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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #100e Donoghue 1996 - Passions Between Women (Chapter 4)

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 4: A Sincere and Tender Passion

The ways that "romantic friendship" has been treated by social historians (and literary historians) in it's relationship to lesbianism generally provides more evidence for the attitudes of the historians than the attitudes of the women under study. "Romantic friendship" has swung between a safe refuge from sordid accusations to a coded label considered to universally indicate lesbian relationships. The reality, of course, is likely to be much more individual and nuanced. It is better, perhaps, to examine "romantic friendship" as an axis entirely independent of sexual activity in a way that neither erases nor inappropriately appropriates the women's lives.

* * *

In this chapter, Donoghue addresses the concept of “romantic friendship”, both as the term was use in the 18th century, and as applied by modern historians in situations when no irrefutable evidence of genital sexual activity is available. In both cases, the use of the term “friendship” tends to dismiss the strength of the bond (which frequently involved a lifelong partnership) and set up a false dichotomy between these relationships and more overtly sexual ones identified as “lesbian”. [Like a number of other historians, Donoghue implicitly criticizes Faderman for considering “romantic friendship” to be incompatible with sex.] But even the women under consideration themselves sometimes challenged the label “romantic” as implying a non-serious, fanciful approach, rather than the deep and often practical devotion they experienced.

This dichotomy has often been used to shield the upper class women who participated in the culture of romantic friendship from accusations of lesbianism, arguing that the openness and pervasiveness of the phenomenon must mean that it could not have indicated sexual desire or sexual orientation. This thinking has a strong streak of “nice girls don’t” where women capable of expressing the elevated sentiments of friendship in literature or in their own lives couldn’t possibly have been so perverted as to participate in lesbian sex. These interpretations are further confounded by the different attitudes and language used by 18th century women regarding physical expressions of love. “Chaste kisses” can mean something different to a woman who perceives only penetrative sex with a man as unchaste.

The class differentiation in how women’s relationships were viewed and described comes in part from differences in women’s ability to present their own lives for posterity, with poetry and literature being largely the provenance of the educated classes, while working class women’s lives and relationships were often filtered through the legal system and sensationalist popular media.

The specific examples Donoghue offers fall in several categories: some lesser-known poems celebrating friendship between women, household arrangements and marriage patterns such as the issues of spinsterhood and reconciling relationships with both sexes, and finally the rumors and gossip of the time that clearly linked alleged romantic friendships with imagined lesbian activity.


Rather than focusing on the most familiar works of Katherine Phillips or Aphra Behn, Donoghue presents works such as Anne Killigrew’s “On the Soft and Gentle Motions of Eudora” (1686), Jane Barker’s “On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow, Mrs. E.D. having Dream’d the night before I heard thereof, that I had lost a Pearl” (1688), one of the less commonly published Behn poems that uses imagery of Diana/Artemis, Anne Finch’s poem to the Countess of Salisbury, and several others. All these works express their authors’ feelings in strongly sensual terms, often dwelling on physical descriptions, and using classical allusions that suggest passionate feelings. And yet it was sufficiently possible to overlook problematic readings that Killigrew’s poems were published posthumously by her father with no apparent qualms for her reputation.


One theme rarely addressed by historians is the conflict between two philosophies. One was the position (taken by their 18th century contemporaries) that romantic friendship between women coexisted peacefully with heterosexual marriage, preparing women (in a safely non-sexual context) for passionate attachment, and perhaps taking pressure off of husbands to fulfill all their wives' emotional needs. The other was a genre of anti-marriage literature in women’s writing of the era that associated romantic friendship specifically with a rejection of—and even revulsion for—heterosexual marriage. Spinsters occupied an ambiguous space in this scheme, on the one hand framed as pathetic “leftovers” of the marriage market, but on the other hand offering a context of pro-woman and anti-marriage sentiment among women who were free to prioritize their own freedom and their relationships with other women.

Non-domestic opportunities for women were being systematically eliminated during the 18th century and yet marriage rates, rather than increasing in response, dropped steadily from the end of the 17th century. By 1725, perhaps a quarter of the daughters of the landed gentry were lifelong singles. Larger economic forces (particularly those regarding inheritance and dowries) may have been involved, but there are open discussions of chosen spinsterhood. While the circumstances of women at various economic levels were different, every level offered opportunities to choose an unmarried life by some means. And there are anecdotal records indicating that for at least some of them it was a deliberate choice, such as the Welsh maid-of-all-work (not the easiest of professions!) who earned enough to refuse 12 proposals of marriage because she “preferred seeing more of the world.”

The rhetoric used in this era against spinsters echoes that heard in the late 20th century against lesbians: they’re single because they’re ugly (or ugly because they’re single), they’re crazy, they’ll come to regret rejecting men. On the other side, treatises such as those by Mary Astell (who identified herself on at least one of them as “a Lover of her Sex”, but one should hesitate to assuming a purely sexual sense of “lover”) argue against marriage due to it requiring a subjugation of women little better than servitude and one that rarely leads to happiness.

Other tracts more explicitly link the unmarried state to the opportunity to find happiness in companionship with other women. The women known as Bluestockings provide key texts regarding the connections between singlehood, lifelong romantic friendships, and intellectualism. These ideas were sometimes highlighted in the context of their difficulties, especially when marriage by at least one party could not be avoided. A variety of female-authored novels of this period explore the themes with a bit more freedom, such as Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762).

These pro-singlehood (or anti-marriage) texts don’t seem to have provoked systematic negative attention from men at the time, who sometimes viewed them as after-the-fact justifications from women unlucky in love or unable to attract a proposal. Only occasionally is there a hint of suspicion, such as the memoirs of George Elers who noted that his efforts to court his 16 year old cousin were in vain and that her female friends assured him that he’d made no impression on her at all. Subsequently she formed a romantic attachment to another young lady which Elers explicitly connects as being similar to the “affection” of the Ladies of Llangollen. The overall impression is one of a young woman who, though not yet specifically attached at age 16, had already discovered a disinclination for heterosexual marriage in favor of female relationships. (The two women evidently formed a joint household and when one died young of consumption left her entire fortune to the other.)

Divided Hearts

One significant genre of literature about passionate female friendship involves a triangularly shared life, typically where one of the women has entered a marriage of convenience, but sometimes involving women who have equally passionate relationships with women and men (though, of course, in a context where the protections and privileges of those relationships were far from equal). Examples include the following:

  • Aphra Behn’s poem “To Mrs Harsenet” (1692), where a woman finds herself attracted to a female “rival” more than to the man who pursues them both.
  • Catharine Trotter’s Olinda’ Adventures was likely a fictionalized account of the author’s complex relationship with Lady Sarah Piers as well as with a series of men.
  • Trotter also wrote a play Agnes de Castro depicting the love triangle of a female character equally attached to male and female loves, even when the man transfers his affections to her female friend. (Trotter wrote other works with similar themes.)
  • Trotter's contemporary Mary Pix wrote two tragedies similarly involving the conflict between the heterosexual imperative and passionate female friendship.
  • Several of the novels of Sarah Fielding involve love triangles where the attachment between two women is challenged by the intrusion of a man.

Another subgenre involves women consoling each other after being done wrong by a man, and having that consolation grown into love (e.g., novels of Eliza Haywood). The female relationship does not always win out as strongest, though, as in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary, A Fiction (1788).

The Distance Between Us

Although similarity is a formulaic focus of female friendship literature at this period, some examples focus instead on the potential for passionate friendship to cross barriers of difference. Differences in social status are seen as particularly hazardous. (Moral literature viewed lower class women as a potential source of dangerous ideas about lesbian sex.) In Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) the class divide between two girls turns a passionate bond into sadistic exploitation.

Power differentials intruded into the real-life friendship between working class poet Ann Yearsley and her bluestocking mentor Hannah More. More often, this differential framed the lower class partner in the stereotype of devoted follower, as in Charlotte MacCarthy’s The Fair Moralist (1745) and Charlotte Lennox’s Henrietta (1758). The trope was also used by working-class playwright Jane Wiseman in her tragedy Antiochus the Great (1702).

Suspecting Impossiblities

Despite the often passionate expressions of affection in the preceding works, typically they stop short of addressing sexual activity, either as a reality or to refute it, but this is not always the case. Horace Walpole’s private letters make clear, if veiled, accusations of lesbianism against two female couples of his acquaintance who were generally accepted as romantic friends.

Accusations that close friendship had slid over into lesbianism generally were politically motivated (whatever the factual basis for them), such as those made against Queen Marie Antoinette, and it was not until the 19th century that such accusations tended to shift towards the bohemian set rather than the aristocracy. Anne Conway Damer fell into both camps and became the subject of relentless, pointed rumors regarding her sexuality for much of her life. (Rumors that most likely were true, but that would not explain why she was singled out for the attention.)

The double-think regarding passionate friendship and the ways in which sexual relationships between women could be both derided and erased are summarized nicely in the writings of notorious gossip Hester Thrale who frequently speculated negatively on the homosexual tendencies of her acquaintances, and yet remained a close friend and visitor of the Ladies of Llangollen (typically held up as paragons of non-sexual romantic friendship) while still describing them in long-overlooked diaries as "damned Sapphists.”

Time period: 

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