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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #63 Donoghue 2010 “'Random Shafts of Malice?': The Outings of Anne Damer”

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 2010. “'Random Shafts of Malice?': The Outings of Anne Damer” 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.

Donoghue, Emma. “’Random Shafts of Malice?’: The Outings of Anne Damer”

The life of Anne Damer illustrates many of the contradictions and pitfalls of female same-sex relationships in the 18th century. Was she or wasn't she? Did she or didn't she? Why did it matter to her contemporaries and should it matter to us? It's fairly easy to understand why historic attitudes could revolve so strikingly around the question of "did they have sex?" It is (in my opinion) more problematic when modern researchers or modern popular opinion treats this question as of definitive importance. All else being equal, why should our entire opinion or understanding of a relationship change based on whether erotic arousal (and even more so, acting on it) was involved?

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Like Gonda’s article on Scott and Charke, Donoghue’s examination of the Anne Damer points out the artificially polarized popular view of affection between women, where very intense romantic friendships were acceptable and even praised so long as they avoided even the rumor of erotic activity. Damer failed to avoid those rumors, but it is unclear whether her refutation of the label of “Sapphist” lay in truth or definition.

Anne was born into the upper levels of society and for all her life continued to move in elevated circles, both of society and politics. A marriage of convenience (they separated after five years) to the rich but dissolute John Damer ended with enormous debts and his suicide, leaving her dependent on family for support. As a girl, Anne had taken up sculpture and she returned to this as a vocation (though not, evidently, as paying work).

Only a couple years after being widowed, while she was traveling on the continent studying art, rumors began to circulate that Anne Damer was a lover of women--rumors propagated by a number of satirical publications that mentioned her name in such ill-disguised form that there was no question who was intended. In addition to being referred to as “Sapphick”, she was called a “Tommy” in a very early example of this slang term for a lesbian. Despite the lack of any solid evidence of sexual activity with women, and in the face of powerful friends taking publishers to task for printing the satires and rumors, these rumors continued for two decades before gradually fading.

Whether there was any basis for the sexual accusations, Damer’s life gives ample evidence that her strongest emotional ties were with women. Some of her rumored lovers were clearly women with whom she had very close--even possibly romantic--friendships. This alone hardly explains the “random shafts of malice,” as female romantic friendships were typically considered harmless and even praiseworthy at the time. Donoghue speculates that part of the explanation may lie in masculine jealousy over her successful career as a sculptor--a profession that lay outside the acceptable roles for women. She also seems to have attracted some ire for her close friendship with Elizabeth Farren, an actress involved in an extended platonic courtship with a nobleman who had the unfortunate burden of a still-living wife. The rumor mill connected Damer and Farren romantically as an explanation for Farren’s apparent chastity to the point where Farren felt compelled to drop the acquaintance.

We have a unique window on how Damer viewed the whole controversy due to extensive portions of her correspondence and journals being preserved. In particular, significant exchanges with her romantic friend Mary Berry specifically addressed the sexual rumors regarding them and whether they should change anything in their relationship to try to damp down the gossip. Their answer in the end was “no” and the two lived, for all practical purposes, as a couple until Damer’s death, after which Berry referred to herself as being “widowed”.

Damer’s correspondence makes it clear that she considered the accusations against her to be false and baseless, but it is open to question whether this was a rhetorical position, a matter of self-deception, or simply a matter of definition where she did not categorize her relationships with women as falling within the scope of what she was being accused of. Donoghue speculates that, given the prevalent definitions of “sex”, it’s not impossible that Damer did have erotic interactions with women but did not consider her actions "sexual". In any event, Damer’s life is a fascinating study of the conflicts and contradictions between the various popular views of women’s emotional and sexual ties, as well as a testament to how an individual woman could outlast even the most pointed of gossip to achieve something that could reasonably be considered a “happily ever after” ending.

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