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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82c Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 3)

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0

Publication summary: 

Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.

Chapter 3 - Fearful Symmetries: The Sapphic and the State, 1630-1749

No thrilling intro this time, I'm afraid. No time.

* * *

This chapter tackles the question of how "sameness" in the context of same-sex relations reflected and represented concerns about social leveling. It begins by considering an example of the "metamorphic" framing: a 17th c. book of curiosities that included a chapter of 24 instances of persons changing sex. Though the book was reprinted regularly, the sex-change chapter was dropped, perhaps reflecting a shift from an earlier miracle-accepting age to one more concerned with rational explanations.

When the metamorphic resolution to the problem of woman+woman is set aside, the presence of female-female relations remains a problem, but only in the context of the imperative for heterosexual marriages. Here the sapphic motif--in common with other pop culture motifs--shifts not only to reflect preoccupations of society and the state but to be used in support of those structures.

Two metamorphic plays, Benserade's Iphis et Iante and Cubillo's Añasco el de Talavera show the shift from a "pure" metamorphic resolution to something less clear-cut, resulting in a more difficult problem. In this version of Iphis, the problem of her sex is not resolved until after a happy wedding night, and her secret is known and discussed by many characters before the wedding. This makes the crisis not one of "impossibility" but of needing to identify a problem in the first place. If Iphis and Iante have married in despite of warnings and threats and have achieved a happy union as women, the social conflicts that necessitate the divine sex change became messier. It is more obvious that the change serves social rules not "natural" ones.

In Cubillo's play a woman (though a "masculine" one) openly woos another woman, in competition with a male suitor. But the pursuing woman, after engaging in duels, riots, and various scenes of mistaken identity, neither gains a metamorphic victory nor is vanquished in favor of the male suitor. Instead she muddles the plot entirely by taking charge of everyone's fates and marrying her male rival while pairing the previous object of her affections with someone else entirely. With the "natural" sex-change solution out of the picture, chaos and confusion reign. In both plays, sapphic desire pulls a woman outside the patriarchal hierarchy with resulting disruptions to the power structure.

This same dilemma is described in a 1670 poem (by a male author) of two women in "a marriage of friendship between two beauties". The (female) speaker expresses jealousy of male rivals and laments that the their "too-great resemblance" prevents the success of their arrangement. It is a bar that is stated but not demonstrated. The leveling tendency—which in non-sapphic contexts is treated as an ideal—is rejected arbitrarily, seemingly for no other reason than rejection of the resolution it would allow. There is an almost begging tone in two similar poems of the mid 17th century addressing intimate female friends and urging them to accept the impossibility of their (clearly possible) love, in favor of the poet's desires.

Order is disrupted, women do not conform to their "proper place", and men seek some power to force them that will replace the old broken hierarchies. Women are not the only beings rejecting their "proper place". The displacement of female homoeroticism to foreign lands enlarges a tendency previously seen in blaming foreigners (especially Italians) for introducing sapphism by locating sapphic activity outside Europe, and especially in Islamic lands, with a particular focus on gender-segregated spaces and practices such as the harem.

While the supposed motivation of "circumstance" (i.e., lack of access to men) is offered as "cause", the threat of sapphic contagion, spreading a "new" vice to Europe (always new, however often it appears) mirrors political hostility to the impinging Ottoman Empire. Repeatedly, polemics note the "recent" introduction of sapphism in Europe in contrast to its long existing and "natural" location in the Ottoman lands. This conceptualization of sapphic activity as associated with certain (foreign) regions undermined the prior ability to resolve sapphic conjunctions either by metamorphosis or denial.

In 18th century England there is an increase in strongly partisan political writing (from various parties) making explicit connections between sapphic relations and politics. Some of this activity at specific times can be motivated by particular individuals, in particular suspicions regarding Queen Anne's intimate relations with her ladies in waiting. The specter of inappropriate leveling in these relationships was especially raised by lower-born favorites who were thought to gain inappropriate power from becoming the Queen's equal.

Both in support and criticism of egalitarian politics, intimate connections between women are used to represent the state. Specific women with political power were attacked with accusations of sapphic relations to smear or discredit them. But outside the more personal and vitriolic accusations, sapphic imagery was used more generally in political writings to represent positive alliances and loyalties and a positive mutuality and egalitarianism. (Examples: the play Agnes de Castro and Rowe's poem "Song" which includes one at the earliest uses of the phrase "the game of flats" to refer to sex between women.) These more positive allegories of governance, it must be noted, do not coincide with the period of Anne's reign.

In contrast, the tale "The Unaccountable Wife" imagines the disasters of lower class people getting above their place, depicting a gentlewoman who dotes on her female servant and beggars herself to elevate her friend. An obscure political poem "The Sappho-an" derides the explicitly lesbian goings-on of a collection of Classical allegorical figures, connected directly in the verse to various Jacobite supporters in the mid 18th century. Other writings support the perception that women supporting the Jacobite cause were considered inappropriately active in politics and power-seeking over men.

Though the connections are far from simple, the anonymous novel Mademoiselle de Richelieu also juxtaposes same-sex affections (in the protagonists) with a leveling political stance. Lanser speculates that sapphic relations were particularly attractive as a political metaphor because real women were still firmly bound up with heterosexual structures and therefore their relationships didn't pose an actual challenge to society.

Toward the end of the 17th century the sapphic preoccupation is continuing in England and France, emerging in the Netherlands and Germany, but falling off in Spain. Spain was becoming more repressive, especially toward women. This may underlie several shifts in public literary culture, including a decline of the novel.

Time period: 

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