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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82g Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 7)

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 7 - "Sisters in Love": Irregular Families, Romantic Elegies, 1788-1830

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The increasing divide between the derided image of erotic sapphic relations and the praiseworthy image of female domesticity, epitomized by non-erotic woman+woman couples, is played out in attitudes toward certain couples. The “Ladies of Llangollen” (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were firmly established in the popular imagination as the model of non-sexual romantic friendship. This desexualization of female couples (at least, those belonging to the genteel classes and intellectual circles) enabled sapphic discourse to lay claim to the increasingly important field of domesticity, rather than being seen as antithetical to it.

Female couples could simultaneously support the values of “companionate domesticity” and of individualism, but as these sets of values began to diverge, it was hard to support both at the same time. Romanticism, in general, supported transgression to the extent that it privileged individualism over social conformity, chosen affinities over prescriptive ones. This would seem a natural context for chosen affinities between women to be celebrated. But they are celebrated in the isolated individual couple, not in the collective movement that had been discredited by the sapphic sects motif. By being isolated, these couples can be idolized safely as a dead end.

Lanser explores how these themes are set out in the novels Paul et Virginie (which concerns two women forming a family after being betrayed in various ways by heterosexual relations) and Het Land (similarly portraying two women forming an idyllic marriage-like bond, this time in rejection of heterosexual relations). The Ladies of Llangollen follow this same model, living together in rustic retreat as an inseparable couple, and other similarly idealized couples are noted. In true Romantic fashion, the Ladies were the subject of elegaic poems (by poets as noteworthy as Wordsworth) that focused, not so much on the joys of their life together, but on the projected image of their eventual shared grave. The sentimentalized image contrasts oddly with Wordsworth’s private account of meeting the Ladies in person, where he described them as “curious” and “odd”. All that is erased in the poem, which turns them into pure sentimental symbol.

The chapter concludes with a consideration of the poem “Rosalind and Helen”, celebrating a similarly idyllic female couple, but also with an examination of the concept of “irregularity” as appearing in the titles and structures of Romantic verses on female couples. This poem is viewed in contrast to Coleridge’s “Christabel” which begins with a clearly erotic encounter between two women (though one shrouded in vague language and metaphor). The negative reception to “Christabel” demonstrates the shift in public attitude toward depiction of the sapphic.

Time period: 

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