(Originally aired 2022/11/19 - listen here)
Welcome to another episode of the occasional series “Our F/Favorite Tropes,” in which the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast explores various popular historic romance tropes within the context of lesbian and sapphic history. In the sense used here, a trope is an identifiable, recurring motif that connects our understanding of a story to other stories that use the same trope. It can be a character type, a situation, or even a mini-plot that treads familiar ground and sets up – or subverts – reader expectations. Today we’re looking at the “kissing lessons” trope, in which two characters practice or learn the techniques of romantic kissing, only to find themselves falling in love.
The Structure of the Trope
The “kissing lessons” trope has a certain structural similarity to the “fake relationship” trope, in that it relies on the misalignment and then realignment of the sincere and performative aspects of an act. We may recognize that, historically, there have been many motivations and understandings behind the contract of marriage, but romance novels revolve around the subset in which romantic desire aligns with the legal contract. Even more so, kissing is an activity that exists in a liminal and ambiguous space: an act that can have many meanings and functions, depending not only on the identity of the people involved, but on the social context in which it is performed.
There’s a wonderfully detailed article on this topic discussed in the blog: Helen Berry’s “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720.” It was published in a collection entitled The Kiss in History, which sounds like an excellent resource for historic romance novelists in general. While the article focuses on a very specific context in time and space, it points out the wide variety of meanings that kissing can have simultaneously. It could act to seal a legal contract, as ritual performance of a hierarchical relationship, as a symbol of communal bonds as in the “kiss of peace” used in Christian ceremonies, as an expression of familial affection (or the illusion thereof), as a ritual act in greeting or leavetaking, and—of course—as a component of intimate erotic activity, whether as a prelude to intercourse or as an accompaniment to it.
Kissing is, inherently, an intimate gesture—far more intimate than clasping hands or other gestures that might be used in similar social situations. And the multiplicity of meanings the activity could carry resulted in complex social rules about the contexts in which kissing was authorized, and those contexts in which it was transgressive. Berry’s article notes that, in the 17th century, the increasingly popular genre of etiquette manuals included guidance on how to navigate those rules, giving us a window into all the various meanings and functions of kissing.
As a romance trope, the idea of “kissing lessons” focuses specifically around one particular function—kissing as an erotic act—and around the idea that one can learn the mechanics of erotic kissing separate from experiencing an erotic response to it. But the “kissing lessons” trope can also rely on all those other licensed contexts for kissing to give cover or to reduce the sense of transgression when a kissing lesson is proposed.
The Trope in Male-Female Romances
In male-female romances, the “kissing lessons” trope often revolves around a contrast in experience levels. The excuse for kissing is either that the less experienced person simply wants to know what kissing is supposed to feel like with someone who knows what they’re doing, or they want to learn to be a better kisser in order to win the heart of some third party. The lessons are “safe” not only because they are specifically framed as non-romantic, but often because there’s some reason that the two participants are considered not suitable as a romantic couple.
And then, of course, mock kissing sparks genuine erotic response in one or both parties, which disrupts the contract and leads to their eventual mutual confession of desire.
But beyond those outlines, the roles don’t tend to be fixed. The student may be a naïve young woman who secures the cooperation of a teacher because she wants a better basis for evaluating suitors. Or she may be less naïve, but awkward and wants to appear more sophisticated. Her teacher may be someone considered a platonic friend that she considers “safe” or she might approach a notorious rake with the confidence that he wouldn’t take the lessons as a serious commitment. But the set-up may also be the reverse: the student as a naïve young man, embarrassed by his lack of experience, or the awkward nerdy sort who thinks he needs to up his game to impress the diamond of the season. And his teacher, once more, might be someone familiar—perhaps the girl next door—that he’s never considered seriously as a romantic partner but who will keep his secrets, or it might be a woman with a daring sexual reputation who would never be considered a suitable marriage partner in ordinary circumstances. And there are many possible variants beyond those scenarios.
But in all cases, the kissing lessons contradict the expected script, that first comes love, then comes kissing, then comes marriage (or sex, depending on the specific flavor of book). Instead of being the main performance on stage, the kissing lessons are a rehearsal of the script with a stand-in. The twist comes when the rehearsal sparks desires that fall outside the original agreement.
The Trope in Female-Female Romances
When discussing ways to play out marriage-related tropes with female couples, there is always an understanding that in the historic settings in question, actual legal marriage is not an option for two female-presenting people. That’s not an issue with the “kissing lessons” trope, because the formal nature of the resulting romantic relationship isn’t an inherent part of the trope. Instead, the basic structure can be closely parallel to that of male-female couples. Two people “practice” kissing to enhance their knowledge or skills in the activity, with the surface understanding that they are not engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship, but when the kisses generate an erotic or romantic response they work their way toward communicating those feelings, resulting in forming a romantic or erotic couple.
There are two primary ways in which the trope operates differently for female couples. The first is the degree to which the society of the story’s setting assumes that women don’t engage in romantic or erotic relationships together. Rather than the lessons being considered “safe” because the teacher is categorized as not being eligible as a partner, due to the past history of the couple or due to the social persona of the teacher, instead the lessons may be “safe” because it is assumed there’s no romantic or erotic potential in the first place due to the gender of the participants.
Keep in mind that this attitude is far from universal. Many historic societies recognized and even embraced the idea of two women enjoying a romantic relationship that included kissing and other physical expressions of affection. Other historic societies defaulted to assuming that kissing between women would only be a matter of formal social interactions. Some societies openly acknowledged the possibility that women’s romantic relationships might include an erotic component, and might either accept that or discourage it. Other societies might embrace a model in which romantic and erotic relationships were not linked, and that women’s romantic feelings towards each other would never lead to erotic desire (or if they did, it would be unacceptable).
All this comes on top of the question of the variety of acceptable social functions for kissing in your story’s setting. So in order to know how your characters will approach the proposal of kissing lessons, how they will go about engaging in their practice, what their expectations of the outcome will be, and how they will react when their emotions go in a different direction than expected, you’ll want to dig into the normative practices around kissing and expressions of affection. And you’ll want to understand what types of relationships between women were publicly accepted and where the lines were drawn. It’s possible for a sapphic historical romance to employ a kissing lessons trope and never have the characters step outside behaviors that their culture considered openly acceptable and even praiseworthy. Guilt and shame are not obligatory components of a historical sapphic romance.
The Unfortunate History of “Just Practicing” for F/F Couples
The second difference for female couples engaging in a “kissing lessons” trope comes with a bit of cultural baggage. It has been a recurring theme throughout history that erotic activity between women can be overlooked because it’s “just practice” for heterosexual relationships. We see this in discussions of romantic friendships in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the intense expressions of love and devotion that young women were allowed to express toward each other were dismissed as “practice for what she should feel for a husband.” Similarly, the schoolgirl “crushes” popular in boarding schools of the later 19th and early 20th century could be considered acceptable as a rehearsal for married life. Women had license to kiss each other with a fair amount of intensity as long as it could be categorized as “just practicing.”
In erotic literature, this motif goes further, with depictions of one woman initiating another into sexual activity as a prelude to heterosexual relations. Sometimes it’s explicitly framed as training the student so that she will be sexually experienced in her first encounter with a man. This motif shows up in the family of 16th and 17th century novels and plays based on the Spanish work La Celestina, in which an older woman prepares a younger one for work as a prostitute by initially seducing her herself. Similar scenes occur in the 18th century French novel Thérèse the Philosophe, and in John Cleland’s novel Fanny Hill, from a similar era, in which the title character is initiated into sex by her fellow brothel workers but considers the experience nothing more than training.
This backdrop means that a sapphic historical romance may want to tread carefully around having the characters treat kissing lessons between women as “safe” because they’re only practicing for future male suitors. While the attitude may have solid historical roots, it invokes a long tradition of dismissing the importance of erotic interactions between women. And yet, that long tradition can also provide a context for layers of romantic angst if both of our heroines believe the other one is “just practicing.”
Exploring the Possibilities
That said, there are a lot of narrative options for using “kissing lessons” to introduce a character to the erotic possibilities with women. Or to have some self-discovery around how she really feels about that best friend. Let’s look at some of the options, keeping in mind that the specifics will depend on the era and culture.
The naïve, inexperienced ingenue who decides she wants to know what all the fuss is about before entering the world of courtship and matchmaking can turn to another, more experienced, woman to learn the mechanics of erotic kissing and explore her responses to it. This could be a near age-mate who, perhaps due to being slightly older, or due to having mixed in society more, seems a bit more worldly. Perhaps they’ve already established a close friendship. Perhaps they don’t know each other quite as well but are thrown together in proximity for some reason.
Then one or both feels the chemistry between them, but is hesitant to act on it because that wasn’t the deal. Perhaps there was already a potential suitor for one or the other and the hesitation has to do with interfering in those future plans. The lack of societal expectations for female friendships to turn into lifelong partnerships can make it awkward to negotiate expectations and plans. But, oh, that kiss! It’s so hard to forget that kiss.
Or we can look at another variant of the heterosexual trope: the rakish, transgressive instructor who isn’t taken seriously as a potential partner. In a male-female version of the trope, often the daring reputation of the teacher is exactly what makes them “safe” – because they are expected not to be interested in commitment. When the student is an ingenue, there’s the hazard that her reputation will be damaged by contagion, and that same dynamic is available for a female pairing. The “good girl” who approaches a fallen woman for romantic instruction is risking her own reputation in way that doesn’t apply to a young man in the same situation. On the other hand, when an ingenue approaches a fallen woman, the risk is different than if she approached a male rake for the same purpose. The difference between damage and ruin. There’s a literary example of this in the 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons, in which the cynical and experienced Marchioness de Merteuil is manipulating the innocent girl Cecile in order to take revenge on her ex-lover. But at one point, the Marchioness suggests taking Cecile on as her “pupil in love,” taking advantage of opportunities to embrace her and expressing jealousy of the man that she’s setting up to seduce Cecile. Cecile, in turn, feels an attraction to the Marchioness that goes beyond innocent friendship. Although nothing comes of this in the original novel, we could easily turn the story into one in which the romance plot takes a sharp turn to the sapphic.
But the student needn’t necessarily fall in the “young and innocent” category. A more mature woman may also be wondering what all the fuss is about if the men courting her never sparked the response she had been led to expect. She might feel less risk in seeking out a woman infamous for her romantic exploits and asking for instruction. Alternately, she might confess her curiosity and frustration to a long-time female friend who seems to have figured things out a bit more and who can be depended on to be discreet. In the early 17th century play The Antipodes by Richard Brome, two women are discussing their experience of marriage while lying in bed together (see the episode about the “only one bed” trope for context on how normal this was). Martha complains that her husband of three years has never done “what a man does in child-getting” and she’s clueless about what it is she’s missing. She suggests to her friend Barbara, “I’ll lie with you and practice, if you please. Pray take me for a night or two.” Martha’s intent is to learn how to make love so that she can teach her husband in turn. But at the same time, Martha does have previous erotic experience. She explains, “I remember a wanton maid once lay with me, and kissed and clipped and clapped me strangely, and then wished that I had been a man to have got her with child.” The entire scene speaks to the idea that women might turn to other women for erotic instruction.
While kissing-lesson tropes in male-female romances typically require some sort of asymmetry of knowledge and experience, there is more scope between female couples for the exploration and practicing of kissing techniques to involve an equal starting point. There needn’t necessarily be teacher and student roles—the historic “just practicing” motif can involve a mutual exploration as often as it involves the transmission of experience. Kissing between women might begin as a routine expression of close friendship and then be expanded to something more intense.
The kissing lessons might occur in the context of role-playing. Amateur theatricals, anyone? One is reminded of the scene in Shakespeare’s As You Like It when Rosalind—disguised as the boy Ganymede—instructs Orlando into how to court a woman by practicing with her (in male disguise) as his object. I’m now imagining the tangled possibilities of an all-female amateur production of As you Like It where the women playing Rosalind and Orlando find excuses to practice their scenes extensively. Kissing might be part of light-hearted games and social frolics, where such activity was acceptable specifically due to a removal of gender expectations. There were any number of “parlor games” in which losing the round might require forfeiting a kiss.
Conversely, not all kissing-lesson plots need be sweet and innocent. The very license given to women to kiss without an implication of eroticism means that the activity offers a back door for seduction. Here we may see a pushing of boundaries or deliberate use of ambiguity. The offer of kissing lessons becomes an opportunity to deliberately evoke an erotic response, rather than the response being an unexpected surprise. This is a technique that Ann Lister details in her diaries when she’s sounding out potential partners. Social kissing slides easily into using “a little more pressure of the lips” and checking to see how this is received.
In conclusion, the popular “kissing lessons” trope has a vast potential for driving the romantic arc in sapphic historical romance, specifically due to the ambiguous nature of kissing as an activity, and because women often had a broad allowance for kissing as an expression of the bonds of friendship, including at times some fairly passionate activity. The specific social understandings of kissing, and the cultural rules around appropriate kissing behavior will vary depending on your setting, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a historically appropriate way to use this trope no matter where, when, and who you’re writing about.
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