Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. 2009. Queer Renaissance Historiography. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.

Contents summary: 

Crawford tackles the intriguing topic of women in 16-17th century England serving as secretaries--both in official and de facto positions--especially in service to other women. She particularly looks at the function of a secretary as an advisor and secret-keeper. As the Oxford English Dictionary gives for the first definition of the word: “One who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.” (Keep in mind that the root of “secretary” is “secret”.) The second definition, involving the job of managing correspondence, developed later but is also a significant sense in the 16th century. And, indeed, one of the contextual citations in the OED for this sense is feminine, though allegorical, referring to Mary Sidney Herbert as “eloquent secretary to the Muses.”

While studies of secretaries in the 16th century commonly focus solely on men who served women in this role--especially those serving Elizabeth I--Crawford seeks to recognize women themselves fulfilling the role of secretary. The general omission may in part be due to a focus on the function of secretaries in those social spheres less open to women, and especially on the significant homosocial bonds between men in these functions in the public sphere. But 16th century writers had no problem with accepting that women might fill the role of secretary for other women, in particular fulfilling the role of private counselor and often serving as intimate confidante.

There is a brief survey of examples of women secretaries and their duties: Hannah Wolley in The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1674) describes handling her mistress’s correspondence; Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World features a female scribe working for another woman; and there are numerous examples of women whose secretarial duties involved reading aloud to their employer. One pair that may be of particular interest is the Countess of Bedford and court poet Cecilia Bulstrode, whom Ben Jonson satirized with an accusation of lesbianism.

The women serving female monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne fulfilled an interwoven set of official and unofficial secretarial duties that are hard to untangle from more intimate services. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions and the women in service to powerful employers enjoyed significant control over access to their attention. Crawford suggests that such close relationships--although not considered sexual in their historic context--could not avoid having an erotic component. The article examines the role of these female secretaries in terms of specific types of functions.

The first of those functions examined is “bosom counsel and bed-sharing,” that is, someone to serve as a close confidante--“close” in both a metaphoric and physical sense. As Angel Day put it in The English Secretarie (1592) a secretary is someone “in whose bosome he holdeth the repose of his [master’s] safety to be far more precious then either estate, living, or advancement, whereof men earthly minded are for the most part desirous.”

The word “bosom,” literally meaning “breast” and extended to the clothing covering it, came metaphorically to mean both closeness and discretion. Papers and letters meant not to be seen were tucked beneath clothing on the upper body, embodying the idea of secret speech entrusted to the bearer. Inescapably, the language of taking someone to one’s bosom, or sharing one’s bosom evokes images of female erotic intimacy. Examples of such language between women is offered from several Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.

These female confidantes in Shakespeare often combine the sharing of secrets with the sharing of a bed. Here the complicated interpretation of bed-sharing must be examined. In early modern England, it was normal and expected for people of the same sex to share a bed. (If nothing else, housing logistics and less than ideal home heating arrangements made it desirable.) Bedfellows might be siblings, close friends, host and guest, employer and servant, random travelers staying at the same inn. But such arrangements did also involve complex social politics and could both indicate and negotiate friendships and alliances. Sharing a bed was de facto an intimate relationship and offered the opportunity for private conversation that could lead to possibilities for advice and influence as well as strengthening inter-personal bonds. And it was a context that provided opportunity for homoerotic interactions, regardless of how the participants might have understood and classified those interactions.

The article quotes correspondence about bed-sharing that uses erotically charged language (with all the necessary caveats about interpreting it as specifically sexual). In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier (they later had significant social ties throughout their lives), “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged.

These were personal connections, but also the creation and strengthening of political alliances with consequences for the extended families of all the women involved. Anne Clifford had a number of young women of good family in her service--a key part of the life cycle of the upper classes when such bonds were established. The question of sharing sleeping quarters and beds was a dynamic part of making those bonds for the future, in part because of the opportunities for “knowledge exchange” in a private context.

The second type of function covered under the position of secretary was identified by terms such as chambermaid and handmaid. Changes in meaning can result in misunderstandings about the functions involved. “Chambermaid” in this context does not simply mean some who does household cleaning, but a servant responsible for a woman’s personal, private sphere (the “chamber”) and so someone with regular and reliable access to her employer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Maria is identified as Olivia’s “chambermaid” it is clear from context that hers is a position of significant power and influence within the household. A connection is made with Queen Elizabeth’s “gentlewomen of the privy chamber” who were recognized for their potential as influential intermediaries and were sought out to transmit letters, petitions, and requests to the queen. This is the same sort of role that Maria fills for Olivia--a role of such responsibility that Maria can write letters in Olivia’s name and hand and have them taken for her mistress’s word.

A third function associated with the secretary is that of someone expected to be present within their employer’s private spaces and interactions and to keep those transactions secure.

The friend/counselor/secretary relationship between women was seen as qualitatively different from their relationships with men due to the absence of gendered differentials of power. It could function as resistance to patriarchal structures even when it served political networks inextricably linked to patriarchal authority. Female same-sex interactions served an ideal of fidelity and equality that worked against external tyrannies. But in some ways, the concept of consilium (advice) was itself a gendered concept, with the “counselor” understood as pairing with the person being advised in relationships that mirrored gendered pairings such as husband and wife. Thus women were, in some ways, seen as always standing in a consilium function in any relationship.

The article expands on this with an extended look at the characters of Paulina and Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and how Paulina’s function as counselor, “gatekeeper”, and eventually guardian of the queen’s most important secret (her continued existence) makes her both a prototype of key secretarial functions and an example of how those functions can act to resist tyrrany. Another literary example that is a more direct allegorical representation of real-world politics is Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, where various of the female characters serve this function of advisor and secret-keeper for each other.

The author concludes with a summary of how secretary-like functions between women in early modern England were an integrated part of women’s social and political power, as well as illustrating the complex possibilities of same-sex intimacy and eroticism that underlay the ostensibly heterosexual foundations of society.

Contents summary: 

The article takes a critical look at the concept of “chastity” as an attribute of the mythical goddess Diana, especially as interpreted in early modern literature and art, and at the depiction of Diana as the focus and leader of a community of women who reject romantic and erotic interactions with men, but engage in those interactions with each other. It is not entirely anachronistic to claim that across multiple texts and contexts, Diana has a stable identity as the leader of a “lesbian separatist” community, and that she functions as a signifier of homoeroticism between women in the same way that the figure of Ganymede does for men.

The article considers three types of contexts that provide opportunities for female homoeroticism (the author labels them “safe spaces” but the reader should beware of interpreting this term according to current pop culture use). Drouin labels them--I believe with deliberately provocative intent--“the closet”, the nunnery, and Diana’s band.

By “closet” Drouin means the private domestic space belonging to the mistress of a household (about which more later). The concept of the nunnery in early modern literature went beyond the literal religious institutions and included use of the term for any deliberately gender-exclusive community of women, as in Margaret Cavendish’s Convent of Pleasure. And the specific focus on this article--the motif of Diana’s band--provides a conceptual space for homoeroticism from two angles: within the text itself, and within the context of the text’s creation and consumption. This productive context is seen among a variety of authors across an extended period who create an intellectual “public” of writers, readers, and playgoers centered around the figure of Diana. [Note: while this article is focused on textual depictions, the same cultural context created a wealth of artistic depictions of female homoeroticism revolving around the figure of Diana.]

While the “closet” incidentally afforded a private gender-segregated space, and the nunnery created an all-female community in part defined by the negation of heterosexual expectations, the image of Diana and her followers constituted a deliberate creation and depiction of same-sex eroticism. The acceptability of this depiction was enabled by the heteronormative definition of “chastity” that focused solely on an avoidance of extra-marital penetrative sex. If non-penetrative erotics between women were not “sex” then they did not violate the requirements of chastity. Thus Diana could be celebrated as “the virgin goddess”, stories involving her could emphasize her ruthless requirement for  chastity among her followers, and yet still allow scope for the unambiguous depiction of erotic activity within her community.

Drouin suggests that the alleged “invisibility” of female same-sex eroticism in early modern Europe was, in part, a product of the patriarchal fixation on the control of women’s bodies and actions very narrowly within the scope of reproduction and paternity. Discussions of fornication and unchastity were unconcerned with issues of love and affection, but only with the potential for illegitimate pregnancy that challenged patriarchal kinship structures. Within this context, women’s intimate friendships and even erotic relationships could be considered “innocent”. And the structures for controlling women’s interactions with “forbidden” men in fact created and enabled same-sex opportunities. Diana’s band creates an ideal fictional location for imagining same-sex erotics as the emphasis on (heterosexual) chastity deflects accusations of impropriety.

Drouin justifies her choice to use the term “lesbian” in discussing this topic, noting that not only was the word in circulation by the 16th century (see e.g., Brantôme), but that it clearly identifies the sexual activities under consideration even if there was no concept of a personal identity defined by those activities. She notes various textual references in Italy and England that support the existence of a conceptual category of “women who have sex with women”. At the same time, these (male-authored) sources support the concept that sex between women did not fall within the category of adultery. A woman could not make her female partner’s husband a cuckold. And conversely, to the extent that some women who engaged in lesbian sex were seen as “masculine”, this could be treated as a positive character trait in a way that a man appearing “feminine” could not be.

Returning to the concept of the “closet” as lesbian safe space, Drouin explains the layout of the early modern domestic space. The word closet did not have its modern sense of a small storage space, but referred to an inner, private room generally entered off the bedchamber (which was a more public space) that served as a sitting room also used for dining and reception of guests. It also typically served as a bedchamber for (female) servants. The most relevant function was that of a space where the (female) occupant of the bedchamber could retire in the expectation of privacy for pursuits like reading, studying, writing, or to entertain her closest friends. (This is in contrast to spaces like the hall, which were entirely public.) The closet was also set apart in being one of the rare rooms that was kept locked. These features made it a convenient space for extramarital sexuality (as detailed in a couple of Brantôme’s stories).

The nunnery goes one step further in not only removing women from the male gaze and in the creation of a structured separate community, but by removing women entirely from the marriage economy. Male discomfort with these aspects was reflected in the symbolic sexualization of convents by appropriating its terminology for prostitution (a woman-focused space of a different kind). But the vocabulary of the convent was not only transferred to the brothel, but was used for other types of literary female separatist spaces. In turn, the nature of those spaces re-created the potential for lesbian erotics, as in Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure though, as in some of the Diana myths, the transgressive nature of the enactment of those erotics is deflected by introducing a man in disguise as the instigator. Even so, such literary works create a space for imagining lesbian erotics. Lady Happy and her beloved princess “embrace and kiss and hold each other in their arms” and not until the final act is the audience informed that the “princess” is a man in disguise. The lesbian space has been established and enjoyed, despite the later contradiction.

Both the closet and the convent had drawbacks in terms of creating an actual community of same-sex erotic affiliation. The closet was a private space, the convent subject to (male) hierarchical authority. In contrast, within the internal context of the Diana stories, lesbian eroticism was both public and authoritative.

Drouin now goes into an explanation and definition of the concept of a “public” (in some sort of specialized jargon sense) which I am going to quote at length. “Publics are voluntary, usually not essential to members’ livelihood, and based on taste and on interest. These conditions of membership distinguish publics from other forms of association whose members are bound together by rank, vocation or profession, religion, parentage, or investment. Each public seeks a voice, exercises or seeks to exercise some measure of agency, has an implicit political dimension, has a normalizing function, seeks to imagine and define what it is, and is non-official but has some relation to the official. Publics aspire to grow and are therefore open to strangers. Since they grow and evolve, publics can come into and out of being, ceasing to be a public once they achieve recognition and become institutionalized. Each public has a spatial dimension, as it exists and functions in a more or less delimited space, and each has a characteristic form of expression as defined by a particular medium.”

[Note: I am really really tempted to just go ahead and substitute the word “fandom” for Drouin’s use of “public” here. Even if there are technical differences between this concept of a “public” and the usual sense of “fandom”, I think it’s a useful tool for understanding what’s being talked about.]

Within this theory of publics, the motif of Diana’s band creates a public space in which lesbian desire and erotic acts can be expressed and become intelligible within society. Art historican Patricia Simons observes that paintings of Diana’s band in the 15-16th centuries consistently represent the women engaging in homoerotic activity with each other. And even though the best known examples are produced by male artists, presumably for male consumption, they were equally available to female viewers as a source for imagining erotic possibilities.  Diana’s “chastity” was solidly associated with female same-sex eroticism in late medieval and early modern Italy. In addition to the art, Simons cites folkloric practices of women “gathering in the forest to practice ‘the games of Diana’.” (Some of the examples suggest a conflation or at least ambiguity between lesbianism and witchcraft here.)

English examples of this association appear in William Warner’s 1586 history Albion’s England and Thomas Heywood’s 1611 play The Golden Age. Both treat the Ovidian myth of Calisto, a member of Diana’s band who is seduced/raped by Jupiter in disguise as Diana (or in some versions simply disguised as another nymph).

Both texts include detailed descriptions of the erotic activities of Diana’s nymphs. (Drouin suggests a possible sexual pun in that “nymph” was also an early modern medical term for the labia minora.) A supposedly female same-sex encounter includes fondling of the breasts, kissing, reaching under the skirts to “tickle”. In The Golden Age, Atalanta lays out the social rules and expectations of pair-bonded nymphs who are “bed-fellows” that “sport and play and in their fellowship spend night and day.” The only strict requirement being that they may not engage in sex with men.

Thus, within Diana’s band, the “chaste” opposite of heterosexuality is not an absence of sexual activity, but an embracing of lesbian sexuality. The band is also regularly emphasized as a socially separate space. It is a woman-only community that keeps itself physically apart from men, often in an arcadian natural space.

Drouin diverges from Traub’s take on Diana motifs in early modern English literature such as Two Noble Kinsmen and Gallathea. Traub sees them as positioned “always already in the past, and hence irrecoverable” but Drouin sees the works and characters as creating a “public of lesbian separatists”. The devotees of Diana in these works resist marriage, express erotic desire for women in general and specific, and express a sense of lesbian identity in references to same-sex desire as a “persuasion” or “faith”. Even when the plays require heterosexual resolution for the characters it is not from a change in desire but a surrender to political reality. Emilia in Two Noble Kinsmen is captured in war and forced into marriage. The two protagonists of Gallathea want only to continue their romantic and erotic relationship, it is the social framework that imposes a heterosexual shape on their relationship.

In Gallathea the conflict between Diana and Venus is labeled a conflict between chastity and love, but “love” is consistently defined in terms of heterosexual penetration while the chaste restrictions on Diana’s band do not preclude same-sex erotic desire. And there is a further association within the text between Diana and Sappho that emphasizes same-sex desire.

Drouin sums up her primary theses: “Diana” was consistently used as a euphemism for female same-sex love; the in-story image of “Diana’s band” meets the functional criteria for a “public” in that it is a voluntary association of women who share tastes and interests defined by lesbian erotics and separatism; and on an extra-textual level, the production and reception of works referencing Diana’s band create a real-world “public” implying similar interests. The fact that the production of these texts and art was often done by men with a male audience in mind does not undermine the fact that they also had a female audience. (One of Brantôme’s anecdotes involves a woman being erotically stimulated by viewing a painting of naked women bathing together which may well have been a depiction of Diana’s band.)

historical