The Bostonians (Henry James)
This chapter tackles the question of the way in which Henry James’s The Bostonians can be considered a “lesbian novel”. The central character of Olive is clearly experiencing and motivated by same-sex desire, and critics of the work regularly dismiss it as concerning “perverse” desires, but the actual “lesbian content” is elusive when pinned down.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”.
If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career.
The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning).
While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.