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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69e Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 4)

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Chapter 4: The (in)significance of lesbian desire

LJ seems to be having an intermittent problem that, among other things, means I can't post from my work computer. Until this gets resolved I'll be posting my scheduled posts the night before from home, hence "Random Thursday" and "Teaser Tuesday" may seem out of sync.

This chapter attempts to resolve the paradox that imagery and expressions of female homoeroticism were common and positively received in popular culture--both high and low--without indicating acceptance of same-sex relationships between women on an equal standing with heterosexual marriage.

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This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose. A literary parallel is found in correspondence between the poets T.W. and John Donne where the muses of the two men are envisioned as engaging in "tribadry", standing in for their own creative relationship.

If images of this sort are not meant to valorize lesbianism, per se, what do they represent? The immediate textual source is the biblical passage "mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other" but the combination of embodying these qualities in female form and the quality of their embrace goes beyond a gesture of formal reconciliation. Their nudity and the inclusion in some cases of putti, recalling Cupid as a symbol of erotic love, cannot help but put an erotic spin on things.

Traub notes Isabel Hull's analysis of early modern sexuality, which notes that the focus on heterosexual marriage and on the social consequences of sex, rather than on the acts themselves, led to an erasure or dismissal of sex between women as "insignificant" in the literal sense: "without meaning". Therefore acts may not have been categorized as "sexual" if they had no relation to these significant foci of sexuality. The chapter goes on to consider "the way that certain bodies and bodily acts accrue meaning and intelligibility as sexual." "This consideration focuses first on law and then on the more fluid context of drama.

Movements to regularize and make sense of the largely tradition-based body of English law did not attempt to create a legal system of significance, but to build an understanding of what had already been determined to be significant. Thus there was no expectation that male and female sexual transgressions would be treated in parallel, only that a framework must be identified in which the asymmetries made sense. For example while female sexual transgression outside marriage was framed as being--or being equivalent to--prostitution, male prostitutes were condemned, not for prostitution itself, but for having same-sex relations (sodomy). By this era, women were largely absent from the category of sodomy, in contrast to medieval approaches. Laws against sodomy typically did not include women, therefore women were not prosecuted for sodomy, therefore there were no female sodomites, regardless of what activities they participated in. This legal blindness coexists with an awareness of female homoeroticism elsewhere in the culture. But the general absence of legal sanctions helps explain the lack of social anxiety around depictions of lesbian desire, making it possible to use those depictions in positive contexts.

In English drama, one major focus in studies at female homoeroticism is the cross dressing heroine. These characters create a context for erotic opportunity without permanently disrupting heteronormativity. But this focus raises a number of problems, whether in the transparency of the dramatic disguise or the surface presentation of heterosexuality. An entirely different literary tradition promotes love and desire between women as women (a "femme-femme" desire, as it were) and not mediated through male disguise. This includes the female friendships in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It as well as themes of erotic friendship in the writings of Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish.

These works emphasize closeness and inseparability, using the same language and imagery used for heterosexual love. The dramatic examples reflect a dynamic where female erotic friendships are not disrupted externally by the (eventually displacing) men, but are dissolved by the women themselves, either by choice or betrayal. Thus lesbian love is not cast as a direct challenge to men but as a passing phase.

The desire between the women was not always as chaste as portrayed in Shakespeare. Shirley's "The Bird in a Cage" flirts openly with women's sexual desire for each other. Cavendish's "The Convent of Pleasure" creates a context for homoerotics via an all-female separatist retreat in which the women amuse themselves with entertainments that include cross-dressed erotic role-play. A male wooer invades this scene in female disguise, thereby gaining access to erotic interactions with the object of his desire in the guise of homoeroticism. Pastoral imagery and role-playing add to the sense of sexual license.

The overall picture found in these plays is of a non-specific female desire that may be directed toward men or toward women, so long as male roles are not appropriated. The dramatic resolution in heterosexuality is not a male triumph but the triumph of marriage and its attendant social structures. Desire between women becomes problematic only if exclusive such that it interferes with marriage and legitimate procreation. If that desire did not interfere it was by definition insignificant. (Note that this means "insignificant to the culture" not to the participants in the relationship.)

A later chapter will examine the case where an female-oriented community, even when organized around chastity, could be viewed as sexually transgressive precisely because it interfered with marriage. The present chapter ends with several examples of conventional but passionate correspondence between female friends, one from a letter-writing manual in which the correspondent desires to "change sex for thy sake" and expresses a plan never to marry in order to devote herself to her female friend.

Time period: 

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