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Monday, October 24, 2016 - 07:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.4 Lesbian Evil

Ordinarily, my Project will skim over content from the 20th century. I'm going to continue covering the entirety of this book because the through-line of the argument is important. But the 20th century material will include fewer tags and more high-level summaries of the content.

The theme of evil predatory lesbians was taken up by others from the French aesthetic writers, but stripped of any hint of sympathy. In these works, the lesbian aspect may be concealed in vague ambiguity while still retaining sexual overtones. Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” (published unfinished in 1816) was declared obscene for these overtones, but although modern readers tend to  see clear lesbian themes, some contemporary reviewers assumed that the antagonist was meant to be a man in disguise, and thus that the obscene content was the seduction of Christabel’s father by the antagonist, rather than the seduction of Christabel herself. [The ambiguity allows for this and speaks to one of Faderman's themes: that there are shifts over time in what sorts of sexual possibilities can be imagined, given the same external evidence.]

Most “evil lesbian” works appeared later in the 19th century and were clearly influenced by the aesthetic writers. Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) is given as a typical example. The point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, A young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. The narrator resolves this problem by killing his wife’s female lover, but the wife dies of a brain fever cause by excessive sexual activity.

Faderman notes that “in France, innocence regarding love between women was virtually at an end by this time” though such “innocence” persisted in England and the America for a while yet. [The cyclic nature of “innocence” regarding the possibility of sexual relations between women is not noticed. French texts of the 16-17th century were quite aware of those possibilities.] Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, while writers in America contemporary to him were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal. This attitude persisted among some American writers as late as the 1920s.

Belot’s novel provides archetypes of the decadent “lesbian love-nest”, with its black and crimson decor, draperies that shut out the light, and bookshelves stocked with well-known lesbian-themed novels. Although Belot claimed his writing to have a moral purpose--to bring this danger out into the open and to attack the very concept of Romantic Friendship--it’s clear that his work was driven by fascination and hatred and the desire for sensationalism. Belot’s protagonist describes lesbianism as a “new vice” [a claim made repeatedly over the centuries, though Faderman seems unaware of this cyclicity] that must be countered by “a man strong enough or with enough authority” to rescue the innocent partner from the lesbian’s clutches.

The term “vice” was generally popular in sensational literature of all types in this era in France, but the specific association of lesbians with vice and evil appears regularly in French literature for the next several decades. It is speculated that one motivation for the focus on lesbianism was the falling French birthrate and anxiety about the French population being overwhelmed by foreigners.

Another regular theme in French literature of the 1880s and 1890s that uses lesbian motifs is the association of lesbians with prostitution. Faderman suggests that this might be grounded in the exposure of the (male) writers to real-life lesbian relations primarily in the context of the demi-monde, where prostitutes turned to other women as an escape from the brutality of their professional interactions with men. This demi-monde shows up in novels such as Zola’s Nana (1880). Yet another trope popular at this time is the idea of organized “cults” of lesbians, such as are seen in Guy de Maupassant’s “Paul’s Mistress” (1881), but where the practices of these supposed cults are clearly drawn from male-authored lesbian literature itself. [Compare also the accusations of organized cults of lesbians in late 18th century France, such as the Anandrine Sect.] One feature of these literary lesbians is that only the “active” partner is considered a true lesbian--and is portrayed as masculine in nature and physically ugly--but they are mysteriously attractive to “normal” women. The title character of “Paul’s Mistress” commits suicide when his lover deserts him for one of these groups of lesbians, and as he is drowning his last vision is of his mistress in the arms of a woman “as though she had found a refuge in a closer and more certain affection, more familiar and more confiding.” This description is quite similar to those found in positive portrayals of Romantic Friends but here the context turns it sinister.

If the violence, jealousies, and disfunctionality of lesbian relationships in such literature was, indeed, drawn from observations of the demi-monde, then the same conclusions about evil and vice could also be made about the heterosexual relations in that part of society, but there was no similar movement among sensational authors to treat those as universal, just as there was little recognition among psychiatrists that the disfunctions they saw among their lesbian patients were found equally among heterosexual patients.

The middle and upper-class lesbians of late 19th century France such as Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas lived lives that had no resemblance at all to the lesbians in sensational literature, but their type of lives weren’t reflected in the fiction of the time.

Accusations of lesbianism became a weapon for misogynists who saw any personal rejection by a woman as evidence for that woman’s sexual proclivities. August Strindberg’s A Madman’s Manifesto (1887) was basically a screed against his first wife’s feminist tendencies and desire to continue her professional activity, couched in over-the-top accusations of sexual activity with a wide variety of women in all manner of circumstances--activity that Strindberg claimed to have personally witnessed by spying on his wife over several years. Although his wife acknowledged having close passionate friendships with women, she didn’t consider them problematic and described them using the traditional language of Romantic Friendship.

The motif of the evil lesbian appears outside France in examples like Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire story “Carmilla” (1872), which uses a subtle parody of romantic friendship themes, interspersed with the tropes of French sensational novels. Some modern critics question whether LeFanu understood that his story was referencing lesbianism in particular (though from a modern viewpoint the equation appears obvious). Another non-French writer who inserted sinister themes into a story of passionate friendship is George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin (1886). The monstrosity of the lesbian character is symbolized by physical deformity, as well as being expressed in general antipathy toward men and love for women. Her orientation is explained as being congenital, caused by her mother’s hatred for sexual activity with her father. In contrast to positive or neutral depictions of passionate friendship, her beloved is shown as being uncomfortable with her expressions of love, and this anxiety is depicted as normal and expected. The protagonist eventually accepts being rebuffed and goes into a convent. The sentiments she expresses would have been unremarkable and framed positively in other works of the same era that still took a positive approach toward women’s friendships.

In America, anxiety about love between women starts appearing occasionally in the 1890s at a time when translations of the French decadent writers begin appearing. Doctors begin repeating second and third-hand accounts of lesbian orgies, whose details are modeled after the decadent writers. The sensationalized murder in 1892 of Freda Ward by her female lover “to make it sure that no one else could get her” was treated as proof that the sexologists were right about the inherent pathology of lesbianism. In 1893 an American doctor could write about how “morbid sexual love” between women started among schoolgirls. But it took a while for these ideas to dominate the discourse. In real life, 19th century America had a tradition of being accepting of cross-dressing and passing women, even when overtly connected with feminist sentiments. But in the 1890s Romantic Friendships began to be framed in fiction as morbid, connecting lesbianism with murder and portraying lesbian villains as assertive, feminist, intellectual and sophisticated. Yet at the same time, novels such as Diana Victrix (1897) could still present female romantic partnerships in a neutral or positive light.

Time period: 
Sunday, October 23, 2016 - 16:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.3 Lesbian Exoticism

This chapter would seem to undermine one of Faderman’s key themes: that people (especially, but not solely) women were completely in ignorance of the possibility of women engaging in sex together (however narrowly she is defining “sex”) until the writings of the sexologists educated them on those possibilities. Only then did women who had been convinced by their upbringings that they didn’t feel sexual desire suddenly begin engaging in genital sexual activity.

Havelock Ellis, in his “Sexual Inversion in Women” noted a catalog of examples of lesbianism in life and literature (making little distinction between the two categories), drawn primarily from France. These included Diderot’s The Nun (1796), Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), Zola’s Nana (1880), Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) and other works by a variety of 19th century authors. These sensational and decadent stories--written entirely by men--become incorporated into his understanding of sexuality between women.

The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France. The trope of a transvestite lesbian, it is suggested, became popular due to notable real life individuals such as George Sand, in the 1830s. There were rumors about the nature of Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), perhaps inspired by the depiction of desire between women in her novel Lélia.

But apart from individual inspirations, French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities). An entire genre of “decadent” literature emerged, often featuring sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian characters, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). This literature eschewed the egalitarian, devoted love of Romantic Friends and focused specifically on the sexual, and often on violent power differentials and seductions.

In discussing the themes of these works, Faderman notes 18th century literary depictions of sex between women, as in L’Espion Anglois (1777). [A number of other 18th century works could have been included. But I repeat my point that the existence of these works undermine the position that the idea of lesbian sex was entirely inconceivable until the late 19th century.]

Baudelaire’s 1857 collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal was originally titled Les Lesbiennes giving an explicit name to the nature of the “shocking” themes he used to gain notoriety. This literary movement, Faderman notes, was in direct reaction to the stuffy puritanism of the “Victorian” middle-class (in both England and France). And though they came later to the movement, English writers took it up, such as Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon (1877). The title character of that work might be a prototype for the sexologists’ “congenital invert”: her father wanted a boy and gave her a boy’s education and training but, having fallen in love with a woman, she descends into alcohol and opium addiction and dies.

Pierre Loüys’s Songs of Bilitis (1894), though overtly inspired by the love poetry of Sappho, follows the decadent movement in focusing specifically in sexual activity, describing Sappho in “mannish” terms.

The narrow focus on sexual encounters and tragic fates seems to be entirely a creation of male writers. When we have glimpses into the attitudes and lives of women who provide evidence of including physical eroticism in the romantic relationships--such as the poet-actress Adah Isaacs Menken, a friend of George Sand--there is an equal emphasis on tender devotion along with the erotics.

Faderman concludes the chapter by projecting her conclusions onto the women engaged in Romantic Friendship, claiming, “Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin...had they read the works of the nineteenth-century aesthete-decadents which purported to describe love between women, ...would have thought those females as strange and terrifying as they were to their creators and heterosexual readers, since the characters of those poems and novels had absolutely nothing to do with their lives and loves.” Once again, my issue is not with whether this position is historically true for these specific women, but the confidence with which Faderman states it with no evidence presented other than her own opinion. It would be one thing if specific women who embraced Romantic Friendship wrote about their reactions to decadent lesbian themes in literature, but that isn’t what’s being said here. And “had they read” moves the goalposts from the position that these women couldn’t even conceive of sexual activity between women because they hadn’t ever been exposed to the concept.

Note: samples of many of the authors mentioned here can be found in Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 10:01

OK, let's cut to the chase. GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

Phiona Mutesi lives in a Uganda slum, working hard to help her single mother provide for the family. Robert Katende is working for a church youth sports program, with a chess club on the side. When Phiona encounters the chess club she struggles to balance her fascination and love for the challenge with family responsibilities--a struggle that intensifies as her brilliant talent for the game develops. Katende fights for the chance for his best proteges to compete at ever-increasing levels.

There's always a worry when Hollywood--and especially DIsney--presents a story like this of triumph over adversity that the story will be shaped and moulded to fit conventional narratives. My perception (knowing only the story presented in the film) is that the temptation was avoided in this case. I love how Phiona's story is told from within her community and culture, not whitewashing anything (either in a literal or figurative sense) but also not presenting it though a judgmental filter. A story like this is typically presented as a parable of the power of individual talent to self-rescue from a disadvantaged origin, but as Phiona advances through her achievement, she embraces and is embraced by her community, both her neighbors in Katwe and her countrymen of Uganda. She becomes a local heroine, not a success-and-escape story.

All the major characters have their own story arcs, facing choices to make about self versus community, facing setbacks and tragedies and continuing on because that's all there is to do. And all of them struggle with flaws and fears and temptations.

At the end of the movie, even more than the symbol of Phiona's achivement (not a big spoiler, since it fits the archetypal narrative in some ways), what I loved was the credit sequence when that principal actors were joined on screen by the real-life person they were playing. This is almost a "real time" production; the book that inspired the movie was published in 2012 hard on the heels of Phiona's national championship and the movie began production in the same year.

If you want to see an inspiring success story outside of the same-old same-old of western white culture, that honors and embraces the people and culture it portrays with an unflinching gaze, make sure you see Queen of Katwe before it disappears from the fairly limited distribution it's enjoying. And if this movie doesn't win at least one Oscar there is no justice.

Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.2 The Contributions of the Sexologists

In the second half of the 19th century, psychiatrists began identifying women who transgressed gender norms as “inverts” (i.e., homosexual) and as pathological. Carl von Westphal in Germany was an early example, although his work was not widely circulated. His followers Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis had more influence.

As Faderman points out, these were psychiatrists whose case studies came from individuals who had entered treatment due to serious emotional or behavioral problems. The psychiatrists blamed those problems on the women’s rejection of traditional feminine behavior and on their erotic interest in women (although the former was considered to lead to the latter, even when it wasn’t already present). What they didn’t do, of course, was to study the lives and experiences of gender non-conforming or homoerotic women who were not emotionally disturbed. Ellis paid lip service to recognizing that many people were homosexual without any sort of morbid symptoms, but as his writings only dealt in the specifics of disturbed individuals, this was not the message his work left in the reader’s mind.

The general picture presented by these writers was that homosexuality was congenital, that it manifested in taking on masculine behaviors (including clothing preferences), and that within a female couple, only the one exhibiting these symptoms was the “true invert”--the other was merely confused and responding to the masculine presentation of her partner. Sexual activity, as such, was not a requirement for a diagnosis of homosexuality, though it was an unmistakable confirmation. Therefore the effusive emotional expressions between Romantic Friends that had previously found approval, now were seen as symptoms of “inversion” if one of the pair could in any way be found to have a “masculine” presentation (which could include such things as a love of active sports or seeking a profession outside the home).

The sexologists began digging up historical cases of passing women from criminal legal records to expand and confirm their theories. They identified “crushes” between girls at gender-segregated schools as simultaneously harmless and a morbid symptom if  the girl then went on to continue close friendships with women after school. A great many logical contortions were gone through to counter the inherent contradictions in their bodies of evidence.

Ironically, this creation of the “true congenital lesbian” gave some women a basis for embracing this identity and claiming a right to live their lives openly.

Time period: 
Friday, October 21, 2016 - 12:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.B.1 The Rise of Antifeminism

No sooner had an identifiable feminist movement arisen in the 19th century but it was answered by an anti-feminist movement. Men formed the majority of this reaction, seeing feminism as challenging their superior position, but women were prominent in writing anti-feminist tracts as well, often ignoring the irony that in doing so they violated the norms that they claimed to uphold.

Feminism and the cultivation of women’s brains was felt to be physically debilitating as well as morally suspect. Satire and caricature were employed as well as argumentation. There was a horror not only that women were becoming more like men, but that men were being “tamed down” to being like women. [These reactions echo the same gender anxieties that produced all manner of polemic tracts in the 17th century, but Faderman doesn’t comment on this cyclic nature.]

Anti-feminist anxiety rose in parallel with the actual gains women made in breaking out of traditional roles. One particular anxiety was that the “New Women” would have no need for men at all and no reason to marry. Faderman still maintains that women were sufficiently brainwashed by the myth that women had no sex drive that the desire for sexual relations with men would not be sufficient attraction to marriage. And the desire for loving companionship could just as easily be fulfilled by other liberated women.

This, then, is the turning point in public attitudes towards women’s friendships: when they have the potential to disrupt the social fabric on a large scale. By this argument, it wasn’t the friendships themselves that were felt to be dangerous, but the greater social freedom women were achieving that eroded the need for marriage on economic and social grounds. If the only remaining motivation women might have for turning to men was the desire for romantic companionship, then any competition for that desire must be suppressed.

And only now (according to Faderman) did an awareness of the possibility of sex between women become widespread, through media such as sensational French novels and decadent poetry. These ideas prompted anxiety, but it took the contributions of the medical profession, as we’ll see in the next chapter, to provide a weapon for addressing those anxieties.

Time period: 
Friday, October 21, 2016 - 09:12

This is an intricate, sprawling (if that isn’t self-contradiction) alternate history of how key aspects of African politics might have evolved differently in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, given the right nudges. One might call it “steampunk” it one also pointed out the ways in which it critiques the oft-unexamined colonialism in that genre and makes the point that technology and gadgets do not change essential human nature and human relations.

The basic story is that British Fabian socialists raise the money to buy a chunk of the Belgian Congo to try to set up a political and social utopia, as well as a foothold for undermining what they (rightly) see as the exploitive hellscape King Leopold has created. This planned utopia, christened Everfair by its British founders, rapidly becomes central to a broad struggle that eventually wins against Belgium and shifts the balance of power in Africa against colonialism. This is made possible, in part, by the introduction of several of the darlings of steampunk: dirigibles, creative use of small-scale steam power, mechanical prostheses. But these are assisted by a few less standard elements, such as what is clearly meant to be some sort of small-scale nuclear power, the assistance of a reluctant god-ridden warrior, and spying talents enabled by spirit transfer to animal bodies.

The worldbuilding is ambitious and stunning, as well as being refreshing. I felt that certain aspects of plot and characterization were weaker. There’s a very wide array of viewpoint characters, some of whom had so little page time I still have no idea what their internal motivations were. One of the strong points of characterization was the unflinching look at how racism touched every interaction, and how difficult it is to step outside of the attitudes and assumptions one is raised in. The European and American residents of Everfair struggle to get past a literal “white savior” approach and to accept when they are no longer welcome to steer the land they’ve made home.

The plot…was as diffuse, rambling, and slow-moving as a history book. (It reminded me of some of the aspects I struggled with in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.) I never really felt the shape of what it way trying to do. Characters moved from one event to the next through time…and then the book ended. And even when it ended, it trailed off for several chapters of “what are they doing now?” sort of like an engine dieseling down to a coughing finish. The book gets my bonus point for normalized romantic/sexual relationships between women (in a solidly historically grounded way--look up the "free love" movement), but not my bonus point for “kept me on the treadmill past my exercise target. I struggled a bit to keep going to the finish.

This is an ambitious book and achieved some of those ambitions very well, but for me it fell short of "blowing my mind".

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 14:30

I put out a call for blog prompts on facebook and had this suggestion: "If you could have any piece of classic literature but with explicitly canon queer character, which would you pick?"

The thing about asking this question of an author is that it isn't exactly rhetorical. You can be sure that if we have a favorite story that needs queering, we've contemplated making it so (and may even have it on the writing schedule). And with the current acceptability of classics/genre-crossovers, such projects don't need to be confined to "just for fun to circulate among friends." But I suspect the "classics" that come to my mind may be a little more obscure than most. Here are some stories that I've run across in my research and reading that I either have or plan to write my own versions of that turn faint suggestions of queerness into main-text.

The Romance of Silence - A lesser-known work in the Arthurian mythos, involving a girl raised as a boy who becomes a famed knight but gets in hot water when the queen tries to seduce "him". I've actually written a short story heavily adapted from one of the episodes in this story, with Silence coming to terms with non-binary identity in the midst of peril and adventure. The story has been collecting rejections for the last couple years and I'm running out of places it seems logical to submit it.

L'Escoufle - Another lesser-known medieval romance that is part of one of the French genealogical cycles. I like that the implied romantic connections between women arise out of women's spaces, rather than being enabled by cross-dressing and gender confusion. It is, in essence, a quest adventure with a female protagonist. I have solid plans to write a medieval fantasy based on this, but have a lot of background work to do first.

The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu - This 18th century picaresque novel (well, it's a bit more complex in genre than that) needs almost nothing except a little character self-awareness to bring out the love story between the two protagonists, who go romping across Europe together disguised as men and are constantly teasing each other about how, "If I were really a man, then I'l marry you and we'd live happily ever after." And then--at the end of the adventures--they settle down together and live happily ever after. The story doesn't need much at all to make it queer (they just need to stop with the no-homo thing all the time!) but it does need some drastic editing to make it readable for modern tastes. My plans for it are a bit more complicated than that, involving a sort of modern/historic crossover...well, let's not give too much away.

Yde and Olive - This may be the best-known and most widely adapted medieval same-sex marriage story. It's one of the several medieval romances where a cross-dressing woman gains recognition as a knight and ends up in romantic entanglements with a woman as a result. The fact that there are several variants of the story make it ripe for further adaptation.

There are also a number of older works of literature that I have plans to extract bits and pieces of, but not re-write the original story itself. (Hervor's Saga lends a significant chunk of inspiration to a Viking-era story that I've had sketched out for a couple decades.) So, not "classics" in the sense of widely-read best-sellers, perhaps. But they're all stories that, to me, call out to turn subtext into main-text and turn the queer themes from covert hints into overt plot.

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 09:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.A.5 Love and “Women Who Live by Their Brains”

There was a narrow list of available occupations for a middle-class woman in the later 19th century--teacher, nurse, glorified lady’s maid, or occupations that shaded more in to the questionable: seamstress, actress. But for a select few, the professions were beginning to open up: doctor, professor, social reformer. To succeed in these professions meant foregoing marriage to a man for a wide variety of reasons. So is isn’t surprising that many such “new women” turned to other women for companionship and to provide the everyday support functions that a man could automatically expect from marriage. And in informal writings, it wasn’t uncommon for some professional women to refer to such a companion as a “wife”, and even to refer to themselves jokingly as a “husband”.

Some couples had a fairly egalitarian arrangement, and might collaborate on their intellectual endeavors. Several examples of such couples are offered, such as Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who used the pen name Michael Field for their collaborations). [As we move into these discussions of turn-of-the-century literati, a great deal of the chapters concerns details of their lives and careers and quotations of their work. It's clear that we've reached the era of Faderman's greatest familiarity and expertise.] Examples of partnerships where the energy of both partners went to support one career--more like a traditional husband/wife arrangement--included novelist Marie Corelli, writer Alice French (writing as Octave Thanet), and French artist Rosa Bonheur. Author Louisa May Alcott never seems to have entered into any such relationship herself (though she never married) but she wrote of supportive partnerships between women in a number of her works, and also of how entering into heterosexual marriage would distract a creative woman from her career. Actress Charlotte Cushman is given as another example of a woman who entered into both equal and supportive partnerships with women.

Academic women in this era had a very practical reason for avoiding marriage: in many cases their teaching contracts required them to remain unmarried. But “bluestocking” women had long had a reputation for forming close friendships within their own circles. The example is given of the German women Bettine von Arnim and Caroline von Günderode. Similarly the American academics Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. These women saw their sort of partnership come under suspicion, and there is a painful transition as they sometimes try to distance themselves from the very structures that had supported their own careers, as when Jeannette Marks wrote a pamphlet on “Unwise College Friendships” for the students of the all-female Mt. Holyoke College. [This sort of self-hating behavior is noted in a number of early 20th century women, so it’s odd that Faderman fails to suspect that a similar internal contradiction might have explained the absence of self-examination among Romantic Friends who publicly denied the possibility of women’s sexuality.)

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 14:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.A.4 Boston Marriage

If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career. Similarly to those earlier female partnerships, the phenomenon was associated with intellectual women who often were social reformers. [Though one wonders whether there’s some selection bias in which partnerships left clear records by which they could be identified.]

Faderman is now willing to grant the possibility that some of these relationships included sexual relations, though it’s more an absence of her previous negative assumptions. (“Whether these unions sometimes or often included sex we will never know.”) She gives no specific argument for this change in evaluation, any more than she gave clear arguments for why earlier partnerships were assumed to be sexless.

Literary examples of Boston marriages, such as Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885) might touch on the competition between a female partnership and the opportunity for marriage to a man, though the male lead in The Bostonians “wins” by brute force and the woman that he wrenches away from her “Boston marriage” is clearly depicted as falling into tragedy. Whatever James intended to portray with the novel, 20th century critics later interpreted the female couple as lesbians and “perverse” and the heterosexual resolution to be preferable, even if the female partner is miserable in it. Henry James may have been inspired in his depiction of the women by his sister Alice’s close relationship with Katherine Loring--though they were never able to achieve a separate household together, due to Loring’s family commitments.

A more prototypical Boston marriage was that between the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields which spanned the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. And here we can see the shift in attitudes towards such partnerships, for when Fields planned to publish a volume of Jewett’s letters after her death, she was urged to drastically edit the expressions of affection they contained, for fear of “all sorts of people reading them wrong.”

The last example in this chapter moves all the way into self-conscious denial. Author Willa Cather shared her life for forty years with Edith Lewis, but her fiction is devoid of loving supportive female friends, and the characters who are most thought to represent self-insertions of the author appear as men in her fiction. Cather was part of Jewett and Fields’s social circle but was born a quarter century later. Thus we see a chronology of the effects of this shift in attitude, though not yet the causes.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 08:00

In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other. She tries to lay claim to being Sara's friend--after all, she didn't throw her out on the street when she could have!--and attempts to slip back into the role of flattering wealth and power. But Sara is having none of it, and Carrisford has no reason to follow any lead but Sara's. (Though this is, perhaps, less believable in the real world, where adults often reflexively support each other against the testimony of children.) When Sara holds fast to her own truth, Miss Minchin tries to turn and bite, threatening Sara with the loss of access to her friends and telling Carrisford that his new ward is "neither truthful nor grateful." It's a last stab and falls short.

And now we see Miss Minchin's edifice of control tumble down. Just as she failed to maintain her chosen narrative against Sara, she now fails to maintain control over her household. Miss Amelia challenges her version of the truth and makes it clear that she won't subordinate her conscience to her sister's lead in the future. The pupils are in an uncomtrolled uproard, knowing only that something is up, until Sara resolves their confusion in the form of a letter to Ermengarde, explaining the whole matter. There is an intimation that Sara's sudden good fortune will rub off on Ermengarde, not only via access to Sara's fabulous new/restored life of privilege, but by conveying status as Sara's friend that will fortify Ermengarde in her relations with the other girls.

Now we get to the episode where the possible realities of the story seem utterly unfair to me. And where analysis by Moral Accounting indicates that the fact of being born into a life of hard labor and uncertainty is not treated as a "credit" (and therefore inherently worthy of being balanced by reward) in the same way that being born to a life of wealth and privilege is treated as a "debt" (and therefore a state that requires balance by going through trials.)

Becky realizes that Sara's escape and the restoration of her "princess" status means the loss of her own access to Sara's friendship and the pretend worlds that had made her own life worth enduring--as well as the loss of the magical transformed attic. For nobody would continue mysteriously providing food and heat and comfort for an ordinary scullery maid. And--to a certain extent--Becky's fears are correct. Recall that Becky was only given second-hand inclusion in The Magic, and only because Sara automatically included her in every part of the good fortune. If it had been left entirely to Mr. Carrisford, no doubt Becky would have been forgotten. But Sara didn't forget her. Sara sends Ram Dass across the attic roof one last time to give Becky reassurance. Becky is to come join her at Mr. Carrisford's her personal maid.

Somehow it seems a betrayal. Sara could have continued to see Becky as "just another little girl like me". They had shared all their sorrows and small comforts for two years. Sara had made sure that Becky was included in every piece of fortune she received, whether it was sharing Ermengarde's food hamper or enjoying the gifts of her mysterious benefactor. But now, when Sara has the wealth and power and freedom to do pretty much anything she wants, the most she can find to offer Becky is a slightly higher position in service? It wouldn't occur to Becky to question the arrangement. She always knew that their apparent equality was an illusion. Sara never stopped being "miss" to her. But it seems an unexpected failure of Sara's imagination not to suggest adopting Becky as a sister and an equal, now that she has the power to do so.

To be sure, it might not be the kindest thing to do in the long run. It's unlikely that Becky would ever be comfortable being elevated to such a status. When I brought up this issue at the begining of this series, some commenters pointed out that raising a working class girl up to the middle class would have been a much less possible thing than a middle class girl falling nito poverty. But I wish Sara had thought to try, because it makes me think less of her.

Next week I'll look at the somewhat different fate of Anne, and how she demonstrates the lasting effects of Sara's example. And I'll do some sort of sum-up of why I've done this series. It's been an interesting project.


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