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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #60 Beynon 2010 “Unaccountable Women”

Full citation: 

Beynon, John C. 2010. “Unaccountable Women” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Beynon, John C. “Unaccountable Women”

I confess that, of all the articles in this collection, this one strikes me the most as being, "Hey, I have a theoretical framework that I think I can shoehorn into this collection." (The fact that the article is by one of the collection's editors does not entirely reassure me on this point.) While both of the texts that are being examined certainly include elements of female same-sex desire and the establishment of female households outside (and in opposition to) the hetero-normative paradigm, the interpretation through the lens of "economic competency" left me unconvinced. To be clear, I have no question that a study of these two texts belongs in a collection on lesbian-like topics, only that the theoretical framework felt strained.

* * *

Beynon studies fictional (and biographic) narratives of "accounts" as a window on the gendering of economic competence in the 18th century. This specific article concerns two relationships between women that are framed or viewed in terms of their economic logicalness and success: Barker's embedded story "The Unaccountable Wife" in A Patch-Work screen for The Ladies, and Defoe's Roxana. The former is an odd tale of a married couple and their female servant who is, apparently, also the mistress of the husband. The wife forms an infatuation for the servant (who may or may not return the affection) and turns the social order upside down by allowing the serving woman a life of ease while she does the menial labor of the home. The two women eventually move out together, descending into poverty while the wife continues to try to provide a life of ease for the serving woman. It is never entirely clear whether the wife's actions are considered "unaccountable" due to the social class inversion, or because she has transferred the affection and support "owed" to her husband to a woman instead. (It's possible that both are conflated in a general "world turned upside down" theme.)

Roxana similarly blurs gender and class roles. The title character, abandoned by her husband, regains her financial equilibrium by setting up as a successful courtesan with the help of her devoted and cherished maidservant. Unlike "The Unaccountable Wife", Roxana is economically competent and turns her situation to profit rather than penury. The maid, Amy, is faithful beyond expectations due to the affection she feels for her mistress, even when the latter can no longer offer her any monetary compensation (and, indeed, must rely on her for support). The language of business and love are intertwined in their relationship, sometimes uncomfortably.

The devotion the two have for each other is expressed, somewhat oddly, via having sex with the same man and bonding over "being whores together". (Amy is, in fact, very reluctant to participate in this and is coerced only due to her devotion to Roxana.) Although Defoe alludes to an eventual downfall for the women, this fate seems--if you will--unaccountable in the face at their demonstrated success, competence, and steadfast attachment as presented in the story. But to me, despite the clear emotional and economic bonds between the women, it seems an odd interpretation to consider it a "lesbian" story.

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