erotic and idealized models of female intimacy played out in the same woman-centered social spheres: convents, schools, salons. As this conflict played out, commentary on female intimacy became increasingly satiric, projecting anxieties about the irrelevance of men onto an exaggeratedly decadent elite, in order to elevate middle-class domestic femininity. The reasonable ideals of female equality in the Age of Enlightenment were rejected by male philosophers as the extreme result of the excesses of female intimacy.
Wahl notes the problem that the “sexualized” model is based almost entirely on men’s writings, creating problems for interpretation. The book will conclude with the political uses of sexualized female intimacy to target “aristocratic decadence” in general.
Chapter 1: The Tribade, the Hermaphrodite, and Other “Lesbian” Figures in Medical and Legal Discourse
John Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” demonstrates how the image of sexual relations between women was contained by treating it as autoerotic (i.e., because it is based on similarity, the women in essence love themselves) and barren, while also safely locating women’s same-sex desire in the past. But works like this are part of a growing cultural awareness of female homosexuality. There is an increase in prosecutions of women for sodomy in France and elsewhere on the continent, alongside translations of classical sources mentioning tribadism, medical interest in the clitoris, concern with regulating non-procreative sex (especially masturbation), and the emergency of pornography as a literature, especially featuring sex between women.
These movements contradict the oft-cited presumption that sex between women was rarely represented before the 19th century. There is a wealth of representation in law, classics, medical, libertine, and erotic pseudoscientific texts, all of which fed into the new genre of pornography. French sources were particularly rich in these themes.
The idea that women could satisfy their erotic desires without men (which meant without pregnancy or risk of venereal disease) provoked anxiety for the institution of marriage and reproduction. This linkage of f/f sex with fears of marriage resistance and avoidance of reproduction began to link feminism with accusations of anti-maternalism.
France had, perhaps, the longest tradition of legal prosecution of f/f sex, though early laws confusingly transfer male-specific language to their discussion of female sodomy. Both the language of laws and the prescribed punishments were often worded in ways that obscured the exact nature of the acts being punished. Wahl mentions the medieval story of Yde and Olive as an example of anxiety about “what women do”. [Note: This seems a bit out of place in the timeline, but she’s recapitulating the entire French history of legal attitudes toward female sodomy.] French legal cases in the mid 16th to mid 17th century often revolve around gender disguise or suspicions of physiological hermaphroditism, which were interpreted under the definition of sodomy.
But the legal premise [as it had evolved by this date] that sodomy required penetration conflicted with the libertine position that female couples could not have satisfying sex because penetration was not involved. This may have contributed to the rising popular image of the “phallic clitoris” as well as a fascination with dildoes. These created a sexual transgression that was worthy of condemnation.
England stands apart in its absence of legal references to female homosexuality and a lack of prosecutions for it. One can find, in fact, a deliberate omission of f/f possibilities in statutes adapted from texts on both homosexuality and bestiality, where the originals treated men and women as potentially equally participating in both, but the English adaptation mentions women only with regard to bestiality. Various opinions are noted for this relative lack of legal interest in women’s same-sex activities. But England was also, in practice, more tolerant of m/m relations in this era, and in both cases tended to displace the image of homosexuality onto foreign cultures, locations, and individuals.
Legal discourse began to lean on medical “expert witness” to guide questions of gender/sexuality. French cases are cited where medical examination “saved” women from punishment for female sodomy by supposedly demonstrating that they were hermaphrodites.
There was a growing concern about a link between anatomy and f/f sex. In this context, a new theory arose that f/f sex and female masturbation could causeclitoral enlargement, not simply be enabled by it. This was linked to an Arabic tradition of medical writings that associated the clitoris with excess of female desire. The source of these texts then created an association of enlarged clitorises with Arabic, Egyptian, and African women and introduced the idea of treatment by clitoridectomy (though this “treatment” did not become an established European practice until later).
If f/f sex could create “masculine” anatomy that then enabled penetrative sex, then maybe it wasn’t quite so “barren” after all. When tribadism could be viewed as nothing more than mutual masturbation, it wasn’t dangerous to heterosexual institutions, but if it could replace the penis, that was another matter. This shift in imagery also created the idea that the effects of f/f sex were inevitably “visible” on the body. The idea of clitoral hypertrophy entered English texts in the 17th century but wasn’t accompanied by any call to create penalties against its supposed use. English texts often othered the phenomenon entirely and claimed that English women didn’t exhibit it. [Note: This may have been a consequence of English authors engaging in scientific observation and failing to identify actual examples, while still presenting foreign descriptions as fact.]
But with the influx of French culture at the restoration of the English monarchy, the idea of f/f desire as an “open secret” took hold in England. During this same era, the image of the hermaphrodite expanded from an anatomical concept to an allegorical one, representing the dissolution of gender boundaries and becoming an icon of sexual deviance. [Note: My reading has suggested that the metaphorical hermaphrodite arose as an image in England in the early 17th century, if not earlier, and was well established by the Restoration.]
Medical interest in both “normal” and “deviant” anatomy became a cover for prurient interests, and the boundary between medical texts and pornography became fuzzy. Another culturally relevant feature of these medical texts is that they increasingly appeared in the vernacular language, providing a wider reach into (literate) society. Focus on the clitoris came to replace the idea of the hermaphrodite as a representation of anxiety about lesbianism. If the clitoris gave all women the ability to satisfy themselves and each other, what of men?
The theory that stimulation caused enlargement of the clitoris turned attention to masturbation in general. 18th century texts encouraged schoolmistresses to keep an eye out for the practice among students. Such texts both denied that masturbation was common among women and spread the knowledge of its possibility. This is only one example of the generally contradictory nature of the genre.
Semi-pornographic “confession” letters about masturbation (and f/f sex, though the distinction was not always clear) tied sexual knowledge to the practice of reading, as well as well as to cross-class relationships. The framing of such activities as “masturbation” diverted attention from the homosexual nature of the context.
In the mid 18th century in England there was a rise of “female husband” stories. Images of female homosexuality expanded to include passing women and the demimonde of actresses and prostitutes. The idea of the clitoral tribade was split off to form an idea of monstrosity apart from everyday social experience.
Chapter 2 - Representations of the Tribade in Libertine Literature
In parallel with medical interest in the hermaphrodite and tribade, French libertine literature and “gallant” literature “rediscovered” the tribade via classical sources and Italian pornographic literature. Meanwhile, in England, poets such as John Donne and Ben Jonson used the images of the tribade or fricatrice in satire and erotic writing. Playwright and poet Aphra Behn used the idea of the hermaphrodite to explore f/f desire. These uses are not new, but expand on images of f/f desire in Renaissance and classical literature.
One can find several organizing themes within these literary representations, especially viewing f/f desire as a passing developmental stage that gives way to heterosexuality, or as a consequence of gender play or gender disguise, or as a mythological motif. Homoeroticism could be found in plays, romances, and poetry, with both men and women depicted as enjoying desire for both sexes.
Homoerotic themes on the stage are well studied. Wahl looks instead at the specific genre of libertine writings, that focus on explicitly erotic representations and use the tribade as a “scandalous” and transgressive figure. The authors are primarily male, with Aphra Behn being the notable exception in writing openly of f/f desire and interrogating the misogyny and gender constraints that her contemporaries were swimming in.
French libertine writers presented themselves as direct observers/reporters and took at least the appearance of a moral stance, following the tone of the medical literature. They set themselves u as judges of “natural” law to identify those who broke it. Historians often treat this genre either as erotic fantasies or as defamatory gossip while accepting the “amused tolerance” of their stance as sincere. Thus, these historians consider libertine writings on f/f desire to demonstrate its insignificance and inconsequentiality. Wahl argues for seeing a more complex reaction that reveals the men’s desires and fears around f/f sex.
Several specific texts are examined, starting with Brantôme, who pretty much catalogs the libertine views of female sexuality. He combines classical literary examples with contemporary anecdotes, depicting f/f sex simultaneously as a rediscovery of classical practices and as a foreign import from Italy. He adopts a geographic polarity: southern cultures are more passionate, northern ones less adventurous. But sexual knowledge could be transmitted between them like a disease. [Note: Of course, in turn, when English writers tackled the “transmission” theory of f/f sex, they saw France as the source of infection.]
Brantôme raises the question of whether f/f sex constitutes adultery. (A great deal of his work focuses on extramarital sex in general, in line with gallantculture.) He primarily presents f/f sex as a preferred alternative to adultery with men, but also alleges that it can be a symptom or a cause of uncontrolled desire in general. But then he sidesteps the implications of this by focusing on f/f sex as an outlet for virgins and widows, whose activities wouldn’t challenge the institution of marriage.
F/f sex is ok “in the absence of men”, but even depicting it as a “safe” outlet undermines the assertion that f/f sex can’t compete with m/f sex. He repeatedly fails to integrate the idea that f/f desire inevitably gives way to m/f relationships with the actual anecdotes he presents in which women are deeply devoted to each other.
Brantôme echoes Italian erotic literature in depicting f/f sex as an “apprenticeship” to unrestrained sex with men, linking tribades and prostitutes via voyeuristic anecdotes in which his descriptions focus on a male observer. Woven throughout Brantôme’s anecdotes are the message that women will be punished for their same-sex acts, not by an external justice, but as an inevitable “natural” consequence. Dildoes cause fatal injury, discovery brings humiliation.
Brantôme’s terminology for f/f sex is slippery. Though terms like “tribade” and “fricatrice” are used, they don’t clearly align with specific practices he describes and may be used allegorically in ways that remove actual women’s sexuality from the picture. We also see this in the poems by Donne, Woodward, and Jonson in which the female image of the Muse introduces the same-sex element. These (male) English poets, while using lesbian imagery, are not clearly speaking of f/f sex at all. [Note: And yet, even the use of lesbian imagery in a figurative sense reflects or creates an awareness of the possibilities in life.]
Wahl addresses two assumptions to contradict them: that female homosexuality was not an “available category” in early modern England, and that the few clear examples of f/f sex stand apart from other forms of transgressive sexuality. She specifically challenges Alan Bray’s assertion that female and male homosexuality were not linked in the early modern imagination.
She notes Traub’s contrast between “tribade sexuality” involving some degree of masculine performance, and “femme” desire, that had no physical signifier (whether in dress, in the use of a dildo, or in being marked on the body via the clitoris). “Femme” modes were easier to view as compatible with a normative life path ending in reproductive sexuality. Traub’s polarities are blurred in Donne’s poem “Sapho to Philaenis” and in Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda”. These two works also bookend a period of relative tolerance for f/f sex, prior to the rise of satirical takes in the early 18th century. [Note: Given the relative paucity of material, I’m not sure how solidly one can speak of a “period of relative tolerance” when it also included things like Jonson’s attack on Cecelia Bulstrode.]
Donne envisions an “innocent” self-loving relationship between Sapho and Philaenis that explicitly contrasts with m/f sex as “leaving a mark”. The imagery is utopian. Behn blurs the polarities by envisioning a gender-fluid Clarinda who leans “masculine” when actively pursuing desire of a female beloved, while being viewed as a safely “innocent” target of a woman’s affection. The poem praises Clarinda in alternately male and female terms: female beauty, but male-coded behavior. She is desirable to both men and women because she is both male and female. Behn’s use of a plural subject as the observer intimates that all women might be drawn to Clarinda, and that they may remain innocent in that love as they love a woman, not a man.
[Note: It occurs to me that part of the “is lesbianism dangerous” dilemma for writers in this era boils down to a dual meaning of “inconsequence”. If f/f sex is inconsequential/unimportant then it isn’t a challenge to reproductive sex, but becausef/f sex is free of “consequence” whether pregnancy, venereal disease, or simply being categorized as adultery, it has inherent advantages over f/m sex. I think this is one of the things Wahl is arguing, but I wanted to restate it in my own words to fix it in my head.]
Behn’s references in the Clarinda poem to Chloris/Alexis (stock pastoral figures) and Hermes/Aphrodite raise the image of the hermaphroditic hybrid who can be lover to either sex while belonging to neither. But Behn can’t escape the cultural framing that views desire for a woman (or active sexual desire in general) as inherently masculine, while framing f/f relations as “innocent” and “friendship” as opposed to passion.
French libertine poets offer another angle on f/f love but one that fits securely with the assumption of ultimate m/f triumph. F/f bonds are defined within a conventional romance dynamic, but designed for a male audience. F/f love is not to be consummated, it is self imposed suffering, it falls short of “the real thing”. They do wrong to refuse themselves to men. But within this context, f/f love is depicted as tender, egalitarian, and bewildering to men.
The themes of an almost sympathetic tolerance of f/f love and an insistence on heterosexual conversion come to a point in the dramatic and poetic works of Benserade. Written for a libertine audience (both male and female) he ventures to depict happy f/f relations, as in Iphis and Ianthe (though only Iphis is consciously aware of the same-sex aspect), while still promising a heterosexual resolution. (The couple is allowed a happy wedding night as women, but Iphis’s sex-change is still required to make the marriage itself possible.)
Benserade also wrote about losing a female lover to another woman and this work sharply depicts the limits of male sympathy within the complex reasons why he finds the desertion offensive. He could bear losing his lover to a man, but is miffed that a woman’s love could be strong enough to steal her away. He consoles himself that his lover will inevitably be abandoned in turn for a man. He asserts that women are incomplete without a man and therefore two incomplete things can’t achieve completion together. [Note: In the male-authored texts comparing f/f and f/m love, one can see the underpinnings of a major motif in modern biphobia: that a woman who is capable of desiring both women and men will inevitably, at some point, choose men over women. Within the time-scope of Wahl’s study, this isn’t a question of “men can offer marriage and women can’t” because the entire debate concerns gallantrelations apart from marriage.]
In summary, these representations of f/f sexuality illustrate an increasing awareness of the potential for sexual and erotic relations between women, with a consequent concern for policing non-reproductive sexuality, represented in the form of the clitoris. Yet within this context, there are glimpses of the ability to imagine f/f love in utopian terms, even if “invisible”. The conflict is between visibility and consequent male anxiety on the one side, and invisibility and hence inconsequentialness on the other.
Chapter 3 - L’Amour Galantand Tendre Amitié: Love and Friendship Outside the Bonds of Marriage
Libertinism was not the only context in which women pushed back against their sole role being objects of exchange in the marriage economy. In France, upper class ambivalence (by both sexes) toward marriage is illuminated by “galanterie” (roughly similar to “courtly love” in the sense of a culture of extramarital social and sexual relationships). Marriage was viewed as unbearable bondage in contrast to the ideals of friendship, which were based on free association.
English society showed less open disdain for marriage, but had the same conflicts between the economic and emotional dynamics. In England, gender segregation was a barrier to the ideal of “companionate marriage”, which posited emotional as well as economic bonds. Companionate marriage expected the abandoning of networks of same-sex friendships in favor of a focus on the spouse. Those friendships included familial, political, and business connections and were expected to involve strong emotional bonds as well as common interests. Gender segregation before marriage (and assumptions that m/f relationships were inherently erotic) meant that friendships were overwhelmingly same-sex. But formal discourse around the concept of friendship treated it as male-gendered -- as something women were not able to access in its purest form. Patterns of work and leisure tended to reinforce gender segregation after marriage, especially in the middle class.
In France, the stronger continued prevalence of arranged marriage for family advancement led to a more pervasive extra-marital social life. (Not necessarily in the sexual sense of “extra-marital”.) The nobility treated marriage as irrelevant to the organization of private life. The court and salon offered a chance for women to form bonds of “amitié” (amity, friendship) with both men and women. Those who felt vulnerable to sexual gossip might stick to female friendships. The bonds of amitiébetween women offered a chance for self-definition outside the strict categories of virgin, wife, and widow.
Within this context, the theme of a pastoral retreat from the world (whether actual or via imagery) became popular. Pastoral themes represented a setting apart of a conceptual space in which emotional ideals had free rein. While male philosophers argued that women’s souls were too weak for the weight of friendship, the women simply went about the business of creating passionate friendships and networks based on emotional bonds, such as Katherine Philips’ “Society of Friendship”.
Companionate marriage may have been more a theory than a practice. While same-sex friendships were viewed as an acceptable part of “polite society”, Wahl argues that discourse around the topic often worked to distract from a less acceptable political or sexual subtext. F/f friendship was framed in platonic terms, but to contrast with the inherent sexualization of m/f relations. Women were portrayed in didactic literature as “instinctively modest” but it was a modesty that evidently required constant reinforcement and warnings about the consequences of failure. Libertine writers treated women’s platonic friendships as masking ambition and vanity, with lesbianism included as a substitute when men were not accessible, the “polite” literature of f/f friendships have an underlayer of erotic and political potential that cannot be entirely erased -- specifically due to an awareness of libertine framings. Although late in the scope o this book, the ambivalent discourse around the Ladies of Llangollen illustrate this point.
Women participated extensively in the polite discourse of f/f friendship and--unlike male writers--had to negotiate the accusations of “immodesty” in writing publicly at all (on this or any subject). The idealization and rituals of friendship offered an escape from the sexualization of public writing, regardless of the nature of those friendships.
The concept of “companionate marriage” was developed by historians who considered it to represent a shift in, and resolution of, the conflict over the ideals of egalitarian friendship and the traditional gender hierarchy in marriage. But this has been challenged as being based on a specifically English change in women’s ability to have choice in marriage partners (or to avoid marriage entirely). It is less clear that companionate marriage as a concept actively benefitted women within marriage in the ways it was intended to benefit men. The discourse around affection within marriage was largely focused on men’s needs and desires. And it is far from clear that companionate marriage existed in widespread practice as opposed to being promoted in Protestant ideology.
If men were admonished to look within marriage for their sexual satisfaction, women were expected to supply companionship, sexual pleasure, and domestic labor, as well as submissive obedience. At the same time, these male-authored prescriptions for the ideal marriage often lament that ideal as unattainable.
The English Civil War brought social upheavals of all types, and these challenges to existing marriage ideals were often viewed as representing the extreme and radical edges of Protestantism, lumped alongside calls for divorce, polygamy, and free love--calls that, at heart, were about managing men’s sexual freedom.
Even the tentative moves toward marriage reform under the English Interregnum were swept back into the domestic sphere with the Restoration and the rise of a misogynist libertine code that viewed women as sexual objects. Libertine literature portrayed marriage as a source of misery and confinement (for men).
Meanwhile, changes to agricultural and home-based industry were pushing women out of the market economy, reinforcing the belief that women required marriage for economic viability. Marriage became women’s primary employment. Reforms under the Marriage Act of 1753 had the intent of regularizing practices to prevent secret marriages, bigamy, and de facto divorces, though the reforms had the side effect of eliminating some practices that benefitted women (such as those de facto divorces, but also the occasional f/f marriage that had the barest cover of gender disguise). The Marriage Act require parental consent to underage marriage, required that marriages be performed by an Anglican clergyman (with limited religious exemptions) in a church, either with prior announcement (bans) or by a special license. Overall, these changes strengthened parental and state control over marriage.
Some women intellectuals echoed the libertine distaste for marriage, but from the view that it turned women into little more than servants or slaves. They extolled the joys of being an unmarried woman, despite social censure that they were failing to fulfill women’s “purpose”, i.e., procreation.
Aristocratic women were, in some cases, more able to avoid marriage, but even as they did, accusations began circulating that (older) women who urged (younger) women to remain single and choose female friendships instead were acting from seductive ulterior motives in wooing them away from a normative life path. This theme is made overt in e.g., the novel Pamela.
Within the narrow economic opportunities for unmarried English gentlewomen in the 18th century, the position of “paid companion” was one option. [Note: On this, Wahl references Rizzo 1994, which I will be covering next.] But in the 18th century, female critiques of marriage shifted more from public to private writings, to rise again at the end of the 18th century from authors such as Wollstonecraft.
By the mid 18th century, English women’s fates had become more closely bound to marriage than before. [Note: I wish Wahl had thrown in some demographic statistics here, which are often in conflict with the themes in public discourse.] There was a cultural emphasis on providing a “moral and emotional center of the home.” Within this context, women’s education was viewed as a means of making her a more interesting companion for her husband, not for her own intellectual development. The nascent image of companionate marriage as mutuality shifted sideways into the “separate spheres” ideal, with the domestic realm gendered as female.
France never really went in for companionate marriage as a concept until well into the 18th century. In the mid 18th century, upper class writers still found the English ideal of a husband and wife voluntarily enjoying each other’s company to be somewhat absurd. When the idea of “married love” finally did take hold in France, some viewed it specifically as an English import. The church was, peculiarly, another source of antagonism to companionate marriage in France. Women were taught to view marriage as a duty and penance, and men were warned against too great a tenderness for their wives, lest it lead them to illicit sexual practices in order to spare their wives from unwanted pregnancies.
But the greater prevalence of arranged marriages of alliance in France was the greatest bar to viewing spouses as companions. This was not only due to personal attraction playing no role in the arrangements, but to the view that one’s chief loyalty should be toward one’s birth family, not towards a spouse.
On a personal level, women might disfavor marriage for spiritual reasons or from fear of the risks of pregnancy. Women writing fiction often gave their heroines the ability to refuse marriage in ways they themselves couldn’t access. [Note: this is the era of the “salon fairy tales”, which were often thinly disguised satires on upper class French marriage dynamics.] When upper class women had the ability to resist marriage (or remarriage, in the case of widows), they might do so, describing it as slavery and oppression. [Note: “slavery” was not entirely hyperbole here. Class did not exempt women from being physically, sexually, and psychologically abused even to the point of murder by husbands who were considered to be legally within their rights to do so.]
As in England, control over marriage began to shift from the church to the state and to increasing parental control, attacking the issues of clandestine marriages and marriage by abduction. But women were de facto more disadvantaged by these changes than men were. Preserving control over the transmission of inheritance was a major motivation.
One genre of women’s writing in the late 17th century were biographical novels detailing abuses within marriage, in part as a counter to the popular view of non-compliant wives as “notorious women” who were bent on the destruction of family reputations. Instead they portrayed wives in impossible situations trying to find some escape or mitigation.
Driven by all these factors, the resulting upper class disdain for marital relations was later used in Revolutionary propaganda as evidence of libertinism and decadence.
Companionate marriage had more fertile ground among the French middle class, though middle class marriages were just as likely to be arranged for economic reasons. Philosophers began to promote the ideal of “happiness in marriage” but primarily for the husband. The wife’s role was to create that happiness for him. Even those texts that purported to support women did so in a framework that promoted an ideal of domestic fulfillment within the roles of wife and mother.
At the same time, if women’s satisfaction withinmarriage was argued to come from the rearing of children, then obviously the purpose of women as a whole was to marry for that purpose. This was dressed up in the language of philosophy as being “the order of nature.” Women were intended for the production and care of children which, if done correctly, should occupy all their time and attention, leaving no space for other types of personal fulfillment.
This philosophy offered a new attack on the aristocracy, who had an established culture of handing children over to wet-nurses and nursery staff. Within the new ideal of domesticity, aristocratic mothers were “unnatural” as also evidenced by the culture of adultery and sexual license (galanterie).
Aristocratic women were attacked for their relative social autonomy (in the sense of freely associating with men not their husbands, or hanging out with female friends rather than attending to their children). They were especially criticized for a lack of “proper” maternal feelings. Underlying much of this preoccupation with motherhood was a fear of depopulation. There was a genuine anxiety that women had few rational reasons to choose marriage and motherhood if they had alternatives. They must be coaxed and bullied into choosing procreation by framing it as the only “natural” and acceptable life path.
Companionate marriage held out the illusion of greater freedom for women in relations with their husbands, but at the cost of institutionalizing political and social inequities under the rubric that women were “naturally not fitted” for public life and the exercise of authority. Only a few truly radical voices suggested that hierarchical power within marriage was unnecessary and undesirable. Not until the Revolution were significant reforms made to French marriage law, lowering the age of consent, forbidding parents to disinherit children who married against their wishes, and allowing for civil divorce.
The last was short-lived, as were many of the more radical calls for gender equality in the Revolutionary era. As the Directoire consolidated power, it found the more conservative, patriarchal version of marriage better aligned with its purposes. The prescribed duties of husband/father and wife/mother were fixed to the new ideals of the citizen. Napoleonic law was, if anything, more repressive to women in marriage than what had gone before. Revolutionary calls for women’s equality were stamped out and ridiculed.
Though both England and France had embraced the ideology of companionate marriage, by the end of the 18th century they both had large gaps between theory and practice. The role of “ideal companion” was gendered female, and women were burdened with responsibility for upholding and becoming symbols of civic order and moral purity.
An American angle on the discourse around companionate marriage sees the advocacy of the ideal as a reaction to women’s sexual and economic independence there, with f/f bonds representing the feared alternatives to marriage.
Women found a space for autonomy outside marriage and the family in homosocial networks of intellectual and affective bonds. These could provide women with the companionship that companionate marriage had promised to men only.
In 17th century France, and only slightly later in England, women began appropriating the classical tradition of amicitia(friendship) for themselves, in despite of men claiming it as male territory. Male writers had long elevated m/m friendship as an ideal not possible within the necessarily unequal realm of marriage. Now women claimed this experience as well. Male dismissal of the possibility of f/f friendship sometimes took the form of explicitly mocking it in homoerotic terms, as in the poetry of Pontus de Tyard and Edmund Waller. [Note: A number of the poems discussed in Wahl are included in my podcast on 16-17th c poetry. https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-25d...
A major proponent of the culture of female tendre amitiéwas Queen Henrietta Maria, King Charles I’s French queen. [Note: the book doesn’t really expand on this reference at this point, but Henrietta Maria is strongly associated with the precieusemovement discussed later, as well as being a conduit for bringing French social concepts to the English court circle.]
Given men’s satirical and cynical response to f/f friendships, one could argue that they were a more radical challenge to misogyny than concepts like companionate marriage had been. Rather than women seeking equality within m/f relationships, they created separatist female spaces, at least conceptually, in which men were irrelevant. Some traditions of the performance of f/f friendships were borrowed from male neo-Platonic traditions, but others were invented on their own. Not that women consciously set out to create a female-specific version of friendship, but it was shaped by the social dynamics they were forced to operate in.
The cultural constraints on women’s behavior and expression both shaped how they would perform friendship and created different types of opportunities for claiming cultural visibility for those friendships. Within a culture that typically defined women solely in terms of their relationships to men, it was a radical act to work past their assigned cultural roles and function autonomously in the world and with respect to each other.
Women re-shaped the concept of friendship to include attributes like “tenderness” (tendre amitié) and to emphasize emotional bonds (even when framing them as rational and intellectual), thus creating a space in which intimate f/f relations could be eroticized. Tendre amitiécame to designate both ideals previously coded as masculine and practices coded as feminine, such as fragility, delicacy, and sensibility.
Largely barred from the formal academy, the women created a culture of analyzing “questions of the heart” in an echo back to medieval courts of love. Within these debates, though ostensibly centered on the proper conduct of m/f relations, there was a through-line that homosocial amitiéhad logical advantages over the more risky galanterie(and that easily beat out the hypothetical virtues of marriage).
Friendship between women allowed free and honest expression without damage to reputation or being subject to social inequality. The prevailing culture of misogyny and gender hierarchy created a counter-reaction of suspicion that f/f friendships would always give way to heterosexual passion (whether marriage or adultery). Entire genres of (male-focused) literature emerged to demonstrate this supposed inevitability. As men were “superior” creatures, it was assumed that their attractions would always prevail over those of women.
To counter this in turn, salon culture constructed an ideology that prioritized intellectual and spiritual bonds over physical passion and the bodily demands of reproduction. Turning to a Cartesian mind/body duality, salon ideology emphasized the mind as a gender-free zone (as well as explicitly establishing a class-free zone, at least with respect to the leading male intellectuals of the day).
[Note: What can be contradictory here is that these discourses defaulted to assuming carnality to be heterosexual. Although homoerotic possibilities between women eventually made their way into the salon dynamic, they were not part of the basisfor debates and conversations. So even as women expressed sentiments to each other in passionate and bodily terms, this was not at first considered to be in conflict with the emphasis on rationality. But, as Wahl goes on to discuss, this “mind-only” focus could easily be interpreted as asexual or prudish rather than as anti-heterosexual. And when interpreted that way, the contrast with women’s observable passionate expressions could be re-categorized either as hypocrisy or as covert lesbianism.]
Women created a physical space for these discourses within the home, often within a bedchamber (which was more of a public space at the time than in modern understanding) where guests of both sexes would be invited into a private space, turning it into a female version of the “public sphere”, but one in which the female host acted as an autonomous public figure, not as wife or mother.
The salons were also separate from the formal ritual of the court, and so could promote a culture of equality that crossed class as well as gender lines. In addition to the social performance of the salon itself, salon culture revolved around the writing of verse, stories, and letters, largely in private circulation among friend-networks, rather than for publication.
[Note: the socio-political background of the French salons is a massive topic in itself and goes some way to explaining their emergence. See e.g., Bodek 1976 https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-295-bodek-1976-salonieres-and-bluestockings, but a great book on this topic that doesn’t intersect the LHMP enough to blog is Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation(2005).]
One of the aspects of cultural practice that female friends needed to invent was a rhetoric of intimacy -- an established vocabulary for expressing and describing f/f relations that set it apart from the sexually charged vocabulary of galanterie. There were few models in traditional literature for women as speaking, desiring subjects. This meant that when women did express same-sex desire, there was no cultural context for interpreting it neutrally. The options were to de-sexualize it (“they’re just friends playing with imagery they don’t understand”) or to hypersexualize it (the voyeuristic libertine approach).
An example of such an expression is Anne de Rohan’s poem “On a lady called beloved” [Note: see the aforementioned poetry podcast https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-25d... in which the conventions of love poetry are explicitly framing a female author and a female beloved. Historically, there have been contorted efforts to deny the erotic import of works like this in the absence of incontrovertible “proof” of genital relations. An impossible standard of proof has regularly been used to exclude eroticism from expressions of f/f desire. This technique of analytic denial is cataloged in its methods in Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet.
While this dismissive technique of impossible proof belongs to modern scholars, the contemporaries of these expressions of f/f friendship dismissed them from a misogynistic point of view. Women’s co-opting of the language of platonic friendship was “extravagant” or “sentimental”. Women of admirable intellect should disdain friendship with “lesser creatures” (women) in favor of associations with men. Since women were incapable of “true” friendship, such expressions must be merely conventional or hypocritical attempts at flattery.
The rhetorical focus on connections of the intellect or soul, in contrast to amour, has led to historians ascribing a form of prudery to female proponents of platonic friendship. While their writings do depict distrust of m/f passion, the rationale expressed within them points to a practical fear of the consequences of gender inequity, rather than a distaste for physical intimacy as such. These consequences could taint even intellectual relations between men and women with a hint of scandal (for the woman). Women might depict utopian heterosocial and heterosexual relations in their fiction, but they had no hope of realizing them in real life.
The coded language of the salons was not only a matter of protecting personal reputation from scandal, but due to the complexities of French court life. The salons were, in some ways, set up as a counter-culture to the court, but also needed to resist being co-opted for political purposes. The efforts of the salonnières to soften the often crude performances of galanteriecould result in accusations of false prudery and a secret female code of poetic euphemism. This gave rise to the nickname précieuses(precious ones).
In private writings, as opposed to the semi-public heterosocial space of the salon, women expressed a sense of freedom from the need to engage in these games -- to be honest and open with each other rather than the witty verbal sparring needed to maintain appearances within the mixed-gender salon culture. Female friendships were idealized as egalitarian and mutual. The women write of longing to spend time with their friends, of the pain of absence, of the ability to share secrets without fear of censure.
The surviving correspondence of Madeleine de Scudéry and Catherine Descartes serves as an example of the dynamics of such friendships, and of how women were always negotiating the line between eros and amicitia, while blurring the edges. These two spoke of how intellectual passions could be as strong as erotic ones, and dangerous only when directed toward men. In exploring the topic of love and intimacy, they slip into expressing (and gently deflecting) desire for the other’s love in passionate terms. Scudéry side-steps Descartes’ hints at a declaration of love by turning the conversation back to theory and their correspondence settles into exchanges of poetry and more of a mentor/student dynamic. They frame what they feel as love, but “heroic love” not “vulgar love”. And then Descartes addresses Scudéry as Sappho and says that the love she feels for her is not less painful than the heterosexual love she has successfully avoided. She adapts Sappho’s verses and directs them at Scudéry, reversing the identification and evoking the homoeroticism of the original. [Wahl continues with some extended analysis of the context and content of the poetry they exchange.]
But at the time Scudéry and Descartes were exchanging this correspondence, an anti-feminist backlash was already satirizing the ideals of female intimacy and blending that satire with the “open secret” of f/f erotic potential.
This movement can be exemplified by Delariviere Manley’s The New Cabal[Note: Once again, I have a podcast on that. https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-30d... which explicitly used the vocabulary of tendre amitiéas a code for a fictional lesbian sex club, in barely disguised commentary on members of the English court, especially prominent women with influence in the court of Queen Anne. Rumors and satires abounded about the queen’s relationships with Sarah Churchill, Abigail Masham, and other close confidantes. [Note: And yet again, I have a podcast on that.https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-29d... Politics drove the hostility, but rumors of lesbianism were the weapon. In Anne’s female friendships she pursued the illusion of egalitarian and mutual tendre amitiéwhich floundered on her need, as queen, to be dominant. Historians, as usual, have argued that the homoerotic implications in the correspondence of these women was literary convention and excess, echoing motifs of the time that viewed the rhetoric of tendre amitiéas a French import to England that brought sexualized understandings of female intimacy in its wake.
Intense f/f friendships were no longer given the benefit of the doubt regarding erotic possibilities. It was now easy to undermine ideals of f/f friendship with the implication of lesbianism. Wahl goes into a detailed discussion of the content of The New Cabal.
The theme of the book has now come full circle back to “libertine” sexual knowledge, rehearsing all the fears about what women do together when free of relationships with men.
Stepping back from the cynical take on “tender friendship” that developed by the end of the 17th century, this chapter looks at an example of the sincere version, via a deep dive into the life and work of English poet Katherine Philips. Half a century before Manley’s New Cabaland in contrast to Behn’s overt eroticism, Philips represents the “polite” culture of female intimacy...or does she?
“Polite” doesn’t mean her work was void of passion. Embracing the ideals of egalitarianism and mutuality, her poems -- and even more, her correspondence -- is subtly charged with eroticism, couched in the courtly language hat the precieuseswere mocked for.
Philips was also ambitious as a writer, rather than shying away from the notoriety of being a woman writing publicly. At the same time, she was sheltered by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman. She challenges easy categorization as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for f/f friendship in general, and the context of her life indicates she valued the bonds as strongly or more so than her marriage.
Known by her poetic nickname “the matchless Orinda” her public legacy faltered between 1710 when the last complete edition of her poems came out, and 1905 when her work came back into publication. More modern scholars have battled over whether to claim her as a proto-lesbian poet or to reject associating her with lesbian sensibility, either as a calumny or because she is viewed as insufficiently explicit to have earned the title. But newer studies of her writings that examine them within their proper chronological context reveal an interplay with shifting attitudes toward f/f friendship.
Philips began writing at an early age and was a supporter of the exiled future Charles II, although the political content of her poetry was often coded in symbolism. Her poetic work served more to maintain a social network of royalist sympathizers, focusing more on bonds of personal intimacy than political purpose. Her royalist sympathies are at odds with her early upbringing among Puritan and Parliamentarian households. She was married at 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. [Note: Wikipedia has a reference that suggests newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. But either is plausible in the context of the time.] What might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded her from the consequences of her personal connections, and she in turn as able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.
The Restoration saw the start of her wider literary reputation as a translator of plays, though this was cut short by her death by smallpox at age 31. Her poems had been circulated privately in manuscript during her lifetime but were only published in any form shortly before her death.
The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.
The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her f/f friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.
The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at he clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.
There is more discussion of critical interpretations of her work, this time from feminist scholars who also wanted to divert accusations of lesbianism. Pretty much everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such, but if people wouldn’t have recognized it as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional raise the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.
Wahl winds up this discussion by suggesting that Philips ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in the language that appeals to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian” poet in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. IN response t some queer historians referring to Philips as “closeted”, Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze.
Philips and her associates were unlikely to have access to the more explicit imported literature that raised awareness of female homoerotic possibilities in England in the later 17th century. That wave began shortly after her death and certainly hadn’t happened yet when she was writing her most passionate poems in the 1650s. The “open secret” of lesbianism came to England after her time, if just barely. Therefore it only makes sense to consider her work and life in terms of popular understanding while she was still alive and writing.
Philips operated in an earlier literary tradition of manuscripts in private circulation and fanciful pastoral pseudonyms. (Hence, she was Orinda, and two of her intimate female friends were Rosania and Lucasia. Her husband was also assigned a nickname.) While the era had access to motifs like female transvestites and hermaphrodites, they were likely to envision f/f desire in the context of romances and Traub’s “femme-femme desire”.
Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. But her work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating and maintaining f/f bonds. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. Her correspondence shows her regular efforts to travel apart from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career.
Royalist allegiances defined her friendships during the interregnum, but politics was expressed in courtly language in her work, with some more overt exceptions. Some have suggested that the poetic persona of Orinda was created ot separate her public/married self from her private/literary self. But she shifts regularly between coded language and declared transparency of sentiment.
The poem “To my Lucasia” expresses this conflict, reaching for an idealized vision but pessimistic about its attainment. True friendship can only be achieved by lowering one’s expectations. Contradictions and contrasts also come out between work on abstract friendship, which emphasizes mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. (Though it must be kept in mind that Anne Owen/Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may have affected the nature of their friendship.)
In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Phlips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, culminating in imagery of wave overflowing that some have interpreted as orgasmic metaphor.
There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems.
The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited was the precieuseculture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century. These were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. (And not, as some have suggested, that the fact of her marriage meant that her ideals of friendship were false or hypocritical.) Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those relations.
When comparing f/f friendship to heterosexual relations, Philip derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.
Part of Philips’ strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her f/f relationships as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on m/f friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate f/f friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her request for validation as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips--considered extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.
In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.
Philips’ insistence on the “innocence” and “purity” of f/f friendship does raise the suspicion that she protested over-much -- that she did have anxieties that her relationships might be viewed as morally or sexually suspect. Her poetic request for a “declared” friendship--a public recognition--shows this uneasiness as does the addressee’s apparent reluctance to perform such a declaration.
The final break with Lucasia/Owen came when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange a marriage for the widowed Owen with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes.
After the change in her relations with Owen, Philips’ rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected.
But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women. (After the breakup with Lucasia/Owen, Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship.)
The conclusion of this chapter looks at how Philips was converted from a complex three-dimensional human being into the iconic “Matchless Orinda” for posterity.
While there is some agreement on finding “lesbian sensibility” in Philips’ poetry, to identify Philips herself as a “lesbian” in the modern sense is to ignore the social context of her times. The 17th century saw no conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognize. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way.
Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her f/f friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for.
What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her (and their) marriage, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.
[Note: It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.]
Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her friendship poems, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the last century. Her most anthologized works focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. The arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative, including an initial poem on the occasion of her husband’s extended absence which left her imaginatively free to begin constructing her own intellectual and emotional community with other royalist women.
The collection then tracks her successive friendships with Regina Collier, Mary Aubrey (Rosania), and Anne Owen (Lucasia), each fragmenting on the question of marriage and separation. After the break with Owen, her work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. It was these that found general circulation in the period after her death and before her obscurity.
The posthumous 1664 edition of her poems focused on a royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to become a stand-in for the absent Charles II, but this interpretation becomes incoherent after the Restoration.
If this was how her poetry was understood and treated in her own day, does that mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”?
The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing.
[Note: This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.]
Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho as being argued to be an essentially masculine figure more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of f/f erotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry, e.g., of Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.
Turning from how Phillips was sanitized of any suggestion of sexual impropriety Wahl now turns to how women-centered institutions, whether salons, schools, theaters, and on to less voluntary spaces like convents and brothels, became sexualized in the libertine imagination.
The idea of women in gender-segregated institutions engaging in sex was well established from the medieval period on. Convents had rules to try to discourage opportunities for it. But the reformation introduced the idea of the convent as an especially repressed and unnatural environment in which not only f/f sex but perverse practices could flourish. This theme plays out in works like Marvell’s Upon Appleton Houseand Diderot’s La Religieuseand Barrin’s Vénus dans le Cloître. The theme of women being removed from the marriage economy in a physical and social sense extended to removing them from heterosexuality in a psychological context.
Educational institutions didn’t come in for religiously-driven concerns (though in France convent schools were a significant venue for girls’ education in this era) but education manuals included coded language about girls not being left to themselves too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” Given that schools of this era were overwhelmingly single sex, concerns about student sexual activity blurred the issues of masturbation and homosexuality.
While the convent and school offered the excuse of lack of access to male partners, another female-centered institution where female intimacy became a concern was the brothel, under the guise of experienced prostitutes initiating girls into sex as part of their training. See for example Cleland’s novel Fanny Hillwhere some of the prostitutes (though not his protagonist) are depicted as having a preference for f/f sex. 18th century pornographic prostitute narratives depict a culture of bisexual genital-focused sex acts in which the gender of one’s partner is almost irrelevant. [Note: it should be emphasized that these belonged to a fictionalized literary genre written by men.]
Across the 18th century, as the cult of the “proper” domestic woman developed as modest and passionless, her counterpart also became more defined: the libertine woman--whether overtly in the field of sex work, in the demimonde of actresses, artists, and courtesans, or among the aristocracy. Among the accusations leveled at aristocratic women by philosophers of bourgeois morals was that their sexual license included sex with women, and this was viewed as both a symptom and driver of moral decay. 17th century affairs such as that between the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and Madame du Vigean were seen as scandalous, but uncommon and not fatal to one social reputation.
This attitude gave way by a century later to lurid pamphlets attacking Marie Antoinette and her circle, including elaborations on the supposed decadent lesbian sex club called the Anandrine Society. Other literary depictions of libertine f/f sex included mentions of Mademoiselle Rancourt in Diderot’s Correspondences literaires philosophiques et critiquesand novels such as Mémoires Secretsand L’Espion Angloisthough these focused more on actresses.
In England, names that came into mention include actress Mary Anne Yates and aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer. the gossip diarist Hester Thrale provides plentiful examples of how wide-spread rumors of lesbian activity could be in the late 18th century. Any kind of sex not linked to the marriage-based reproductive economy was seen not only as a moral threat but as a political and social threat as well.
But if these overtly sexualized contexts were being seen as a threat to social order, what were attitudes toward more idealized or utopian forms of female community? For that Wahl steps back to look at the origins and context of these idealized communities.
While the French salon was a vibrant context for women’s friendships it was not a homosocial space, unlike the formal male academies it existed in parallel with. But the salons were de facto ruled by women, which made them suspect as a focus of resistance to the patriarchal absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, as well as those male academies. Male criticism and satire of the salons focused on the précieucesas pretentious reformers of French language and morals, who despised marriage for suspicious reasons (and not because of the unequal burden it placed on women). One of those suspicious reasons was same-sex desire. To call someone a précieuse shifted from acknowledging a culture of wit and refinement to a satirical stereotype exaggerated mannerisms, secret codes, and a female cabal that indulged in f/f sex -- “a third species of person.” By the end of the 17th century, the précieuses--which by then was no longer a self identification--were seen as a subversive secret society and a symbol of the hazards of women becoming involved in politics.
Communities of literary women in the first half of the 17th century begin exploring concepts of female heroism or woman-centered societies, as a response to their role in ongoing political disruptions in both France and England, and as a means of maintaining friendships and alliances during those disruptions. The exiled royalist women around Henrietta Maria in France found inspiration among the salons for their own writing which--though coded as focused on love and romance--offered a context for political allegory.
French women didn’t stick to allegory. In this era, women were prominent in the civil conflict known as the Fronde, and the backlash against them became a weapon against women’s direct involvement in politics in general under Louis XIV. The women themselves had seen their actions as part of a tradition of Amazons, but after their fall the image of the Amazon became a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any type of public intellectual activity.
Shut out of direct political participation, these are the women who formed the core of the salons. They were also behind the rise of the historical novel. In these “private” spheres they could exert the influence forbidden them in public institutions. Historic novels could comment allegorically on current politics in a deniable way, and the rules for salon discourse that forbade direct discussion of politics as “not polite” protected all the participants from direct reprisal, even as they offered a context for the discussion of subversive or progressive ideals.
The historical novel also enabled the creation of fictional worlds into which the female-centered world of the salon could be reflected, as in the Sappho interlude in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou Le Grand Cyrus.Scudéry’s use of Sappho not only as a fictional character but as a nom de plume comes at a time when new translations of Sappho’s work were casting doubt on the “abandoned heterosexual Sappho” of Ovid and returning to the image of the great poet.
Scudéry did not directly engage with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but in identifying with the poet, her own f/f friendships could be aligned with Sappho’s. Her fictional Sappho rejects the idea of marriage as tyranny and forms part of an inseparable group of friends, one especially with whom she exchanges professions of perfect love. The novel’s male narrator is never given entrance to Sappho’s circle, and deflect criticisms of her circle without showing the reader the substance of their relations (and thus what Scudéry envisioned as the nature of their friendship). The layers of representation and commentary obscure the exact correspondences of Scudéry to her fictional namesake’s life.
Wahl continues with a detailed analysis of this work and the history of scholarly analysis of it. [Note: This is one of those passages that I suspect originated as an independent article.]
Scudéry’s Sappho eventually retreats into a utopian woman-centered society of Amazons, perhaps an allegory for the salon. The rejection of a conventional marriage plot resolution for Sappho marks a new option for a female protagonist, and the association of women’s literary traditions with sapphic utopias.
In some ways, the political disruption of the Fronde resulted in a shift in women’s writing in France from political discourse to literary forms like the novel or the secret history. With novels that did not conform to the standard marriage plot, these women defined a new understanding of the desires and aspirations of women both before and after marriage. If women couldn’t have a direct political influence, they could influence women’s ambitions in terms of personal freedom for education and an identity outside of marriage, or even the ability to refuse marriage (or at least to refuse a second marriage).
These woman also aspired to an ideal of “honest friendship” that redefined relations between the sexes in a more egalitarian way. This might be realizable only in a utopian “pastorale” context but it offered new visions and interpretations, as in D’Urfe’s pastoral romanceL’Astrée, in which women were idealized as having the ability to discipline carnal desires in favor of neo-platonic friendship and love.
But even as this Platonic ideal was developed, there was a reaction of skepticism that viewed both chastity and marriage resistance as a false prudery--an--implausible contradiction to the idea that all desirable women should be sexually available to men. The libertine point of view saw relations between the sexes is inescapably physical and sexual. This also led them to doubt the alleged innocence of intimate relations between women, viewing them as the inevitable outcome of the inherent sexual voracity of women.
Male reactions to women’s writing always created a hostile environment for women’s self-definition, but the superficial rejection of physical desire creates a dubious impression that early modern women’s discussion of platonic romantic relations corresponded to modern understandings that preclude physical sexuality. In order to break free of the accusation that women were all inherently libertines, early modern women needed to present the appearance of modesty and chastity, only to be accused of hypocrisy on that account.
Within fiction they could create the possibility of a female protagonist who was both sincerely chaste and independent, while accepting that in every day life this might be impossible.
Although women often shared their doubts and uncertainties about the institution of marriage in private correspondence, by the mid 17th century they were increasingly reluctant to do so overtly in public writng. In return, male writers had no hesitation in accusing them of making public demands to abolish the institution of marriage, as it was understood.
By the creation of fictional proponents of extreme versions of female sexual autonomy, men could undercut the far more moderate requests that women made for the reform of marriage. These fictional exaggerations were then labeled as a representation of the précieuse. Their disavowal of passion in the context of marriage was taken as either hypocritical or unnatural in some form, such as an indication of lesbian desire. This stereotype was depicted in a number of satirical works.
Such women were depicted not merely as wanting their own freedom, but as wanting to subjugate men and to destroy establish social structures. The word cabal is frequently raised in this context.
Not all the critics of the stereotype of the précieuse were male. Some female writers may have joined in the mockery as a way of distancing themselves from an image that they felt uncomfortably close to. Though the satires claimed that there might be genuine intellectual women who sought reforms and ideals, somehow no specific women ever met the standard. Thus all women with intellectual aspirations came under scrutiny as belonging to the extremes of the stereotype.
The only way an intellectual woman had of pushing back against the charge of either hypocrisy or frigidity was to embrace the sexual desire she was accused of concealing. But this, of course, would be sexual desire for men. To resist that would result in insinuations of lesbian desire. Even historians who study the topic waver regularly between treating the polite discourse of the salonnières as indicating a general disinterest in sex, or intimating that their female friendships suggested an unconscious lesbian desire.
What is excluded from much of this analysis is the possibility that some of these women genuinely disdained sexual relations with men (whether from a general disinterest in heterosexuality, or from the negative social context it was embedded in) and that they also experienced genuine and perhaps even self-aware sexual desire for their female associates. Without the explicitly sexual writing that the précieuses specifically excluded from salon discourse, there is always room for those who disapprove of same-sex desires to claim that they didn’t exist.
Accusations of latent lesbian desire were not merely coming from modern academics but are implicit in many of the satirical critiques of intellectual women of the 17th century. But this leaves us with the question of whether these accusations being founded on animosity and utterly false, or whether the suggestions of female same-sex desire by their critics were inspired by genuine observation of the relations between female intimate friends.
History keeps coming back to a regular recurring theme that a woman who rejects the sexual advances of men must be either a prude or a lesbian. This was the socio-political context in which women of the 17th and 18th century developed close relations with each other and attempted to establish some degree of personal and intellectual autonomy. But as the 18th century progressed, a new genre emerged in women’s writing: women who wrote about same-sex desire to represent their own erotic desires, though in coded and deniable terms.
This includes writers such as Madame De Murat and Charlotte Charke and this topic constitutes the subject of the final chapter of the book.
Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”
Madame de Murat’s upper class status caused problems in the collection of evidence, particularly given that so many of the alleged crimes occurred in the privacy of her own home. There are details of domestic disputes, jealousy, and violence driven by underlying romantic or sexual relationships. Many of the potential witnesses seemed disinclined to get involved, one noting that it was “not compatible with his dignity” to testify.
The police records don’t label Madame de Murat’s activities as lesbian in as many words, but they give a very different picture of women’s erotic relationships that is found in libertine literature. These records don’t show the tolerant amusement reflected by the libertines, but rather distaste and horror. Madame de Murat is viewed as a bully, liable to punish her accusers.
She is eventually imprisoned, but the police feared her continued correspondence with family and friends and her ability to continue to exert power in the external world.
Compare her to fictional portrayals, such as Miss Hobart in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont who is easily defeated and humiliated by male rivals. In the conventions of satiric literature f/f desire is no serious threat to men. But in the early 18th century we see an increase in male anxiety about the lesbian or tribade as a genuine challenge to male prerogatives.
Miss Hobart represents the overlap and transition from the image of lesbian-as-hermaphrodite to the lesbian-as-tribade, driven by personal desire not by anatomical abnormality. Madame de Murat represented the reality of how many saw female same-sex possibilities. [Note: Female homosexuality was illegal in France, but not in England at that time, so the circumstances must be kept in mind.]
Comparing the fictional and real narratives of female same-sex activity can remove the illusion of the insignificance of female homoerotic relations claimed by the libertines. This is important as these have sometimes been accepted as factual by later scholars.
In this chapter Wahl looks at several libertine or pornographic texts from the late 17th and 18th centuries to compare their depictions of female homosexuality to the satires by male authors on actual women such as Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting and Marie Antoinette, as well as texts written by women themselves of their own experiences.
The first text to be examined is the Satyra Sotadicaand the Academie des Damesboth of which represent themselves as a dialogue between women engaging in a sexual education that involves increasingly exaggerated and unusual sexual behaviors. Wahl goes on at great length to dissect the dialogs and discuss the behaviors they depict.
Next she looks at two texts by Cleland: his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure(Fanny Hill) and his translation and revision of the memoirs of Catherine Vizzani. These texts either conflate the lesbian and the prostitute as a single archetype, or in the case of Catherine, depict the lesbian as an entirely separate type of being.
The use of a female narrator was another technique in depicting the activities of supposed tribades, often given either a an allegorical name such as The Confessions of Mademoiselle Sapphoor borrowing the name of a woman reputed for such scandals, as with the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt.
These narratives created the illusion of reality by reference to specific actual persons and events. They depict a sexual awakening of one woman by another, though they are vague about the details of the relationship. The protagonists life is eventually resolved away from the same-sex relationship, one way or another.
In conclusion, Wahl suggests that the wide-spread awareness of female same-sex possibilities constrained the ability of women to depict and enact idealized forms of female intimacy. This awareness served to widen the conceptual gap between the popular image of the lesbian and the experiences of “respectable” women even when those experiences included same-sex intimacy.
[Note: I thought that Wahl indicated this chapter was also going to cover texts such as Charlotte Charke’s fictionalized autobiography and the like, but the book ends without touching on that genre.]