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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69g Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 6)

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 6: Chaste femme love, mythological pastoral, and the perversion of lesbian desire

Previous chapters examined the superficially contradictory acceptance of female homoeroticism in art (and to some extent in life) with the opprobrium given to the archetype of the physiologically-deviant tribade. Chapter 6 examines a case study in how those two themes merged to create a more "modern" lesbian prototype that extended the disapproval shown towards tribades to a wider variety of female erotic expression.

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In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Poets and other writers operating within the pastoral genre, such as Sidney's Arcadia, drew in similar motifs even when moving beyond their classical origins.

The homoerotic behavior within the pastoral genre does not typically involve appropriation of masculinity, but rather might be labeled a “femme” eroticism which is discounted and therefore accepted precisely because it does not challenge the patriarchal structure. If “sex” requires the presence of masculinity, then “femme” eroticism can be defined as chaste, even within an established community of exclusively female affections (as with Diana’s nymphs). This remained viable so long as sexual disapproval was focused on the tribade. One of the significant shifts in the transition to the 18th century was the collapse of the categories of tribade and chaste female friend into a sapphic unity. While the tribade was associated with penetrative or pseudo-penetrative sex, the romantic friend was associated with kisses and caresses. What Traub terms the “perversion of lesbian desire” is the intermingling and confusion of these two formerly separate categories. This fusion resulted, not in an extension of social acceptance to tribades, but in an extension of disapproval to a wider range of female romantic relationships.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to examining various versions and representations of the myth of Callisto and Jupiter. In brief: Callisto, one of Diana’s attendant nymphs, is seduced by Jupiter who has disguised himself as Diana, then in his own form Jupiter rapes and impregnates her which, when discovered, leads to her banishment from Diana’s company. The homoeroticism of the story lies in the seduction period when Callisto is being courted, kissed, and fondled by a person she believes to be Diana. This gave license for dramatic and artistic depictions of the tale to present erotic relations between women.

But with the conflation of this “chaste love” with tribadism, representations of the story shifted from showing Diana rejecting Callisto for the pregnancy that betrayed heterosexual relations, to rejecting her for expressing homoerotic desire for Diana. (In these versions, Diana often turns to heterosexual desire for the shepherd Endymion, further negating the originally female-exclusive community of the nymphs. But in these versions, for Callisto to continue in the belief that she has been Diana’s lover, Jupiter’s role must remain covert, eliding the rape and intimating that whatever sexual pleasure he gave Callisto is something that a woman could have given her. But for Diana to turn against Callisto for expressing desire for this form of sexual pleasure, non-penetrative "femme-femme" eroticism must be framed as unacceptable. This new version of the story participates in communicating the possibility of non-penetrative but still unchaste female homoerotic activities which, as noted before, leads to an expansion of the possibilities for female unchastity.

The chapter finishes with a consideration of how these shifts in the understanding of desire and chastity manifested within the debate over the desirability of “companionate marriage” which emphasized emotional bonds and complimentary duties between the married couple. This view of marriage also included the position that erotic desire for one’s spouse was an essential part of marriage.

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