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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #62 Gonda 2010 “The Odd Women: Charlotte Charke, Sarah Scott and the Metamorphoses of Sex”

Full citation: 

Gonda, Caroline. 2010. “The Odd Women: Charlotte Charke, Sarah Scott and the Metamorphoses of Sex” 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.

Gonda, Caroline. “The Odd Women: Charlotte Charke, Sarah Scott and the Metamorphoses of Sex”

I give here only the briefest summary of the lives of the women Gonda is analyzing. (As I regularly remind the reader, these summaries are not meant to stand alone, but to point people towards useful research resources on particular themes and topics.) As a fiction writer, I'm always deeply fascinated by the masks that lesbians in history might have hidden behind, and how those masks differed based on a woman's personal circumstances. Just because the popular image of the "romantic friendship" was non-erotic doesn't mean that all women subsumed in this category had non-erotic relationships -- only that overt eroticism was not something they could indulge in without leaving the safety of that "acceptable" category. And, as the details of Charlotte Charke's life show, just because a culture had a recognized category for gender-transgressing women who had eroticized relationships with other women didn't mean that women in that category could act with impunity -- only that they risked less in doing so, in part because they had less to risk in the first place.

* * *

The 18th century saw a polarization in attitudes, both in popular culture and in real life, between the "safe" de-sexualized romantic friendship (associated with educated and upper class women) and the "dangerous" sexual, gender-transgressing lesbian (associated with lower-class or socially marginalized women). Gonda looks at two women who--although their lives and careers show striking parallels--could be considered prototypes of these poles.

Sarah Scott was a "respectable" middle-class woman who left a brief unhappy marriage under uncertain circumstances, became the devoted and inseparable companion of Lady Barbara Montagu and, with her, devoted herself to charitable concerns benefiting women, and to writing novels involving women living female-centered lives. These works included the feminist utopia Millenium Hall and an adventurous novel A Journey Through Every Stage of Life, involving two female friends making their lives together by dint of one cross-dressing and passing as a man. Their adventures eventually end when Leonora gives up her male disguise for love of a man.

In contrast, actress Charlotte Charke lived a gender-bending life of her own and, if anything, toned down her exploits when writing her memoirs. She, too, had an early unhappy marriage from which she extricated herself by means of a female support network. She had a long-term and devoted relationship with another woman and sometimes referred to themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Charke was a successful actress, famous for playing "breeches parts" as well as male roles and regularly cross-dressed off the stage as well.

Scott, both in her life and fiction, seems to just barely veer off from open same-sex desire, while Clark openly alludes to it, but maintains the slimmest edge of plausible deniability through the means of play-acting and coded reference.

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