Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 5 – The Diaries of Anne Lister
The "problem" of whether you can have lesbianism without f/f sex, or f/f sex without lesbianism, pops up repeatedly in the field of lesbian history. But the central theme of lesbian erasure that Castle explores in this volume can be implemented via a definition requiring sex as much as it can via the suppression or denial of sexual activity. It is certainly true that -- as Castle proposes -- many women across history (and the socieites they lived in) found it difficult to understand their desire for women except as a form of maculine identity. But unless a theory of lesbian identity also has room for femme-femme desire, and for desire that is not expressed though sexual activity, then it simply "ghosts" other parts of the lesbian spectrum. It always worries me when both those supportive of, and hostile to, queer identities in history converge on a thesis such as "Posonby and Butler can be considered lesbians if and only if they engaged in genital sex" ignoring the entire rest of the complex and multi-layered evidence for the nature of their relationship. Yes, Lister is important because she provides us with a type of first-person commentary on the topic of lesbian sex that many other women either not to record, recorded only through a far more subtle "code" than Lister's cypher, or recorded and then destroyed. But that doesn't meant that Lister's version of lesbian identity was more "real" --less ghostly -- than others.
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A motif that haunts the search for lesbian history is the assumption that – prior to the advent of sexology – female couples, no matter how clearly romantic, must not have been sexual. This motif is exemplified by couples such as Ponsonby and Butler who – it was concluded – could not have been sexual, because their relationship was publicly known and celebrated. This was aided by a deliberate campaign by the Ladies to deflect any suspicion that there was anything improper about their relationship. They contemplated bringing a libel accusation against a journalist who dared to suggest there was somethng odd about them.
That view of the Ladies was supported by the commentary of later, more openly sexual, sapphists, such as French writer Colette. Yet one of their contemporaries – diarist Anne Lister who visited them – speculated in correspondence that their love was “not platonic”. Lister herself, of course, is the clearest contradiction to the assumption of sexlessness in 18th and 19th century female pairs. Her diaries are full of detailed descriptions of her sexual exploits with women, though concealed via a cipher and coded references.
Castle compares Lister to a Jane Austin heroine: active among the local gentry and a terrible snob toward those she considers less educated and less cultured. (I’ll skip the detailed review of Lister’s exploits as they are familiar to my readers.)
Lister felt uneasy about her relations with women when they constituted adultery, but not for the simple fact of involving two women, which she considered a personal preference. Castle notes a theme of fascination and identification with Byron in Lister’s musings, and sees something of a repeated motif for a certain subset of lesbians across the long 19th century.
The butch lesbian as Byronic rake is a motif that persists to the present day. Castle connects this theme to the theory that, in a society that “ghosts” women who desire women, one way for such women to “see” themselves is as masculine in their desire.
This returns Castle to the myth of “no lesbian sex before 1900” on the principle that women could not imagine f/f sex until the sexologists presented it to them as an option. But alternate images and models, such as those that Lister reflected, were always available. And that availability was present not only for the women in these relationships, but to their relatives and associates who were reaching frameworks to understand them. Lister gives us a glimpse of a society “more worldly and comprehending than one might expect” at the time.