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

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.

Coda: We Have Always Been Modern

With this entry, we conclude Lanser's examination of how public discourse about sapphic relations parallels larger social and political concerns in the 16-19th centuries. Despite its focus on literary theory, I felt this book was an important addition to the Project. One of the reasons for examining sapphic themes in literature and art is as an inspiration for re-creating those literary and artistic themes (as I do in my fiction inspired by medieval literature). But just as important is an awareness of what ideas and images real historic women were exposed to. How might the public--even the fictional--discourse around lesbians have helped women understand and contextualize their own desires and reactions? A key aspect of writing good historic fiction is to write characters that think and act in concert with their times. As the articles covered by the LHMP show, this does not mean that women in history were incapable of understanding themselves in terms of some sort of lesbian-like identity. But it does mean that their options for understanding that identity, and their visions for what form their lives might take, could vary significantly. A story set in the heyday of Restoration libertineism presents a character with very different models for her life than one set in the Regency. (And, of course, this holds true no matter what form her erotic desires take!)

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In the concluding chapter, Lanser summarizes the themes of the study. One unifying feature of the period under study is the description of woman+woman as “new” and “unprecedented”, indicating the inability of social frameworks to resolve sapphic challenges. Sapphic relations were not the only challenge to the inherent contradictions of the age, such as the principle of consensual government coexisting with colonial slavery. But the close connection between sapphic discourse and debates about individualism, women’s rights, and the challenge to tradition and orthodoxy show the ways in which sapphic imagery was used to reflect and represent the extremes of those movements, for good or ill. Sapphic discourse could be a safety valve, an ideal, or a weapon of silencing and suppression. With the disruptions of the 18th century settling into the more solidified class and gender-specific identities of the early 19th century, the use of public sapphic discourse as a tool for engaging with those disruptions diminishes.

Lanser re-emphasizes that her concern here is with the use of the idea of the sapphic in public discourse, not with the lives of actual women in romantic or erotic relationships. But the changes in public discourse affected what strategies were available for those women to deflect dangerous interest in their private lives.

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