Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
The book opens with an examination of female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman). The encounters he describes follow a common pattern for this type of literature where women are seen as being sexually voracious and might amuse themselves with women to avoid either the condemnation or consequences of an affair with a man, but who are eager to turn to men when the opportunity offers.
The putative frustration of women trying to sexually satisfy each other is seen in poems such as Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin’s Sonnett XXXII "Two Beauties Tender Lovers" and Pontus de Tyard’s “Elegy for a Woman who Loves Another Woman.” The latter, though, acknowledges the possibility of women seeking ennoblement through such a relationship, and not simply gratification. Other poems were more satyric in intent, such as François Mainard’s “Tribades seu Lesbia” which hints at digital stimulation, but Faderman notes an absence of the same level of vitriolic attack that is found against male homosexuals.
Some of the most popular depictions of sex between women emphasized it as “preparation” for heterosexual activity, either in the sense of learning techniques (as in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), or as a direct prelude to a man joining the women in bed, as in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova.
Medical manuals of the 18th century that touch on sex between women tend to treat it as a subset of masturbation. There is a brief mention of how sex between women faced more hostility if one of the women was a “transvestite”, due to the challenge to male status, but neither “passing women” nor “female husbands” appear in the book’s index (except for the inclusion of Fielding’s book The Female Husband) and this entire topic seems to have been passed over.
Faderman notes that the women in these stories “function in an amoral universe” and that the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman does not appear until the 20th century. “Unlike in our century, it was seldom believed in earlier eras that non-procreative sexual behavior might carry over to autonomous social behavior, unless a woman flamboyantly demonstrated the connection, by transvestism for example.
In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.
Male authors also emphasize that when penetrative sex (whether involving a man or an instrument) is absent that other types of activities, such as kissing, caressing, and embracing, must be by definition unsatisfying. This theme comes up in Sir Philips Sidney’s Arcadia and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
The genre of medical literature that was beginning to take note of the role of the clitoris in female sexual satisfaction echoed this interpretation in imagining that sex between women necessarily either caused or was caused by a clitoris that was sufficiently enlarged to function as a penis.
Faderman’s conclusions--though based entirely on male-authored works--are that relationships between women that involved admiration, tenderness, and mutual concern never involved genital activity; that only genital activity was considered “lesbian” regardless of what other erotic components might be present; and that women would never have conceived of a definition of lesbianism that was defined solely by genital activity and in particular by penetrative sex.
In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later. The tropes it uses will be echoed regularly up through the 20th century: an older woman seduces a younger (both beautiful and feminine in appearance) who will eventually be “rescued” by a man; sexual practices are diverse and shade into S&M; a secret formal organized club of lesbians who gather for pseudo-religious rituals and orgiastic practices; and a derogatory association of lesbians and Catholics. Fictional treatments such as this were treated as historic documentation by later writers.
Mairobert’s story follows a girl who is obsessed with sexual stimulation, runs away from home and is taken in by a madam who discover’s the girl’s large clitoris and trains her to satisfy a female clientele with lesbian tastes. (The girl is named--with no subtlety at all--Sapho.) The goal of the work is clearly titillation for the male reader, while ending with reassurance that hetersexuality will triumph.
A secondary purpose of the book was as a roman à clef, intended to harrass and embarrass specific contemporary women with thinly-veiled characterizations. This use of lesbian sex literature appears repeatedly, as in William King’s The Toast (1736), written as revenge against Lady Frances Brudenell for besting him in a business deal. Social and legal assertiveness is attributed to an unnatural sexual appetite that reveals itself in a pansexual libido, but with undue attention turned toward interactions with other women. The goal was to inspire others to shun the target of the satire, lest their own sexuality become suspect.
This same technique had been used earlier by Anthony Hamilton against a Miss Hobart at the court of Charles II of England in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont. A more extensive and broad-based campaign accused the French Queen Marie Antoinette of lesbian relationships with the ladies of her court. As with the other cases, the underlying motivation appears to have been hostility to female social or political power and to the potential influence of personal bonds between women. In most of these cases, accusations were not confined to lesbianism, rather that accusation was simply one feature of an indiscriminate and voracious sexual appetite.
Aside from hostility to powerful women, accusations of lesbianism were a feature of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in England. The classic example is Diderot’s The Nun, where an innocent girl, sent to a convent against her will, is the victim of sexually predatory and sadistic nuns. While anxieties about sexual activity in all-female institutions had featured in literature back into the 16th century [and even earlier, in penitential literature of the church itself] this new genre blended religious animosity with hostility toward women with authority, such as abbesses. (In Diderot’s case, his literary hostility also may have been inspired by jealously of his mistress’s close relationships with her sister and other women, though the answer may be even simpler as his writings show a streak of misogyny that stands out even for his day and age.)
After relating this catalog of literature in which male authors use lesbianism as a means of expressing general hostility toward women with influence and power, as well as for exacting revenge against particular women, Faderman concludes, “Lesbianism itself was seldom the focal point of attack in these works. Eighteenth-century men do not appear to have viewed love-making between nontransvestite women with much seriousness. The most virulent depictions of lesbian (or rather pansexual) behavior seem to have been rooted in the writer’s anger at a particular woman’s conduct in an area apart from the sexual. Her aggressive sexuality was used primarily as a metaphor.”
In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.
Beginning in the 16th century, English moralists railed against women appropriating individual male garments or styles, as in the pamphlet Hic Mulier. But in an era when clothing was, in general, strongly distinguished by gender, it was relatively easy for a woman to pass as male. Cross-dressing was not automatically associated with lesbian sex, even when it created the opportunity. Some autobiographical accounts of passing women, such as sailor Mary Anne Talbot, indicate they had no interest in female romantic attention. But when sexual activity was involved, penalties could be severe, up to and including death.
Faderman jumps back to the medieval period to contrast the story of Yde and Olive (where the cross-dressing Yde risks death for marrying Olive) and the real-life situation of troubadour Bieiris de Romans who addressed a love song to another women but who did not take on a male persona, either in text or life. Other examples of non-crossdressing women who received lenient responses to lesbian sexual encounters include Sara Norman and Mary Hammond in Plymouth colony (1649). But legal cases where passing women married or had sex with other women often resulted in execution, as in the case reported in 1566 by Henri Estienne, one in 1580 recorded in Switzerland by Michel de Montaigne, the German trial of Catharine Margaretha Linck in 1721, and the alleged Turkish example in the 1749 polemic Satan’s Harvest Home.
Although no executions are noted in England or America, similar cases made their way into sensationalist literature, as with Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband, which was based on the true story of Mary Hamilton. And if a passing woman married and lived a quiet, upstanding life--such as Mary (James) How in the mid 18th century, even later discovery might have no serious consequences. Even in countries where severe punishments were meted out, there is a suggestion that consequences might be lesser if deception were not an issue, as in the case of Henrica Schuria (told in Robert James’s Medicinal Dictionary) who had passed as a man to serve as a soldier, but whose sexual affair with a widow after returning home only merited whipping and banishment, perhaps because she did not conceal her gender and because a dildo was not involved. Similarly, the case of Anne Grandjean in Grenoble received a relatively light sentence for marrying a woman because she was thought to be genuinely in doubt about her gender.
The complex intersection of gender, sexuality, and class is noted in the case of Queen Christina of Sweden who was known for cross-dressing (although clearly not in order to deceive about her identity) and whose romantic/sexual interest in women was documented both before and after her abdication from the throne. At the other end of the social scale, actresses and other performers, such as Mary Frith in early 17th century England, and Mademoiselle de Maupin in late 18th century France could use crossdressing as part of their public persona, even in combination with sexual relations with women, and be given a pass, perhaps for not attempting a complete disguise, perhaps because of public support for their flamboyant presentations. Actress Charlotte Charke also received benefit of a forgiving public when her autobiography detailed crossdressing adventures and romantic encounters with women.
Of the many women who crossdressed to enter the military, Faderman notes Deborah Sampson and plays up the possibility that her flirtations with women while passing may have been evidence of lesbian orientation, despite her marriages to men both before and after her military service.
This chapter tackles the public discourse around intense same-sex friendships among both women and men. Male friends took as their model the concepts of Platonic friendship expressed by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The language could be quite passionate, but did not assume a sexual component. And unlike the existing models for male homosexual relationships which tended to involve differences in age and status, these ideals of Renaissance friendship focused on equality and mutuality, sharing “one bed, one house, one table, and one purse” and barely troubled when one or the other married. This emphasis on equality meant that there was a resistance to the idea that such friendships could exist between men and women. But women, too, could partake of passionate friendships of equals. The literature of female friends--whether in their own words or as characters in male-authored fiction--is directly comparable to that between male friends.
Intense statements of lifelong commitment can be found in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, in the correspondence of French noblewomen such as Madame de Sévigné, and in the works of poets such as Katherine Philips. Faderman asserts, however, that the passionate language of seduction that Philips borrows from the work of John Donne does not mask sexual desire, as it did for Donne, but only a literal request for declarations of love. She holds that the fact that Philips’ contemporaries considered her work a model of platonic friendship meant that it held nothing deeper. And that when men expressed jealousy of women’s bonds with each other, as in Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645), they could do it in a teasing way, assured that the women would still turn to men for sexual satisfaction. Whatever sensuality existed within those expressions of friendship “must have been within the realm of the acceptable” since it was expressed publicly. And since it was acceptable, it must not have been erotic.
This general acceptance of intense romantic (but non-sexual) friendships, Faderman holds, was inherited by the 18th century and left a legacy of male unconcern for such expressions.
As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.
In the 17-19th centuries, fashion recognized women’s close emotional and romantic bonds as “normal” in this sense, and further, that fashion condoned them as desirable. Public “romantic friendships” such as the celebrated one between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) were not considered improper, as such a friendship would be between unmarried opposite-sex persons.
Opinions varied whether such romantic friendships should be viewed only as practice for the devotion a woman would be expected to give a husband, or whether they were a “natural” outgrowth of feminine nature, to which was attributed sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion. As a gross oversimplification, male writers tended toward the first opinion, while women’s accounts of their own romantic friendships tended toward the second. There is also a suggestion, in the representation of romantic friendships in literature, that they allowed a useful emotional escape valve for women trapped in dysfunctional marriages, in an era where marriage was an expected life path but divorce was next to impossible.
This benevolent view was not entirely universal. The polemic Satan’s Harvest Home deplores “two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it.” And though the text asserts certainty that Englishwomen were not capable of being “criminally amorous” with each other (as the publication describes that foreign women might be), to raise the possibility is to acknowledge it. Male authors, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) often portrayed close female friendships as inherently ephemeral, but other works (even by male authors) depicted such friendships as enduring and even triumphing over heterosexual bonds.
Although the above examples are primarily English, French writers of the 18th century reflected a similar recognition of intense female friendships that used the language of passion and often reflected lifelong bonds that eclipsed those of family. Such a friendship was the subject of Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle Héloise, but the real-life equivalent was seen in women who carried each other’s portraits, attended salons together, and refused social invitations unless both were invited. Although Faderman asserts that open kisses and caresses between such friends were not considered to be sexual (except, perhaps, as stimulation for a male observer), this is the historic context in which such intense friendships among Queen Marie Antoinette’s circles were fodder for accusations of lesbian activity. And the text quotes descriptions by these women of their relationships that clearly equates what they feel for each other with heterosexual desire.
But after noting that the language used is identical to that used between heterosexual lovers, Faderman returns to her thesis: “It is probable that many romantic friends, while totally open in expressing and demonstrating emotional and spiritual love, repressed any sexual inclinations, and even any recognition of those inclinations, that they might have felt for each other, since during most eras of modern history women were well taught from childhood that only men or bad women were sexually aggressive.” What does this “many” mean? The book seems continually to return to the position that if “many” romantic friends did not see any erotic aspect to their relationship, then eroticism was by definition absent from the concept of romantic friendship. As opposed, for example, to seeing the phenomenon as a continuum where public acceptance of certain aspects could allow for a more erotic relationship that was less public. And yet, “less public” how, when women in romantic friendships spoke of “wearing the chains of Eros” and of longing to be able to marry each other? Faderman states that the “sophisticated” modern scholar would see in these effusions only a sentimental literary style and discount that it came from genuine emotion, and argue as evidence that signs of heterosexuality (such as marriage and children) automatically contradicted the possibility of homosexual desire. [This entire book seems to ignore the possibility of bisexuality.]
Writers of the 18th century themselves commented on the distinction between expressions of sentimentality that were purely for the sake of fashion and those that came from genuine emotion. And these were often contrasted in literature in a way that valorized the genuine emotion.
The chapter concludes with Faderman’s conclusion that, despite the language of passion and devotion, despite behaviors such as kissing and embracing in bed together, “unless they were transvestites or considered ‘unwomanly’ in some male’s conception, there was little chance that their relationship would be considered lesbian.” And here we come back to a contradiction in the book’s argumentation. Are we considering only whether larger society would accuse them of being lesbians? Or are we to conclude that there was nothing of lesbian sexuality present in the relationship itself? Faderman herself seems to waver between the two. Just above, she has defined “lesbian” as meaning “sexual proclivity” as if lesbian identity means solely, obligatorily, and exclusively physical erotic desire. But elsewhere the argument seems to be that women in romantic friendships didn’t allow themselves to feel any erotic desire at all because “good girls don’t”.
Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult. By the 18th century, middle- and upperclass women (and it is primarily those groups who participated in Romantic Friendship) were encouraged to be genteelly idle. Intellectual women were looked askance, as were women who indulged in active pursuits like riding. These pursuits had become considered to be inherently masculine in a way they hadn’t in previous centuries. [Or perhaps--thinking about some of the discourse around gender and intellect in the middle ages--the "masculinization" of intellectual women had now come to be considered a bad thing rather than an ideal to strive for.]
Thus the most assertive and ambitious women were the ones least likely to find satisfaction in friendships with men, even as they were celebrated in the supposedly egalitarian society of the salons. And their writings and correspondence show that they turned to each other for support, admiration, and friendship. Marriage to men was often treated as a necessary evil and no impediment to their passionate friendship with women. Successful resistance to marriage (when economically possible) was considered an ideal.
Now we get another one of Faderman’s asserted-but-not-proven conclusions: “Because women of their class and temperament generally did not engage in sex outside of marriage, it probably occurred to few of them that the intense emotion they felt for each other could be expressed in sexual terms--but that emotion had all the manifestations of Eros without a genital component. Perhaps the primary difference between the salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England and the salons of Paris in the 1920’s where lesbian love was openly expressed...was that as a result of the late nineteenth-century sexologists, women in the 1920’s knew they were sexual creatures and behaved accordingly.” [It is in passages like this that I feel the work most suffers from a lack of historic depth. Social beliefs about women's sex drives have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. Chaucer's Wife of Bath didn't need a sexologist to give her permission to be a sexual creature and behave accordingly!]
There is a nod to the consideration that, although it is easiest to track the nature and development of Romantic Friendship among intellectual women who produced copies written records of their experiences and thoughts, the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship was common among non-intellectuals as well.
The eighteenth century in England, Faderman asserts, was the point of greatest female repression of passion and sexuality, with a hyper-focus on virginity and chastity in literature and life that made any social interactions with men suspect. Men might pursue women and encourage them to demonstrate their love, but--as epitomized in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the goal was conquest, not mutual affection. A woman who capitulated might find that her lover now considered her impossible to trust with any other man. The extreme version of this war between the sexes was found in the increasingly violent misogyny of pornographic literature. Even literature about the importance of equal companionate marriages (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Reflections on Courtship and Marriage) are presented as proof that such a thing was considered rare.
What I find missing in this chapter is a sense of statistics. Anecdotal examples from eighteenth-century life and literature are presented as evidence for considering marriage and relations between the sexes to be a relentless hellhole. This, then, is presented as the context in which Romantic Friendship between women became a refuge and ideal. Marriage was desired only so far as it make it economically and socially possible to live a life independent of that husband.
This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage). Financial privilege enabled them to share not one but two homes together and to establish the charity that inspired Millenium Hall. The protagonists of the novel--like the author and her companion--are intelligent, educated women who desire little more than to spend their lives together. A husband briefly causes an unhappy breech but he conveniently dies a short time later. The two, along with friends that include another romantic couple, set up an idyllic existence in the country and establish several charitable projects. The blissful same-sex relationships in the story are contrasted with the invariably unhappy heterosexual ones, though the characters are not portrayed as set against marriage, as such, and one of their charities is to provide dowries for poor women.
Not all such fictional friendships had happy endings, some being separated by marriage, some culminating in the ultimate act of love, a self-sacrificing death. Although a significant portion of this literature is by female authors, male authors wrote admiringly of female affection as well. Faderman speculates on why these all-consuming relationships between women were depicted positively even when clearly elevated above marriage. Perhaps, she suggests, the real-world inevitability of marriage eroded their subversive potential, and perhaps men had voyeuristic enjoyment in watching two women showing affection to each other, as some male writers suggest.
Somewhat in contradiction to the main thesis of the book, Faderman quotes from the Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry who, undoubtedly familiar with the lesbian accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette, traveled to America in the late 18th century and commented frankly on what he perceived to be the social independence of American women and their apparent lack of passion toward men, concluding that “they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Faderman immediately dismisses this possibility as “doubtful”.
But if language is an indication, literary women in America saw little difference between the love they felt for each other and what they were expected to feel for men. And among the expressions of admiration and affection there are regular indications that women considered their passionate friendships to be in direct competition with heterosexual marriage, such that they would swear never to marry for each other’s sake. The intellectual pleasures they describe are not infrequently enjoyed together in bed and accompanied by embraces and kisses. “But,” says Faderman, “since decent women of the eighteenth century could admit to no sexual desires and decent men would not attribute such desires to them, the sensual aspect of their relationship goes no further in fiction, as it probably would not in life.” [Presumably, by this definition, de St. Méry was not a “decent man”.]
This assumption of innocence that is extended to literary female friends is not always offered to close male friends in literature, where the specter of homosexuality is more likely to intrude. Charles Brockden Brown left a fragment of an unfinished novel touching the “depravity” of a male character due to the nature of his friendships with other men, while raising no such suspicions in his work Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1798) which concerned female friends, which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself to be reunited with her beloved friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for the friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. And that friend’s marriage is considered easier to dispense with, if necessary, than their need to remain together.
The indistinguishability of women’s passionate friendships and the passion expected in marriage is seen in Helen Williams’s Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) in which, in a sort of reverse Iphis and Ianthe, the female protagonist discovers that the person she has developed a deep and very physical affection for while students in a convent together is actually a boy disguised as a girl (and ignorant of his own gender). Up until the reveal, the nature and intensity of their love is considered not outside the bounds of what would be normal between girls, and after his gender is revealed, their love is described as being the same as before...except now they can get married.
When men wrote of women having sexual relationships with each other (as in the memoirs of Casanova), the focus tended to be purely on genital activity and their bond is treated as ephemeral and eagerly abandoned for a man. When women wrote of women’s passionate friendships, they encompassed autonomy, economic independence, and a compete intimacy of the mind. But in summarizing this, Faderman overlooks the physical aspects of those relationships, erasing them from the equation, as if a relationship between women could either be genital or emotional, but not both.
Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion. Yet some later historians, interpreting such material, have asserted that these expressions of love were coded messages to a male relative of the recipient, though if no such male relative existed, a “morbid” explanation might be identified. The notion that these intense emotions might have been considered normal and acceptable in their time has been difficult for 20th century researchers to accept. [Though Faderman herself seems to find it hard to accept that the acceptance of Romantic Friendship could have overlapped with the presence of sexual activity in some set of those friendships.] Historians who studied correspondence of this type in isolation, while focused on a particular individual, often failed to understand the larger cultural context for it, and looked for particular and individual motivations.
The core elements used to express Romantic Friendship included “vows to love eternally, and to live and die together; wishes to elope together to sweet retirement; constant reassurances of the crucial, even central role these women played in each other’s lives.” In some cases, these desires were achieved, as with the most famous Romantic Friends of the late 18th century in the British Isles. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were born into upper-class Irish families and were so devoted to each other that they eloped (disguised as men). It took a second elopement (after they were found and brought back home) before their families capitulated and left them alone. Their finances were dire, but they eventually secured pensions from the English Crown. The settled in Llangollen, Wales and became something of a pilgrimage site for the litterati, being visited by many notables of the day and inspiring a minor industry of poetry about them. Despite people using the language of marriage to refer to them (e.g., referring to one partner as “your better half”) their public image was of platonic, non-sexual partnership. Men praised them for their vituous purity; women envied their steadfast marriage resistance. Another factor in their acceptance by the public (in addition to their upper class origins) was their political and social conservatism.
It is worth noting that the belief in the “purity” of their love was not universal. The notorious (and homophobic, by modern standards) gossip Hester Thrale alternated between praising the “fair and noble recluses” and private diary entries (cited by Emma Donoghue) calling them "damned Sapphists." Faderman notes only Thrale’s general comments about “unspeakable sins” committed by some women with each other and considers those comments not to apply to the Ladies. Faderman doesn’t mention at all one of their visitors later in life: Anne Lister, who afterward wrote in her diary that she did not believe their relationship "purely platonic". Both these items undermine Faderman’s thesis that “their generally rigid, inhibited, and conventional views regarding undress and evidence of sexuality suggest that it is unlikely that as eighteenth-century women, educated in the ideal of female passionlessness, they would have sought genital expression if it were not to fulfill a marital duty.”
As evidence of their innocence, Faderman cites their reaction to an insinuating newspaper article that told how Ponsonby “was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union [for Butler]” and describes Butler as “tall and masculine...with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats.” They contacted a lawyer thinking to sue for libel but were persuaded that doing so would only make them more notorious. Here we can once again make comparison with Anne Lister (whose diaries were not available to Faderman) who also looked into suing a newspaper that published references to her gender non-conformity. In Lister’s case, we have clear and direct evidence that this impulse did not stem from a “clean conscience” when it came to lesbian sexual activity.
Another relationship that is well-documented by correspondence and includes all the trappings of an intense romantic relationship is that between the intellectuals Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. Though they never realized the goal of living together as Carter was tied to an invalid father and Talbot was an invalid herself, they deliberately chose not to marry men, despite opportunity.
Similarly Anna Seward declined many offers of marriage, ostensibly to care for her father, but researchers who attribute her life-long unmarried state to an early broken heart (on the basis of a few lines in much later correspondence) ignore the volumes of poetry and letters she wrote to Honora Sneyd, who had lived with the Sewards for fourteen years in her youth. Honora did marry--to Seward’s dismay and grief (and against her express desires)--and died before the two had any opportunity to share their lives, after which Seward mourned her extravagantly for the next thirty years until her own death.
Though these logistical separations and barriers often sparked expressions of anger and intense jealousy, Faderman returns again to her position that, “Anna seems so unguarded in her involvement with Honora, so entirely and guiltlessly public, it is difficult to believe that a woman reared in her conservative environment and continuing to be comfortable in it, would have been open about any nonmarital relationship that was sexual.”
[It has occurred to me, at this juncture, that one of Faderman’s blind spots is the assumption that the women involved in Romantic Friendships would automatically have equated sexual activity with women and the forbidden nonmarital sexual activity with men. An alternate explanation, of course, would be that the women saw no correspondence between the two spheres of activity. That--like the complacent viewpoints of male writers such as Brantôme--they saw a qualitative difference between genital activity with women (=harmless) and genital activity with men (=sinful). Faderman also seems unable to imagine women being able to dissemble and self-censor in their writings in the midst of these extreme passions. Or that Romantic Friends might not have viewed the presence/absence of genital activity as being a meaningful distinction in defining and understanding their relationships.]
Mary Wollstonecraft was on the rebound from her first Romantic Friendship when she fell in love with Fanny Blood and, after some tribulations, moved in with Fanny’s family and began a campaign to achieve her dream of extracting Fanny and their living together elsewhere--a dream that foundered on Fanny’s passive lack of dedication to the relationship. Wollstonecraft had relationships with men as well, naming her first child in memory of Fanny. As with other prominent women of letters whose lives featured Romantic Friendships, later academics took pains to invent or emphasize romances with men.
As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.
One feature of the trial arguments that Faderman touches on is how the possibility of sex between women was displaced onto “foreign” women. The student who made the accusation (Dame Gordon’s granddaughter) was the out-of-wedlock child of an Indian mother, and suggestions were made that she was able to fabricate such a charge because women in places like India were more sexual and lascivious and the child had learned about things like lesbianism there.
But the main feature was the argument that decent women would not have the sexual drive necessary for sexual activity to take place in the absence of a man. The judge opined that the crime of which Woods and Pirie were accused did not exist--was not possible. Paradoxically, the romantic devotion of the two women to each other was offered as part of the evidence for their good character and virtue.
Their reputations were also protected by the vehemence with which the legal establishment chose to disbelieve in the possibility of lesbian sex, arguing, “a woman being in bed with a woman cannot even give a probability to such an inference [of unnatural intentions]. It is the order of nature and of society in its present state. If a woman embraces a woman it infers nothing.” This was contrasted in the legal arguments with the acknowledgment that sex between men was not only possible but could reasonably be suspected if the men showed similar signs of affection.
This determined denial of possibilities is present in a French example, also of the early 19th century, where the writer Flora Tristan wrote to her friend Olympe that she wanted a woman to love her passionately. Olympe wrote Flora in turn that she made her “shiver with pleasure” and put her in ecstasy, and yet their writing appears to indicate that they did not consider these experiences to constitute sexual passion. Faderman concludes, “if a cosmopolitan Frenchwoman...could ignore her own sensations...we may be sure that the general public had no conception of the potentials of love between women.” [The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that it can be demonstrated to be false. One hesitates to keep returning endlessly to the example of Anne Lister, but she managed to find an entire diffuse community of women in rural Yorkshire who managed to have a “conception of the potentials of love between women.” Faderman is taking an official public myth and presenting it as a description of objective reality.]
At the end of this chapter, Faderman jumps to the very end of the 19th century and presents examples of a medicalized view of lesbian sex as “morbid” and due to mental perversion, as well as an example from a novel of two women in love falling asleep “in the silent ardor of deep blissful joy” in each other’s arms, after having rejected “the impure advances of sapphists.” These bookend examples are meant to show that the entire 19th century in England was one where “decent women” were functionally asexual, where they simply could not conceive of sexual activity being present in a loving relationship. [It might, perhaps, be a little more accurate to describe it that such women re-defined any erotic activities they enjoyed as not being sex, just as the judges in the Woods and Pirie case repeated the theory that sex cannot exist without a penis. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between women in Romantic Friendships not labeling experiences as being erotic and those women not experiencing erotic desire.]