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Tendre Amitié and its Discontents

Friday, September 4, 2020 - 07:00

I apologize for the length of this blog (which is why I'm posting it by itself rather than doing all of Part 2 of the book in one go), as well as for some of the repetitiveness (which reflects repetitiveness in the book). Written in haste during my coffee break...

Major category: 
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 3 - L’Amour Galant and Tendre Amitié: Love and Friendship Outside the Bonds of Marriage

Somewhere in the space between scribbling notes on post-its and the translation of them into text for this blog, I have made peace with the use of abbreviations like "f/f" and "f/m". I resisted for quite a while because f/f still carries with it an implication of a specific type of fiction--and a somwhat weaker implication of eroticism. But when I'm scribbling on post-its, writing "f/f" rather than "female same-sex" or "female homosocial" is a big savings. And as I transcribed those notes, I've been getting more and more comfortable with using it as a shorthand in but write-ups themselves. So when I use this sort of abreviation going forward, I don't meant to add a specific implication of sexual relations, but to allow for that possibility along with other interpretations.

There are several interesting themes that come up in this chapter: contortions to deny lesbian possibilities (whether by modern scholars or by historical societies), the cyclicity of the motif of "loss of innocence with regard to women's same-sex friendships", the use of women as symbolic icons of purity, morality, and national character. None of these cycles as discussed in the 17-18th century remained fixed. If they had, they wouldn't have needed to be re-established in the 19th century and later.

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.

Time period: 
historical