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Katherine Philips: Proto-Lesbians or Just Good Friends?

Monday, September 7, 2020 - 15:00

So I'd love to say something really clever in this introduction, but it's 110F currently and my brain has melted.  You'll have to wait for cooler temperatures for me to be clever.

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Full citation: 

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2

Part II Chapter 4 - Female Intimacy and the Question of “Lesbian” Identity: Rereading the Female Friendship Poems of Katherine Philips

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.

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historical