Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
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. In 1867, a male-authored book on The Friendship of Women took for granted “the small number of recorded examples of the sentiment among women and… the commonness of the expressed belief that strong natural obstacles make friendship a comparatively feeble and rare experience with them.”
Vicinus traces the period from 1778 when Eleanor Butler eloped with Sarah Ponsonby, to 1928 when The Well of Loneliness was published, to identify those obstacles, and how women’s friendships of all types were marginalized and erased.
These forces included economic barriers to establishing an independent household, expectations regarding family obligations placed on unmarried women, and the expectation that marriage would supplant same-sex friendships.
This book focuses on the women most likely to leave a documentary record, so: white, educated, and (perhaps due to the author’s resources or intetests) Anglo. Vicinus looks at representative examples of several different modes of F/F erotic couplehood, including the place of gender presentation.
The 19th century saw an ongoing debate about normative sexuality, which shows the effort required to maintain the primacy of heterosexual marriage. The approved nature and place of women’s friendships was only one part of that. But the trajectory was never as simple as a correlation of increasing visibility producing increasing suppression. There was a sense of division across women’s friendships between the acceptable sensual, sentimental, romantic friendship, and the more dangerous sexual sapphism.
Women’s sentimental friendships were considered more solid and lasting than heterosexual passion. 18th century novels exploring the elevation of sensibility and feeling touched on the possibilities of marriage-like relationships between women as, perhaps, superior to those between men and women, as in Julie: ou la Nouvelle Heloise. This was the case even when the novels turned away from those possibilities to resolve in a conventional marriage plot. Even pornography intended for male consumption depicted F/F relations as having an extra closeness and tenderness not possible when a man was involved.
But only when desexualized could women’s friendships be safely integrated in respectable society. The contrast to this was the licentious sexual freedom of the French court in the late 18th century. Expressions of F/F friendship in bourgeois circles begin to avoid celebrations of physicality, in favor of sentiment. (A parallel shift was happening in representations of M/F relationships.) The rhetoric of friendship shifted to a focus on the spiritual, a view that both elevated and trivialized same sex friendships. F/F friendships came to be depicted in the 19th century as “practice“ for marital love, rather than taking its place, as it often had in earlier eras. But the very emphasis put on this distinction suggests that the divide between spiritual and erotic love was seen as dangerously permeable.
Vicinus looks at how specific women took elements from both romantic friendships and sapphic sexuality to create identities and relationships that rejected that barrier. Whether or not they used a specific label such as “lesbian” to identify themselves, they recognized and analyzed the erotic component of their relationships.
"Erotic" did not necessarily mean that they acted on their desires in terms of what we would consider sexual acts. And a choice not to name their desires didn’t mean there wasn’t language available. In many cases, it could be a deliberate protective strategy. We know they used codes. They left instructions regarding the destruction of private correspondence and memoirs. A refusal to apply stigmatized labels was another part of those strategies. Definitions of what constituted sex or sexual fidelity could be another part of that strategy. A woman could remain sexually respectable despite romantic relationships with women as long as society defined women’s activities as inherently non-sexual. In this context, buying into the position that “what women do together doesn’t matter” can be seen as self-protection rather than self-denigration. The gender-segregated nature of society provided many opportunities for homoerotic flirtation, teasing, and acts of affection.
Lesbian historiography has spent a lot of energy on defining exactly what falls within lesbian sexuality. Arguments about categories and definitions have sometimes dominated the discussion. At the same time, historians outside the field of queer history have often worked to deny or erase lesbian possibilities to “protect“ their subjects. A subject could not have been a lesbian, because lesbians didn’t exist then. And lesbians didn’t exist then, because historians successfully found reasons to exclude lesbian interpretations. The deliberate destruction of counter-evidence--either by their subjects, or by those who came after them--makes the denial easier. Given this (perhaps deliberate) avoidance of category labels by historical subjects themselves, is it presumptuous for a modern historian to categorize them as lesbian?
Historians have often focused exclusively on a mythic moment when a self-aware, self-proclaimed “lesbian identity“ became evident, and each historian identifies the mythic turning point in terms of the focus of their own study. While the avoidance of the word “lesbian” by historians such as Judith M. Bennett helps destabilize the idea of a single monolithic concept of sexual identity, or implications projected by modern usage and definitions, these hedges tend to prioritize the “unknowable“ aspect of women’s lives. And yet, using the term “lesbian“ for a wide variety of relationships, behaviors, and experiences prioritizes the modern focus on anatomical similarity in a way that may be far less relevant in the historic context being studied. Less relevant than things such as age difference, gender performance, or class membership.
The terminology that was used, especially in the context of unmistakably erotic relationships, reminds us of the coded and judgmental nature of the boundaries to acceptable behavior. Words such as “mannish,” “morbid,” “languid.” The use of a broad-brush application of words like lesbian can create a false coherence out of a diversity of identities, but the avoidance of words invoking unifying concepts can create a false erasure of the common experiences those terms circle around.
Rather than seeing identity as unstable and contextual, Vicinus argues for it as complex and layered. These layers and complexities can be explored from a variety of angles--as Halberstam does with performative masculinity--without defining one aspect as paramount, or even defining sexuality as the most important aspect of an individual’s identity.
Vicinus focuses on connections and commonalities, rather than timelines or defining moments. this book looks at exemplars--specific complex intersections in which women who loved women created “family.” Though society might view such arrangements as “a substitute for love” or as a matter of making do, it’s clear that the participants didn’t usually view it as such. That “family” might be expressed in the language of sisters, without that word excluding in a erotic component. But it might be expressed in the language of husband and wife, or that of mother and daughter, again without excluding the erotic. [Note: There are heterosexual marriages in which partners refer to each other as brother and sister, or as mother and father without any sort of implication of incest. So I think it’s important to allow a similar freedom of reference to same-sex couples.]
Each of these metaphorical framings comes with its own implications and hazards. The use of mother-daughter language could reflect or encourage a view of F/F relations as a transient life-stage experience. The use of husband-wife language might reflect or encourage power differentials between the partners. What other models were there for female homoeroticism outside the familial? The 18th century featured the female rake, but similar figures are harder to find in the 19th century, certainly in any respectable form. Some individuals might fit this model at certain stages of their life—Anne Lister and Natalie Clifford Barney come to mind--but usually among women with class privilege. All these roles were mutable, and women might shift between them even within the same partnership.
The remainder of the introduction outlines the content of the book and discusses the nature of the source materials.
Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling
The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.
In addition to the couples discussed in detail in chapters 1 and 2, the introduction to this section also mentions Vernon Lee & Mary Robinson, Elma Stewart and George Elliot, Anna Seward and Elizabeth Cornwallis, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (writing together as Michael Field).
Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage
This chapter begins with Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby who eloped in the late 18th century and, after some difficulties, established a household together in the north of Wales. They helped create the ideal of rural retirement for female couples and skirted the moral disapproval shown to the more overtly sexualized homoerotic relationships of the French court.
The framework of romantic friendship was already well-established at the time Butler and Ponsonby got together. It had its own rituals of expression and recognition. These included a courtship involving gifts, letters, and intimate conversation. A shared love of writing and books was common. The two women might thrill in covert meetings and communications. These interactions then moved to plans for a future together, whether on a practical level or only in fantasies.
The use of nicknames--especially androgynous or masculine ones--was popular. If the two were able to establish themselves as a couple, they might refer to each other as spouses, or with endearments normally indicating marriage. If a clear masculine/feminine contrast in presentation was not something a couple chose, they might choose to dress in an exaggeratedly identical fashion, and this was taken as a symbol of their couplehood.
Long-term fidelity was an ideal, and often there was an effort made to conceal tensions and jealousies within the relationship to maintain this image.
The second part of the chapter comprises detailed biographies. The first is Ponsonby and Butler, showing how they became a byword and icon of female romantic couplehood. The next biography is that of 19th century French artist Rosa Bonheur, who fell in love when she was hired to paint a portrait of Natalie Micas. Natalie’s parents became Bonheur’s patrons, and on his deathbed Monsieur Micas gave them his blessing as a couple. The final biography in this chapter is Anne Lister, with her sequence of courtships finally settling down with Ann Walker.
While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.
It has been something of a long tradition for women (and men too) living non-normative lives to go abroad, outside the constraints of the society they were divergent from. (Note: There likely was also an aspect of disregard for the mores of the place they moved to, which puts a slightly uglier colonialist shadow over the practice.)
The private correspondence of these women make it clear that the public face of non-sexual romantic friendship was deliberately created and maintained in contradiction to their private lives. Rumors and gossip often told the truth, but there was public deniability. This deliberate concealment indicates that they did not view their loves as innocent in the eyes of the world, even when they took advantage of the forms and language of romantic friendship. Disapproval was coded in gendered terms against “mannish women”, or in terms of lost opportunities if a woman shunned marriage in favor of a female friend.
Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was the usual end goal of a Grand Tour on the continent, as well as being a destination for artistic study and practice, due to the classical and baroque art available as models. Socially, the Anglophone community in Rome didn’t mix significantly with the Italian upper classes, but formed an independent cultural milieu. The rollcall of famous names is long.
Women sculptors were particularly attracted to Rome. Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd and her friend, journalist Francis Power Cobbe. Americans Louisa Lander and Edmonia Lewis, who--as a biracial black and Native American woman--found professional opportunities impossible to come by at home. And especially Harriet Hosmer.
Cushman’s fame on the stage made the home she shared with partner Matilda Hays a social nexus. Her large circle of female friends included many romantic couples, with a certain amount of regular “musical chairs” going on among them. Cushman’s circle also attracted some men of ambiguous sexual orientation.
Cushman had an extensive overlapping series of female lovers. She may have arrived in Rome with Matilda Hays, but Hays, impatient with the role of wife, began a flirtation with Hosmer, then stormed back to London. Cushman was then courting sculptor Emma Stebbins and the two maintained a partnership until Cushman‘s death, though not without challenges, especially from fan-girl Emma Crow. Her passionate relationship with Crow was eventually disguised by marrying Crow to Cushman‘s nephew and adopted son, while continuing as lovers. It was complicated. (I did an entire podcast on Cushman.)
Harriet Hosmer formed another nucleus in the Rome circle. She was famous for her boyish presentation and refusal to conform to feminine roles. Cushman took her as a protégé, but Hosmer always seems to have been wary of getting entangled with Cushman romantically. Cushman arranged for Hosmer to have the patronage of Wayman Crow, father of Emma (well before Cushman and Emma Crow were a thing). Though Hosmer enjoyed flirtations early in her career, it was a while before she settled into a long-term partnership with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a widow with a history of passionate friendships with women. It was a somewhat loose and open partnership, which may account for its longevity and relative lack of drama.
Part II: Queer Relationships
This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.
Chapter 3 examines women whose relationships came under scrutiny of the law, while chapter 4 covers women who experienced their relationships within a religious context, flourishing, in part, because their associates chose not to question the nature of that relationship.
Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities
This chapter begins with the familiar slander lawsuit of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie against Dame Helen Cumming Gordon (examined in detail in Lillian Faderman’s Scotch Verdict). The essence of the trial was that a student at the school run by Woods and Pirie accused the two women of having a sexual relationship. As Dame Cumming Gordon spread word of the accusation, parents began pulling their daughters out of the school. To try to save their reputation and livelihood, the two teachers accused Cumming Gordon of slander while she counter-accused them of unnatural acts. The verdict (an oddity of Scottish law, “not proven”, which means neither guilty nor innocent) is not the most interesting part of the trial.
The trial records demonstrate that the judges (all upper class white men, of course) considered their first duty to protect the reputation and good name of British women in general from the suspicion of unnatural possibilities. It was important, not only to exclude the possibility that Woods and Pirie had done what they were accused of, but to protect the general female public from knowledge of those accusations, lest they give people ideas.
To admit the possibility that women—at least proper British women—could engage in same-sex erotics would make all women suspect. It’s the reverse side of sexual ignorance: not a disbelief in the possibility of lesbian relations, as such, but an imposed denial of those possibilities. Even in the closed-door context of the trial, the goal was suppression of the imagination.
In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed on occasion, and which they did not deny—could be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. This meant that it was also necessary to argue that a 16-year-old girl was either capable of imagining the sexual acts she described without having observed them, or had knowledge of them from some other source.
While the judges reviewed ideas of f/f sex prevalent in popular culture, they were able to exclude those possibilities in the present case on the basis of class, occupation, and nationality. The teachers were not tribades, prostitutes, or foreigners (who might be understood to engage in such practices), therefore they could be presumed innocent. If, one asserted, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?
The resolution of these conflicts came by blaming the accusing student of invention, using her biracial (Anglo-Indian) background as an excuse for her familiarity with deviant sexual practices. Thus the reputation of true British women was maintained.
The other legal case considered in this chapter—the Codrington divorce trial—also rests on the question of whether two well-bred women could share a bed with that act assumed to be completely innocent.
Feminist and activist Emily Faithful was a close friend of unhappily-married socialite Helen Codrington. The two had shared a household when Admiral Codrington was absent on military duties. On his return—at least according to his later testimony—he blamed the growing conflict in his marriage on Helen’s association with Emily, including Helen’s preference for sharing a bed with her in preference to her husband. Codrington banished Emily from the household and later claimed to have written the reasons for it in a sealed letter that he placed in the care of a relative.
Emily Faithful went on to join forces with other feminists and found the Victoria Press, among other projects. The Codringtons were posted to Malta, where Helen engaged in flirtations and perhaps more with some of the officers there.
The Codrington divorce trial was sparked by suspicions that Helen had committed adultery under her husband’s nose in Malta, while Helen countered with charges of neglect and emotional abuse. Emily Faithful was drawn into the conflict when Helen accused her husband of having tried to rape Emily during the period when Emily lived in their household, on an occasion when Helen and Emily were in bed together.
Emily first agreed with the charge, but later said she was uncertain and had been convinced of its truth by Helen. Emily’s feminist activities and not conventionally feminine appearance led to rumors of lesbian improprieties. Forced to testify at the trial and with the rumor of the “sealed letter” hanging over her, Emily retreated from the accusation of attempted rape, thus throwing the matter back into Helen’s hands as the one who raised the topic.
Thus, although the accusation in the trial was heterosexual adultery, it came to revolve around rumors of lesbianism. And the heart of those rumors was the question of whether two women sharing a bed could be assumed to be sexually involved or assumed to be sexually innocent.
Although the trial reveals little of the truth of their relationship, Emily’s writings, and especially her semi-biographical novel Changes Upon Changes, make it clear that she was romantically obsessed with Helen Codrington, while feeling betrayed by Helen’s volatility and instability.
After the trial, Helen disappeared from public view while Emily Faithful eventually redeemed her reputation away from the glare of London, and finished her life with a long-term female partner.
One approach to acceptance of same-sex desire was to view all love as a gift of God and therefore acceptable. This chapter looks at two examples of f/f love embedded in religious structures. Lesbians had far from a unified attitude toward religion, aligning themselves more often based on class or family attitudes, sometimes embracing them, sometimes rejecting.
The use of passionate and erotic language to express spiritual experiences provided an acceptable context for using similar language about a same-sex beloved. In some cases, women might embrace such feelings as non-erotic, while in other cases the spiritual nature of their feelings excused the erotic.
The first focus of this chapter is Mary Benson, the dissatisfied wife of a successful Anglican clergyman, who found fulfilment in a series of relationships with women.
The Benson family is extensively documented through their correspondence, diaries, and books. Not only Mary, but her two daughters and three of her sons had a preference for their own sex. In Mary’s case, she had experienced several crushes on women before marrying Reverend Benson, who had identified Mary as a prospective wife when she was 11.
Mary did not love him, appears to have disliked marital relations, and found her life being micro-managed. After 12 years and six children, she had a breakdown, and while convalescing at a spa in Germany, fell in love with a fellow female boarder, finding in that relationship the self-confidence and self-love lacking in her marriage. She returned to the marriage with boundaries around her emotional and erotic life that thereafter excluded her husband.
With this new arrangement, Mary supported Reverend Benson in his career advancement and found her own religious vocation as a spiritual “mother” to other women, that combine both religious and erotic love. The taboo against divorce, particularly for the clergy, gave them both a motivation to find accommodation.
Mary saw carnal desire as a weakness – something to strive to master – but not only in the context of same-sex relations. In defining the boundaries of carnal versus spiritual love, kissing, embracing, and sleeping together fell on the “spiritual” side.
The second focal couple in this chapter is Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and Katharine’s mother helped raise her Edith and her sister, with Katharine taking over guardianship at her mother’s death when the two sisters were in their teens. Katherine’s shift from “elder sister” to mother figure to lover with respect to Edith may strike the modern sensibility as problematic, but the relationship was mutual and devoted and confirmed to be erotic.
Together they developed their literary talents and chose to write under a single name. “Michael Field’s” work was acclaimed, but when their authorship was revealed, public opinion turned fickle, considering their work “unwomanly”. That, combined with changes in poetic tastes and with Edith’s health problems decreased their literary output.
Having always had a free-spirited and eclectic approach to religion, the reasons why they converted to Catholicism are convoluted. But one consequence was a turning to themes of sacrifice, but in different directions that made their prior mode of collaboration more difficult. Cooper found her new religious vocation in conflict with her poetic muse, while Bradley embraced the near-pagan ritual and symbolism in her work.
While they continued to promote the image of perfect unity, conflict crept into the nature of that unity. Cooper began to lose interest in the sexual aspect of their relationship and agonized over how to frame it in her confessions. Bradley struggled with the apparent involuntary renunciation of her erotic life. Bradley’s poems from this era express a sense of loss.
Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love
In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]
It was common for women with homoerotic desires to have at least one crush on an older woman in their past. And couples that began with a noticeable age difference might grow into a more equal partnership as the younger member gained maturity. [Note: And let us not forget that m/f marriages in this era often involved a significant age difference. The middle-aged man who married a young woman inevitably carried a paternalistic air.]
Chapter 5 looks at three women who played a “daughter” role in their relationship, whether looking to a mentor in adoration, or playing the part of wild and rebellious teenager. But this chapter also looks at actual mother-daughter relations, and the challenges of creating independent identities.
In this chapter, the partners long to merge. While the similar relationships in Chapter 6 deal with the down side of merging (loss of identity) or the after-effects of an absence of mothering earlier in life.
One common trait the “daughters” in these examples have is rejecting conventional feminine norms, though not all in the same way.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
The examples in this chapter are all of a single, younger woman in a relationship with an older married woman where the latter is framed as a mother figure in contrast to the “child”, looking for an unconditionally wise and understanding partner.
Because the marriage prevented the formation of an independent f/f couple, the relationship was often expressed by attempts to claim a right to the beloved’s attention and love. But these attempts could be negative: fights, jealousy, flirtations with a third party, or illness. The unattainability of the mother figure only stimulated the intensity of the passion. But that doesn’t mean the resulting relationships were unhealthy or a passing phase. Inevitably, to be successful, these relationships needed t evolve and accommodate the participants.
Gerldine Jewsbury suffered an absence of mother figures in her youth and seemed destined for a spinster life, keeping house for various male relatives. In search of something more, she came into contact with Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle and found a place for herself within the fractures in their marriage.
Although there doesn’t seem to have been an erotic component to their relationship, Jane served as surrogate mother and practical mentor for the enthusiastic Geraldine, and in turn received the admiration and love not present in her marriage, while being able to use that marriage to set clear boundaries with Geraldine. Jane played the rationalist while Geraldine used the language of romantic friendship, with all its enthusiasms, and wrote novels that bordered on the scandalous. But as Jane found her aspirations eclipsed by her husband’s fame, she became more dependent on Geraldine’s support and understanding, and the power dynamics in their relationship shifted.
Novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) attracted admiration from both men and women, and managed the passion of her “spiritual daughters” by preaching selfless duty. Edith Simcox, one of those admirers, was a social activist and journalist. She left a diary full of her passionate, unrequited feelings for Eliot, and her attraction to women in general. Eliot was not technically married, as her male lover was married to someone else, but the relationship functioned similarly for the purpose of setting boundaries for Eliot’s admirers. Eliot was not comfortable being cast into the role of mother figure, but did not offer equal friendship as an alternative.
Composer Ethel Smyth chose a mannish presentation and had a series of crushes on older upper-class women – as detailed in her 9-volume memoirs. She presents her attraction to women as an “emotional experiment” and left open the possibility of attraction to men. There is a recurring theme of relationships with surrogate mother figures – a context in which she could explore her erotic and emotional needs. Her first love, for the wife of her composition teacher, was reciprocated and set a pattern for the future. They role-played that Lisl was Ethel’s “real mother”, or that they were famous operatic couples. But Ethel flirted outside the relationship regularly, and after seven years of Ethel living in the composer’s household, she moved on to begin her professional career. She also moved on to fall in love with other women, including a complex triangle with Lisl’s sister Julia and Julia’s husband, Harry Brewster, which resulted in a breach with Lisl.
By framing her love for women in mother-daughter symbolism, Ethel was able to distinguish it from adultery, and somewhat more awkwardly, from however f/f love might be understood. Ethel’s relationship with her actual mother was somewhat strained and unsupportive.
Ethel next fixed her interest on Mary Benson (see previous chapter) who provided the type of accepting, nurturing love she wanted, but was unhappy at sharing Benson with too many other followers.
Ethel’s identity was tied up in music and composition – the thing that she felt distinguished her from “ordinary women” – and what she needed most in a relationship was someone who would admire and support that ambition. When she encountered Harry Brewster again, who could provide that support, she entered into an extended friendship with him, though she rejected his romantic advances until after Julia’s death. She declined to marry him and continued having sexual relationship with women as well.
Her next and very long-term relationship was with Lady Mary Ponsonby, who was more tolerant of Ethel’s flirtations than previous women had been.
The chapter then turns to a psychoanalysis of the motivations underlying (some) “mother-daughter” romantic friendships, including the tangled relations around Mary Benson’s actual daughters when both mother and daughter were involved with (or attracted to) the same woman, in one case, Ethel Smyth.
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).
Linton came to terms with her inner conflicts over desire for women via a masculine identity, played out in her fiction and in idolizing “masculine” virtues such as intellect and self-control. Lee was suspicious of male power in society and looked to a non-mateiral feminine ideal of virtue and leadership. Both writers focused on characters driven by irrational feelings, while valorizing self-discipline and intellect. And both had difficulty dealing with their desire for women, which was expressed in destructive ways in their own personal lives.
Linton’s life story suggests a trans-masculine identity (though Vicinus doesn’t fasten on this), but she went beyond rejecting conventional femininity in her own identity to despising it in others. Her books tended to contrast two female types: one feminine but treacherous, the other boyish and virtuous.
These attitudes carried over into her journalism, which features anti-feminist positions while embodying many of the goals of feminism in her own life. Similarly, she disparaged “gender inversion” as a concept, while embodying it. She creates strong lesbian-like characters in her novels then turns them into villains, while depicting her own desire for women through transparently self-insertion male characters, including the protagonist of a fictionalize autobiography that traced her own relationship with a much younger woman (who left her to marry).
Vernon Lee emerged from a somewhat chaotic childhood abroad to be acclaimed as an author at a fairly young age. Though her unconventional personality and habits (including wearing mannish tailored suits and having unfemininely outspoken opinions) initially inspired fascination among the Pre-Rafaelite set, her work was considered too edgy for literary success.
Lee’s fiction featured women whose same-sex desire played out in turbulent plots in which they ended up becoming saviors of weak, degraded men. She envisioned a new type of womanly virtue that lay in rejecting marriage and sexual desire to serve others. Although Lee’s heroines were depicted as “sexless” it was in a form that included an idealized same-sex desire. A generation later, her characters would have fit well with the image of the “new woman”.
Lee’s own life included a couple of extended intimate friendships. The first with a fellow writer ended with the latter’s marriage. Another with a woman she idolized for her physicality and beauty foundered on a mis-match of personality, with Lee’s intellectualism at odds with the other woman’s desire for someone in need of emotional support. Lee’s fiction expanded into horror, often involving the consequences of obsessive love.
Both Linton and Lee lived during the emergence of sexological theories of homosexuality. These theories sorted out the women involved in same-sex relationships into the “true invert” (masculine-presenting and emotionally disordered) and “normal” women who accepted their love but were not necessarily driven to same-sex relations. Rather than this pathologized image of the “masculine invert”, Linton and Lee worked with an images of female masculinity that aligned more with an androgynous boy. In the remainder of the chapter, Vicinus explores this image in their work, especially as it interacted with the figure of a distant or unavailable mother.
Part IV – Modernist Refashionings
In this part we see the emergence of a “modern lesbian” identity, as illustrated by four biographies. [Note: I find it curious that Vicinus refers to them as “case studies” rather than biographies, but perhaps because she bases the discussion more on themes in their work than their lives?] Chapter 7 focuses on the Anglo-American expatriate community in early 20th century Paris, who created an alternate parallel society of women who loved women. Chapter 8 focuses on women who accepted, to some degree, the psychological models of ‘inversion” but argued – not always coherently – for their acceptance and inclusion in society.
Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing
Themes in this chapter include the deliberate use of cross-dressing and performance to establish and signal identity within the Parisian community centered around Natalie Clifford Barney. Also featured are two of Barney’s lovers, Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks. For these women, cross-dressing was a claiming of gender instability, a “misquotation” of gender for artiastic effect.
In contrast to the “mannish” stylings of an earlier generation that had plausible deniability with respect to sexuality, the Paris set used fashion to establish a variety of transgressive identities: the androgynous gamine, the rake, the aristocratic dandy. All represented the ability of self-definition and a performative display rather than a reflection of the self.
Natalie Barney had the advantages of being a railroad heiress and having a flamboyant mother who disregarded convention. She was aware of her preference for women from an early age. She rejected the sexologists’ theories of the lesbian as “abnormal” and “masculine”. Though the delighted in theatrical presentation, she embraced a feminine style. Her circle engaged with the “decadent” French literature of the later 19th century, featuring lesbians and enjoying a revival of Sappho as a lesbian icon.
While existing in parallel with women who were marginalized for their sexuality, the Paris circle simply disdained to care what others thought. It helped that many of them were wealthy and were not dependent on social approval, but there was also something of a critical mass effect sufficient to shrug off the opinions of others.
The loved theatricals and in turn were treated as a spectacle by the French press. This chapter is rife with references to the many artists, writers, and celebrities that made up Barney’s community, held together by ties of ties of love and friendship. (Barney was notorious for keeping her ex-lovers as friends, which was a good thing since she went through so many of them.) Together they created a new and positive lesbian mythology to counter the growing medicalization of sexuality.
Barney’s salon became the center of a vibrant ongoing community that continued in some form from 1909 to 1968(!) interrupted only by an exile during WWII. Through it, she supported an entire generation of intellectuals, outliving her transgressive beginnings to become an establishment.
One of Barney’s more famous lovers, Renée Vivien, takes up most of the rest of the chapter. Like Barney, she inherited wealth, kicked free of family ties, and settled in Paris. In personal style, she took the androgynous path and adopted the stylings of the decadent poets for her métier. She lived and loved very intensely, full of extremes. She saw lesbianism as the most natural state for women and expressed this position in her art. Having rejected bourgeois conventions and the ideals of family, it’s little surprise that neither she nor Barney established long-lasting partnerships. The discussion delves into some of the prominent themes in her writing.
The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of another of Barney’s lovers, the artist Romaine Brookes, who came into the Paris circle when both of them were in middle age. The themes of her work and personal style feature isolation and suffering, perhaps reflecting her childhood experiences, though like the others she emerged into adulthood with money and free of family attachments, despite a brief marriage.
This chapter spends a lot of time analyzing the themes in the three women’s artistic and literary output, as well as cataloging many of the personal connections that formed within their social circle.
This chapter examines several lives in the context of sexological theory and the rise of the binary homosexual/heterosexual model of desire. Psychologists pathologized previous models and patterns of same-sex relationships and focused on the sexually adventurous, dominating, “mannish” woman as the core prototype of the lesbian. At heart, these models revolved around “gender inversion” seeing the homosexual (male or female) as someone whose entire life and personality partook of a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth (to use the current terminology). [Note: it’s interesting that, in many ways, the sexologists forced homosexuals into a transgender framework, without allowing for transgender identity as a viable experience. This isn’t too different from many earlier gender-based understandings of same-sex desire. It was innovative only in couching the theory in a new, medicalized vocabulary.]
The chapter spends several pages on people and theories among the sexologists, then moves on social anxieties about homosexual dynamics in all-female school situations, as expressed both in advice literature and in fiction such as Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women. The works of Colette are offered as an illustration of the more neutral French treatment of the topic.
Radclyffe Hall was, in some ways, an iconic representative of the sexologists’ “invert”. Her classic novel The Well of Loneliness accepted the psychological models but argued for acceptance and tolerance. She used the “born this way” argument but seemed to accept that homosexuality was a sort of tragedy. (Though unlike her protagonist, Hall had a long-term partner in Una Troubridge, disrupted only by Hall’s infidelity.)
The chapter discusses the struggles around the publication of the novel and its reception.
Vicinus reviews the various models that women used to imagine and describe their same-sex relationships, including a variety of family analogues, as well as models that rejected conventional relationship types. She discusses how the social meanings of such concepts as friendship, marriage, love, and sex have changed and affect how women have understood their bonds. The changing fashions in women’s writing, as well as the perils of public writing about private matters, have affected what we are permitted to know about women’s lives and loves in the past. Examples are given of how women’s expression of their love has shifted among romance, passion, sensuality, and sexual activity at different times.