Literary Passionate Friendship
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 chapter looks at examples of intense, perhaps even destructive desrie that didn’t fit neatly into the available 19th century models for female love. So how did these women depict and understand their desires? One method was to displace the desire through taking on roles or working it out through fictional depictions. Some women understood their desire for a dominant position as a type of masculinity, as with the two women considered in this chapter: Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).
This book addresses the question of why, given the attention paid (if patchily) by historians to women’s friendships, the subject of erotic F/F friendship is strikingly absent from study. This erasure makes it possible to argue for the absence of lesbians in the past, but the erasure goes beyond the erotic.
This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.
The chapter begins with a list of advertisements from 1772 either from people looking to hire female companions or from women offering themselves as such. The ads represent a wide variety of situations and job requirements. When compensation is discussed it’s in terms of room and board or, in some cases, only partial room and board. The ads—surprisingly--include requests or offers of female companions for men. In some cases, explicitly excluding the possibility of sexual services.
The content of this book is taken from letters, memoirs, and fiction produced by middle and upper class women. This is primarily a choice made due to the availability of materials. These woman talk about themselves, their lives, and their living conditions, both in personal and fictional representations. Less literate women must be studied by other means, alas.
Traub claims the title of this article is a “bait and switch” as she follows Halperin in treating “homosexuality” as such as only existing in the last 100 years, with “the lesbian” as an even more recent discursive invention.
This article forms the core of Traub’s 2002 book by the same name, covered in entry #69. However summarizing this original article will provide a different angle and different details than I picked up from that previous entry.
When one of my summaries is basically a list of contents, either it means that the publication is really thin on relevant content, or it means that it’s so rich that you simply need to buy the book and put it in a cherished place on your shelf. This one is the latter. At least half the contents apply to women’s experiences (although it’s still true that the male-authored female-relevant content far outnumbers the female-authored male-relevant content) and the collection includes many of the oft-cited texts from the covered period. Far from all, but an excellent place to start.
Meem looks at the development of a public understanding of lesbian identity in 19th century English society through the life, journalism work, and novels of Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton was a contradictory figure, described by one historian as “a radical conservative, a militantly feminine antifeminist, a skeptical idealist, and a believing atheist.” Her journalism was shot through with misogyny and a belief that women should stick to the domestic sphere, while claiming economic and social independence in her own life.