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LHMP #146 Vanita 1996 Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination

Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 1996. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-10551-7

Publication summary: 

A study of 19th century English writers working on homoerotic themes, with attention to how Sappho and the Virgin Mary feature as alternative models of female bonds and women’s creativity.

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Introduction: Imagined Ancestries

Vanita was inspired by looking at Virginia Woolf as a Sapphic writer in the contexts of the Aestheticists and Romantics to challenge the idea that Sapphic writers were isolated from mainstream literary traditions. [Note: This beginning point explains why such a significant amount of the later part of the book focuses on Woolf and her contemporaries.] She looks at love between women as a literary force for both female and male writers, in contradiction to post-Freudian views of writers as operating in a phallocentric universe. These forces manifest in several ways: women’s search for non-biological ancestry (and descent) as creators, an erotic aesthetic focused on joy rather than reproduction, and love between women in literary and mythological ancestors.

The Marian model of relationships between women focuses on a mother-daughter dynamic of nurturence and mentorship, while the Sapphic model focuses on a passionate dialog between women. Both involve female communities and the models are not exclusive. The models considered here are not specifically about sexuality, but do center on erotic and affective preferences. Vanita is less concerned with issues of class than gender and sexuality, considering class to be less stable.

Romanticism was concerned with a search for alternate non-biological forms of family and community--a search for intellectual and spiritual ancestors in contrast to society’s primacy of biological ancestry. Affective relationships show an overlap between the “mentor” and the “crush”. Non-biological kindred are linked to relationships between women by pinning immortality on textual survival, not on the production of children.

Victorian radical and feminist networks included important alliances of homosexually-inclined men and women, and these networks are particularly apparent in literary communities. Vanita wants to challenge the traditional view of gender segregation in these networks. She reviews various schools of thought regarding gender dynamics in history and argues they omit significant chunks of data that incorporate themes of bonds between women. For example, she examines the concept of Mary’s immaculate conception as a ret-conning [my label] of her “perpetual virginity” as a way of elevating the Virgin to an icon of autonomous creativity and women’s community. As another example of overlooking female communities and bonds, she points out that Foucault’s focus on the historic influence of gender segregation fails to consider the female side of gender-segregated societies, such as Sappho’s community. Further, she criticizes the tendency to gender sexual activity as inherently masculine and love as inherently feminine.

Chapter 1: The Marian Model

The cult and legend of the Virgin Mary developed on a foundation of very thin fact, but created alternative models of femaleness for women in pre-modern England. [Note: in fact, throughout Christian history, but this book is looking specifically at England, so the discussion is skewed in that direction.] Mary gave women a focus for empowerment and a basis for rebutting misogyny. After the Reformation, Mary worship became identified with Catholicism, which was problematic in England. Mariolatry became a focus for Protestant hatred and also a focus of anxiety in the Catholic hierarchy, where it was felt to be tinged with paganism.

Catholicism was a continual fascination among English intellectuals but was viewed negatively in English popular culture. Catholic clergy and nuns were often portrayed as sexually frustrated or perverted. But the cultural presence of Mary was not so easily stigmatized, due to her pervasive presence in art, everyday life, and popular culture, not least because of the omnipresence of the name “Mary” for historic reasons. In the 19th century, there was a shift from framing Mary as the “mother of God” to seeing her as an autonomous agent, acting on behalf of mankind. [Note: I’m assuming that Vanita is referring narrowly to post-Reformation English perceptions here, as the image of Mary as an autonomous intercessor goes much further back.]

Due to the exclusion of Mary from Protestant theology, Protestant writers were free to re-imagine her in new and transgressive ways. For example, discourse around the word “conception” was highly gendered. For a man, “conception” immediately evoked inspiration and intellectual pursuits, while for a woman it assumed biological children. Biological conception frames women as a passive recipient, while intellectual conception is framed as active. In contrast, images of the Annunciation depict Mary with signifiers of the intellectual framing of conception: she is alone, in contemplation (very often depicted as studying a book). She is shown “receiving” Christ in the way one would receive an idea, absent of biological functions. There is an absence of the imagery of heterosexual conception. God is symbolized as a a dove, or via the image of a genderless angel. Mary receives a “word”, the usual precursor to intellectual conception, not pregnancy.

Mary’s experience cannot be duplicated by ordinary women, but can inspire imitation. The state of virginity implies that one is safe, free, and autonomous (i.e., not under a husband). But if “sex” is defined entirely in terms of penetration, then virginity does not imply a non-erotic existence. The immaculate conception (i.e., Mary herself being born free of original sin) and virgin birth (of Christ) create an image of a non-biological (in the sense of non-heterosexual) lineage that focuses primarily on female antecedents. Mary also presents a model of marriage resistance in that legend attributes to her a refusal to marry until assured that her marriage to Joseph would be chaste.

Protestantism rejected the concept of celibate religions vocations, and the Puritan concept of “companionate marriage” could be seen as a similar rejection of celibacy. In this context, a woman’s refusal to marry made her suspect. Mary presented one of the few models for an alternative. Early Christian legends often associate marriage refusal with martyrdom (i.e., virgins who aspire to a life of chastity or simply refuse to marry a pagan are martyred in punishment for their resistance). Spiritual marriage to Christ was another way of framing marriage resistance. But in the secular realm, unmarried women--especially older women--were seen as a social “problem” and a disruptive force.

Another symbolic association of Mary is books and reading. She is commonly associated with female education, or with her role in the education of the young Jesus.

It is possible that one of the attractions of Catholicism for homosexuals was the practice of confession and absolution, and the framing of suffering as a positive experience, with Mary providing a compassionate and forgiving response. The cult of Mary was attractive to marginalized people in general, offering mercy as contrasted with the rigidity of the law. For that matter, legend suggested that Mary herself was accused of (hetero)sexual transgression due to her unmarried pregnancy.

Chapter 2: The Sapphic Sublime and Romantic Lyricism

Vanita suggests that the Sapphic ode is one of the foundational inspirations for English Romanticism. It is defined by an intensity of personal and emotional voice. Instead of making logical and rational arguments, the Romantic position is to be overpowered by emotion--an experience that is at the core of Sappho’s poetry. Like Sappho’s work, Romantic poetry frequently uses dialogues between women or feminized entities such as Nature. In Romanticism, models for relationships--even between men--elevate nurturing and tenderness. The Romantic movement challenges the perception that male writers have always ignored and trivialized women’s writing. Vanita discusses Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as an example of this perception. There is a conflict between looking at academic writing about women versus imaginative writing about women. A Room of One’s Own focuses on the former but even Woolf notes the influence of women in men’s imaginative writing.

Vanita challenges the literary historians’ assumption that Sappho as an icon of love between women emerged only in the late 19th century (with the influence of the sexologists) and that previously the Phaon myth (framing Sappho as heterosexual, at least at the end) reigned. She traces the history of English familiarity with Sappho’s work, both in Greek and Latin and in translation, and traces the timeline of knowledge and discussions of Sappho’s homoerotic expressions. Although Anne Dacier’s French translation (17th century) largely elides Sappho’s lesbianism, she was an anomaly. Dacier’s father (Tanneguy LeFevre) published an edition of Sappho's works with commentary that confirmed her lesbian interests. In the 18th century, discussions of Sappho included reference to at least four specific women thought to have been her lovers. There are also poetic acknowledgements of Sappho’s homoerotic interests, such as in John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633).

The Romantic poets had a fascination for the icon of Sappho as a great poet and experimented with works in what they considered her characteristic meter and style. These works were associated with floral and pastoral imagery and with “clitoral eroticism”, and references to both the Marian and Sapphic models of women’s relationships. Mary is often depicted with floral imagery. Sappho’s poetry frequently makes reference to specific flowers and floral garlands. The imagery of flowers and gardens is prominent in Romantic poetry. The chapter concludes with discussion of some specific Romantic works on these themes, e.g., by Keats, in which the garden is presented as feminine and faces incursions and attacks from forces depicted as masculine.

Chapter 3: Ecstasy in Victorian Aestheticism

Vanita examines the writer Walter Pater and influences from medieval, Rennaisance, and Romantic models of love between women, focusing on the theme of “images of clitoral ecstasy”. Pater saw love between women as a crucial model for love in general, including male homoerotic love. There were two competing models of male homoeroticism at that time, one focusing on “manly comrades” with themes of militarism, the other with Romanticism’s appeal to the past.

There is a discussion of Victorian era alliances between male homosexual radicals and feminists. Pater’s critical study The Renaissance is discussed in detail [Note: Much of the rest of this book consists of focused studies of specific works and authors. These notes are going to skim them fairly lightly.]

In comparison to Pater, J.A. Symonds falls on the “manly homoeroticism” side, displacing the passionate/hedonistic attributes of homoerotics onto Sappho (discussed in his study of Greek poets) and collaborating with Havelock Ellis on theories of homosexuality. He saw female same-sex passion as “unfruitful” and indicating a lack of control, contrasting with a cultural ideal of manliness. He saw a connection between male homoerotic love and genius.

Also discussed is the painter Simeon Soloman, an associate of Pater, who produced many homoerotic images of both men and women, including depictions of Sappho. Criticisms of his work included accusations that it was “insufficiently manly.” The chapter concludes with discussions of several other poets, including Oscar Wilde, who included Marian themes of compassion for those in despair.

Chapter 4: Anarchist Feminism and the Homoerotic

The highlighted authors in this chapter are Wilde, Carpenter, and Shelly. Oscar Wilde viewed the ends of feminism not as helping women better fulfill stereotyped roles (e.g., “to be a better mother”) but in an anarchist context. He provides an example of Victorian homosexual men promoting women’s education to enable women to have greater freedom and creativity, rather than to become better wives and mothers. As editor of Women’s World, he promoted women’s opinions regarding their own needs, including non-European voices. There is a discussion of Shelly as being popular among late 19th century writers on same-sex friendship and love in a feminist context. The latter part of the chapter is a long detailed analysis of Shelly's familial verse drama The Cenci”.

Chapter 5: The Search for a “Likeness”

One of the continual conflicts in the philosophy of love is between whether similarity or difference is the driver of desire. This chapter looks at the trope of likeness or similarity in 19th century women’s writing as “forging mythologies of love between women”, especially in the work of Jane Austen, the circle of the Ladies of Llangollen, and “Michael Field” (the writing pseudonym of Katherine Harris Bradley and her neice and partner Edith Emma Cooper).

The mythology of similarity as an ideal offered space for resistance to marriage and parenthood. Romantics worked with two major paradigms of love as likeness: the concept of God creating man “in his image”, and Plato’s image of the beloved as reflecting the “likeness of the world above” on earth. Themes of women experiencing love based on similarity are sometimes criticized as mere narcissism.

Austen’s Emma is analyzed as an example of a woman attracted to the the possibility of creating a beloved in one’s own likeness. Emma is continually searching for connection with other women or mourning the loss of connection. She seeks to replace the lost mentor-sister relationship she had with her governess by becoming a mentor in turn, but this quest is somewhat abruptly replaced with a heterosexual resolution.

In contrast, the Ladies of Llangollen (two upper class Irish women who eloped together to Wales and spent the rest of their lives as a couple) created that relationship of perfect similarity, abetted by female allies. Contemporary poets celebrated their idyllic union and they referred to each other with language that emphasized likeness, such as “better half”. They challenged attempts to reframe their relationship as mimicking a heterosexual couple (with Eleanor Butler cast as “the man”). Though they habitually dressed in a somewhat masculine-influenced fashion (riding habits and top hats), the emphasis was always on their similarity.

Michael Field was the nom de plume of two women engaged in a literary and romantic partnership. When the alias was uncovered, they explained that it had been chosen to free them from the limits and preconceptions imposed on female authors. Use of the common name created a symbolic unity. They used the language of marriage to describe their relationship and referred to their common literary output as their children. Their work regularly included themes of how the joining of two people “of exactly the same nature” produced a stronger whole. Their use of classical allusions in poetry included references to Sappho.

Chapter 6: Sapphic Virgins: Mythmaking Around Love Between Women

This chapter looks at Romantic anarchism as a contrast to models of patriarchal violence. The scope is late Victorian and early 20th century writers that combine Romanticism with concepts of evolution. They use idealized relationships between women as an ideal toward which humanity evolves.

George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads posits a shift in evolution from the physical to the mental, symbolized by the heroic feminine. The protagonists are “new women” whose bond (disrupted by heterosexual imperatives) is the core of the story. It presents virginity, marriage resistance, and non-heterosexuality as evolved traits. The conclusion retains this focus, though not in a triumphant fashion.

E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End similarly disparages heterosexual marriage and elevates love between women, though not in an uncomplicated way.

Hope Mirrlees' Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists (the Jansenists were a theological movement emphasizing original sin and the necessity of divine grace) openly invokes both Sappho and Mary. The protagonist Madeleine fuses Sapphic and Marian myths and is overt in the erotic and sexual aspects of her yearning for her namesake, the (historical) novelist Madeleine de Scudéry. The story situates the character in the precieuse tradition that considers perfect friendship as only possible between two women. The protagonist sees her beloved as “the modern Sappho” and her lifelong attraction to women is traced. She prays to Mary to grant her friendship with her beloved and fantasizes declarations of love but fails to express them in person. When she finally meets the object of her desire, both are disappointed in the other. The story ends in madness and disappointment, but an epilogue to the work, supplied by Mirrlee’s partner Jane Harrison, frames the protagonist as a divinely-mad artist rather than a victim of despair.

Chapter 7: Biography as Homoerotic Fiction

Victorian biographies that framed “geniuses” of the past (Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, DaVinci) as homoerotically inclined were a way of legitimizing those feelings by the biographers. If history is the biographies of great men, and great men can be linked to homoeroticism, then the course of Western Civilization can be seen as founded on homoerotic impulses. Vanita looks at the interface between homoerotically inclined academic histories by authors like Pater, and the works of sexologists like Freud who treated the same historical figures.

The majority of the chapter focuses on Virginia Woolf’s biographical fictions in a similar context of romanticizing homoerotic aspects of historical figures--both “great men” and ordinary people. The author looks at the experience and performance of homosexuality in the Bloomsbury group, combining a sublimated repression that was turned into artistic expression, alongside open eroticism and hedonism. Woolf intertwined her experience of alliances with male homosexual friends and her construction of love between women. The interplay of bonds of non-sexual friendship within the group created ambiguity when marriage might express an intellectual intimacy within a community of “outsiders” rather than being inspired by erotic love. In a context where works overtly addressing lesbianism (e.g., The Well of Loneliness) were banned, Woolf could use male homoeroticism as a dodge for considering her own homoerotic desires in writing.

Chapter 8: The Wilde-ness of Woolf

This chapter is a detailed analysis of Woolf’s Orlando and other works. It discusses how the intepersonal loves and conflicts among Woolf’s circle of female friends and lovers affected and appear in their writing.

Chapter 9: Dogs, Phoenixes, and Other Beasts

This chapter discusses the concept of difference as essential in (heterosexual) attraction, and of the developing concept of homosexuals as a “third gender”. It explores the use of non-human creatures to express this sense of otherness in homoerotic texts, through also drawing on the tradition of animal stand-ins in heterosexual love poetry. Vanita explores how the symbolism attached to the chosen animals expresses attitudes toward, and experiences of homoerotic desire. The detailed discussion revolves in particular around the works of Virginia Woolf.

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